Friday, August 31, 2007

Mass Transit - Planes, Trains, and Metro...oh my

Because the Bay Bridge is closed for repairs (you don't say!) and due to the fact that I made a wise decision not to make a 24 hour suicide trip to Las Vegas today, I've been thinking a lot about methods of mass transit recently. My aunt who lives in Alexandria, VA is in town for my sister's wedding reception tomorrow, and during lunch today with my mom, we discussed DC's METRO, the S.F./Bay Area B.A.R.T. and New York City's subway system (which my mom and aunt are familiar with due to being born and raised in the Bronx).

In any case, I started off the discussion by relating some of the details of James Surowiecki's most recent "Financial Page" column in The New Yorker. Titled "The Unfriendly Skies", it deals with why airlines are basically able to give shit service and get away with it (main reason: if you use time as your currency, some trips are only economical if you fly; you can't just take off work for five days here and there to drive to every vacation destination...if you can drive at all). I experienced this myself on my recent "trip" to Montreal.

So, sadly, I find myself in agreement with the column's conclusion that Big Aviation has us by the balls. To bad, but c'est la vie.

But what of ground mass transit? Well, in keeping with a theme that the esteemed Rick Perlstein has observed, Ezra Klein notes that DC's METRO system is being stressed to the point of collapse due to underfunding. This is in keeping with Perlstein's wry observation that conservatives, once elected, defund programs they don't like so that they can prove that government doesn't work. Be that true or no, it's a particularity acute issue in the D.C. region due to the ongoing controversy surrounding the buildup of Tyson's Corner and the extension of the METRO to Dulles Airport.

As my aunt pointed out, one of the problems about Northern Virginia is that it's basically a large, loosely connected group of suburbs as opposed to being a stand alone major metropolitan city like a New York, or a Chicago or a San Francisco. Because of that, and the fact that so many people commute either into DC or Maryland to work, they can either only use METRO or they have to drive. As far as I know, there's not a viable bus system that gives good service throughout NoVa. The individual city and county systems in Northern Virginia do not have to work in concert, so my guess is that there is a patchwork quilt of options, some of which are attractive, but the majority of which are not.

Jumping back to air travel for a second...on Crooked Timber, there's an interesting discussion about what people would actually like to pay for in an airport (a shower, a clean place to nap, healthy food) vs. the actual offerings. Megan McArdle and Tyler Cowen both weigh in with ideas about what might be at play here (Megan talks about the premium of actual physical space, while Tyler talks about the collision of people in a confined place with money to burn and easy to market high end goods) but then Gary Leff of View from the Wing says that some of what both Megan and Tyler say is true:
Competitors don't undercut pricing because airport space is at a premiuum, adding space is difficult, and politics rather than markets distribute the space and allocate the services. Furthermore, competing airports aren't built on a whim, and the infrastructure necessary to offer some benefits is rather difficult to plan and build (plumbing).

Less infrastructure-intensive services do exist. Massage chairs and common, often in the middle of heavily trafficed areas. Live massages are offered in the North Satellite terminal in SEATAC. Bars offering liquor for a fee abound. But greater space is necessary for showers, and they're difficult to plan for and produce.

The product is bundled and sold at a premium.
You have access to departure (and even sometimes arrivals) lounges when purchasing business or first class tickets. It's a component of the luxury good that constitutes the 'experience' above and beyond simple transportation that a premium class international airline ticket entails. Take for example Lufthansa's separate First Class Terminal at Frankfurt. International first customers have sit down dining don't even re-mix with business class customers upon boarding time -- instead being collected and driven directly out to the plane in a Mercedes or Porsche.

The product is expensive to offer. In addition to fixed costs such as plumbing, upkeep on gym equipment and showers is pricey. Substantial use degrades the investment quickly. And the way shower facilities are currently offered, marginal costs are meaningful, too.

Check into a lounge and tell the attendant you'd like to take a shower, you'll be offered a 'shower kit' which ranges in the particulars but will include towel(s), shampoos and other amenities (at nicer facilities, designer-branded such as Bvlgari), flip flops, razors, etc.

I don't know that I have much to add to this at the moment, but it's interesting stuff to consider.

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