How to Make Public Transit More Appealing

Jul 13, 2009, 8:36 pm by Paul Stiverson

In the Bay Area there is a pretty reasonable system of public transit which consists of several independently operated, yet inter-connected, systems. These systems consist of trains, busses, electric bus lines, a high-speed rubber on concrete rail-type of thing (BART), and a subway in San Francisco. They connect the Bay Area nearly completely, effectively connecting each city that comprises the Bay Area. Despite the connectivity public transit is (in general) not a feasible means of travel because it can take a prohibitively long time to travel between two points. The problem is exacerbated by the independence of each system, they are pretty well coordinated, but there is always a small layover when changing systems. Let’s look at an example: traveling from where I am staying to the San Francisco Airport.

To make this trip I will board the Caltrain in Mountain View, the station is less than a mile from my residence so walking is not a problem. I will ride northbound until I reach the Millbrae Station where I will transfer to the BART which I will ride to San Bruno, and change trams to finally reach SFO. By all rights this is a pretty easy system to use, only changing rides twice during the 25 mile journey. The problem is that it will take nearly an hour and a half to make the trip (with transfer times). The longest leg of the journey is on Caltrain, it is 24 miles, and it could take up to 50 minutes. The reason that it could take so long is not that the train is slow—it moves at a respectable pace—but that there are 11 stops to make along the way. There are morning and evening commuter runs that skip most of the stops cutting the transit time to just under 30 minutes, so options are available to speed up the trip, but in general there will be a great deal of time wasted stopping and starting.

The long trip duration generally makes public transit a less attractive option than driving.

Presently plans are in the works to build a high speed rail (~200MPH!) connecting all of California with a primary line between Los Angeles and Sacramento, and I can’t help but think that—despite the speeds—the trips could still take quite a long time because of all the stops. Reducing the number of stops would make the trip faster and therefore better, but it reduces connectivity and thus would make the system overall less appealing for the taxpayer who is paying for the initial investment. It is possible to run a skip-stop schedule, wherein certain stops are skipped at certain parts of the day, but that makes the schedule complicated and limits the robustness of the system.

The solution to this problem is not to skip stops, but instead to prevent everybody from stopping at every stop. Instead of making the entire train stop at every station, let a specified number of cars stop. Imagine the following scenario: There is a train line running between Houston and San Antonio1, along the route it passes through College Station and Austin (~300 miles). The train leaves Houston with six cars and a primary engine, as the train approaches College Station the last car will separate and switch onto a deceleration track that intersects with the station. Somewhat before this a single car will depart from the College Station station on an acceleration track which will intersect with the main track. The car that left College Station will become the lead car of the main train. Likewise, as the train nears Austin two cars will separate and enter a deceleration track. Only those passengers who wish to debark need to stop, the rest of the train can keep a-rolling on down to San Antone’.2,3

This method of operation alleviates several problems other than wasted passenger time. First it saves energy since most of the train is not stopping and starting. Second it will reduce congestion and confusion in each station, all the people who are departing will be on a train car before the people arriving from Houston even enter the station. The system will remove the need for stop-skipping and therefore reduce the number of trains that will need to be run per day. Each car will be parked at a station for some period of time during the day, and thus can easily be cleaned by a janitorial crew without having to work at night or inconvenience any travelers. Also, the train at large will not need to pass through each city along the way, thus the primary route can be optimized. Further, adding stops to the trip could be done without requiring a significant change to the overall infrastructure.

With proper engineering the cars themselves can be completely passive (with the exception of a fail-safe braking system), the track can slow the car and collect the energy of stopping with some regenerative system, that energy can then be used for accelerating the next car that will depart. A certain amount of energy will (of course) need to be added to the system to account for inefficiencies, but overall energy will be conserved. Along the primary route the engine will be able to maintain a relatively constant speed and thus its operation can be optimized as well.

This system will have its difficulties in timing and general execution, but it seems that the benefits could out-weigh the challenges. The scale of the system is really not a concern, meaning that a similar tactic could be used for area-wide transit at lower speeds so long as people have sufficient time to travel between cars to make their stop.

I welcome your comments and criticisms of the proposed.


  1. I’m going to use Texas because more of my readers know the geography of Texas than California.
  2. Travelling at 200mph by train the trip from Houston to San Antonio would take a little over one and a half hours (accounting for acceleration and deceleration) even with the ‘stops’ in College Station and Austin, by car on I-10 the same trip would easily take an hour more than that.
  3. I bet there’s rich folks eating in a fancy dining car!

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John Grego Says:

Jul 14, 2009

A couple questions and comments:

1. i was in london 2 months ago and i like the system there a lot. everything is easy to figure out whether you do it everyday or if you're a tourist. the tube (subway for you yanks) is well integrated with bus and above ground trains. you can even buy a daily pass for tube, bus, and train!

2. the down fall, i must agree, is all of the stops. i took the tube from downtown london to heathrow airport at around 9 in the morning on a saturday and the tube was constantly starting and stopping, sometimes to drop 0-2 people.

3. maybe some thought should be put into making the system like the british highway system. over there, even in the middle of london, the highways don't have exits every single mile like they do here. there is about 1 exit every 5+ miles allowing traffic to cruise quicker. most highway backups in rush hour are due to merging traffic, both on and off the highway. eliminating stops seems like a good place to start. it's like changing the die on a machine. everyone knows that if it takes 1 hour to change a die it is much more efficient to make 10,000 parts instead of 10 before changing dies again. therefore, it seems it is much easier to stop less and change more passengers per stop. i would be willing to bet that the train loses more time by stopping at 2 stops and unloading/loading 50 people than stopping once and unloading/loading 100 people.

4. i'm worried about the aerodynamic issues of your train. usually the cockpits, 1 on each end to prevent having to turn around, are aerodynamic and the cabin cars are just flat in the nose and tail. This also allows people to move between cars. if your train is going 200+ and a car with a flat nose seperates you are going to have issues. not sure if you can make enough power to get a flat nosed car to go 200+ mph. therefore, the cars would have to be aerodynamic making passing from 1 car to another much more difficult if not impossible. and if you want to stop in college station and austin you might be sol.

5. finally, with 2 recent train wrecks, DC and Disney's monorail, it appears we are having enough train control issues as it is, without bringing in docking and undocking while moving.

i am a big fan of public transport, especially trains.

Paul Stiverson Says:

Jul 14, 2009

Re #3: Highways are a whole different beast than mass public transit. Removing stops on a highway is acceptable because even if you can’t exit right where you want to be it doesn’t matter since you’re in a car and going the extra 3 miles isn’t a tremendous hassle. If you’re on foot and your train lets you off 5 miles from where you need to be then you are in quite a pickle.

Re #4: The aerodynamics of the trains are a serious issue. Perhaps the shroud that typically joins two passenger cars could be designed in such a way that it acts as a nose-cone when it is at the front or rear of a set of cars.

Re #5: Please don’t subscribe to that particular non-sensical mindset, just because one system was designed without appropriate fail-safes doesn’t mean that all development in the area should stop. If we can dock two completely disjoint systems moving at 17,000mph, then I think we can handle two objects on the same rail moving at 200mph.

John Grego Says:

Jul 14, 2009

re #3: people could live closer to rail stations or take the bus. if taking the bus added 10 minutes to my trip but the train was 20 minutes quicker because it made less stops wouldn't this be an easy compromise?

re #5: being an engineer i realize that anything is possible, it's just that, in this country, people don't view trains to be as safe or friendly as europeans or japanese. i hope that mindset changes but for now i think your plan would hit political walls more than engineering ones. also, the space station has a slightly larger budget than any train system so i don't know that that is a fair comparison.

Paul Stiverson Says:

Jul 14, 2009

Re #3: I’ll agree with you there, and in a smaller scale system it is reasonable. The system I am focusing on is a high speed inter-city system, so removing stops altogether makes the system less valuable.

Re #5: I’ll agree with you there as well, but lets focus less on the political and social barriers and keep our sights on what we know: engineering. I’m of the opinion that if a system can be shown to be safe and reliable then society will—at some point—accept it (see: Air travel), and to disband development because of some perceived non-technical barrier will never lead to progress. Call me an idealist…

John Grego Says:

Jul 14, 2009

Ok. i'm in. where do i sign up?

Pat Mason Says:

Jul 14, 2009

The only true problem with this system is that it requires people to think during the ride. Current transportation systems allow a passenger to simple get on a train/car/bus/etc and go brain dead until their stop. In this system the passenger must be actively aware of his environment while riding. When his car connects to the train at large he must then find his way to the car that will detach for his destination. If he fails to do so, or worse, cannot reach his destination car due to overcrowding of the system, then who knows where he will end up and who knows how long it will take him to get back to where he needed to go. In a centrally located transit system such a person who has missed his stop and has inadvertently taken a wrong stop will have not only the time it takes the detached car to make it to the stop, but also the time it takes for that car to reconnect with the system to wait until he even has another chance at where he actually wanted to get off. However, in light that it is a system that punishes stupid people, I like it. You just have a problem with not being able to mitigate overcrowding.

Kevin Says:

Jul 16, 2009

My thoughts are very similar to Pat Mason's...this seems like it will take a lot of work on the passengers side. From my point of view, it seems that your main complaint was that mass transit systems make stops too frequently, thereby slowing everyone down. Your system of break-away cars for arrivals/departures would be very nice if the stops were decently far apart, giving the passengers time to move to the appropriate location, and time for the cars to accelerate and attach, etc. However, in the circumstances to which need the most improvement(when many stops are in close proximity of each other), this breakaway system would be difficult and impractical to implement. If a person was only traveling 5 miles, they would meet up with the train at the head car, then have to hustle through the crowds to the rear car to depart. Also, the number of cars required to adequately service that many stops in a short space would be large. Or the train would have to go very slow. Also, if there were lots of stops, you would need lots of "acceleration ramps," which would take up space and resources. I think that this system under discussion would be great for longer trips similar to current train tracks. Unfortunately, I have no real ideas for improvements...I'll be thinking though

mark Says:

Jul 28, 2009

I should have lindsay take a look at this and see what she thinks. she spends ~2 hours a (week)day on public transit.

Paul Stiverson Says:

Jul 28, 2009

You mean Lindsay isn’t a regular reader, THE AUDACITY!

mark Says:

Jul 28, 2009

lol, she reads from time to time, i should have said I'll see if i can get her to comment.

Lindsay Cox Says:

Aug 2, 2009

Mark told me to comment since I ride the TRE everyday.

RE #2: I also agree with the stops thing. Of course, less people would ride the trains if there were less stops. I actually don't mind the stops as much as the length of time the train spends at the stop. I don't know about any other railway system, but the TRE likes to spend a lot of time sitting at the stops. My philosophy would be to stop just long enough for people to get on and off and no longer.

RE #4: I worried about the aerodynamics of the train for a different reason. The issue is trains running in opposite directions. As an example, I will use the TRE since I know it fairly well. When the trains are passing each other on opposite tracks, one of the trains has to slow down to almost a crawl while the other one passes by. How would that work?

I agree with pat and kevin about it requiring a lot of brain function on the passenger's part. In my personal experience, at least 3/4 of the people who ride the trains are stupid.

6: Money - Where would the funding for this project be coming from? I know it's costing Dallas millions of dollars just to build another Dart rail line. A project like this would require substantially more for designing an entirely new system. Don't forget that the operators of said trains will have to be highly skilled since this already sounds like a complicated procedure.

7: Getting people to ride - The people I talk to on the train don't ride it because they want to; they ride it because it's their best, and sometimes only, option. My fun experiences have included, but are not limited to:

*People begging for money- I get this at least 5 times per ride

*The werdest people in the world- Because who wants to sit next to a man with two teeth and smells like he hasn't showered in weeks (he probably hadn't) or the lady with 7 screaming children, or the groups of what I can only assume to be gang members picking fights with anyone on the train looking at them the wrong way.

*Parking problems and major stops

I'm tired so I'll just leave you with that

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