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The Expansionist
Thursday, May 03, 2007
 
Thoughts on Public Transportation. In my Newark fotoblog March 12th I mentioned that New Jersey transportation officials were looking for feedback on a plan to enhance public participation in transit planning. That started me thinking not just about how to involve the public in decisions about public transit, but more widely, about why we do or do not use public transportation. I offer those thoughts below. Tho specific to Northern New Jersey, the specific is the universal, writ small. Adjust for your own area. (This entry is taken from part of my Newark blog entry for today, which is illustrated with photos of the New Jersey Walk of Fame outside the NJ Performing Arts Center here in Newark. Rather than edit out those fotos, I thought I'd give readers some info about Newark and NJ celebrities that they may not have appreciated. So even if you are not interested in today's overall topic, you might nonetheless like the fotos scattered below.)


The New Jersey Walk of Fame's initial portion runs from the south side of the plaza in front of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Downtown Newark down a slope to the Newark Light Rail station for NJPAC.
[New Jersey Walk of Fame outside NJPAC, Downtown Newark, NJ]



Altho I was born and raised in New Jersey, I lived 35 years in Manhattan. My disparate experiences with public vs. private transportation have given me perspectives I think transit planners should consider.
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All transportation authorities need to ask themselves two basic questions, above all others:

Why don't people use public transportation?

and

Why do people prefer their own vehicle?
The answers to those two questions will give you answers to the third basic question,

What can we do to make people choose public transit?
The stress needs to be on function, not routes. Why would people take public transportation? Why wouldn't they? What would make people prefer a bus, lite-rail system, train, or other public alternative over a private car?
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My first couple of years back in New Jersey, I did not own a car. I selected my house in a semi-suburban area of Newark with the express intent of having urban conveniences, including public transportation, but suburban benefits, such as trees and space to breathe, as against the crammed-jammed existence everyone but the rich suffers in Manhattan. The house I chose sits between two bus routes, one some 600 feet away, the other perhaps 1/3 mile away. Both run some 20 hours a day, or longer.
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But I did eventually get a car, and not just because I inherited it. Why do I need a car? My reasons are the same as many other people's:
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(1) Shelter from the Elements;
(2) Safety;
(3) Frequency and Predictability of Service;
(4) Comfort and Capaciousness, room to accommodate groceries and other packages from shopping expeditions, and even, for some people, bicycles;
(5) Geographical spacing;
(6) Expense.
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(1) Shelter from the Elements. When I initially heard of the request for feedback from citizens, I thought of a lite-rail system to run along South Orange Avenue from Downtown Newark to the South Orange train station. Ideally, such a system would operate as an elevated monorail that would zip between stops at a good clip, perhaps 50mph, as to span the entire 5-mile distance in perhaps 10 minutes, comfortable stops included. But that would be very expensive. Even though it would almost certainly be hugely beneficial to development in my part of Newark, I had to wonder if a less expensive measure would do more good.
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I then realized that the No. 1 matter that alienates people from public transportation is the utter lack of shelter, especially in foul weather and most especially in rain or snow in winter. Waiting for a bus, or lite-rail train, in beautiful weather might be fine, even a pleasure, but standing for 20, 30, 40 minutes in rain and wind and snow can be a nitemarish misery, especially if the weather also slows down the buses and makes the wait longer than anticipated. Moreover, merely standing at a stop can be a trial, especially to people with leg problems. So the very greatest good we can do in promoting public transportation is to provide really good shelters, with heating, liting, and seating, at every stop, starting with the major stops, at transfer points between routes, and then spreading out to the entire public-transportation network, every second or third stop at first, then closing in to every single stop without exception. Passengers might even be willing to have buses stop at wider intervals, speeding the trip for everyone, if comfortable shelters were available at every single stop.
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Shelters that provide a warm place in winter and shade in the summer, with a place to sit and read while waiting, would hugely transform attitudes, such that public transportation comes to be seen as an unalloyed good, not a hardship stoically to be borne.


Note the total absence of protection from wind at the NJPAC Newark Light Rail station. This is near the Passaic River, adjoining McCarter Highway. I suspect that this wide open area is seriously windswept in the winter. There should be wind screens. Note also the oddity that the NJPArtsCenter stop has no art in it, whereas at least two other stations, at Broad Street and Washington Park, have public art aplenty.
[Top of New Jersey Walk of Fame outside NJPAC, Downtown Newark, NJ]



New Jersey Transit has gone part of the distance to creating a comfortable shelter at Newark Penn Station's bus lane alongside Market Street. It is commodious, lited inside, and partly heated, not so hot as to make people wearing winter coats uncomfortable, but warm enuf that one is not actively oppressed by the cold. Alas, for reasons that escape me, that shelter is available only part of the day. After 10pm, it is closed, and everyone is thrown out into the cold. Why? What idiot came up with that idea? Worse, in the morning, bus drivers don't know whether to pull into the bus lane or stop on Market Street, so passengers waiting in either place risk being wrong, and having to run to catch their bus. I can't run. I have had three knee surgeries, and I have missed my bus because I was waiting where I had every reason to believe the bus would stop, but it stopped elsewhere. The next bus was not for 20 minutes or more, and I still couldn't know where to wait!
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Why are there so few benches at bus stops, lite-rail stations, etc.? Are the people in charge of transit, from Mars? or horses, who even sleep standing up? Don't they feel the need to sit? The rest of us do. Maybe they don't want to put out flat benches for fear that bums ("the homeless") will sleep on them, displacing paying passengers, but we can surely place at many stops the compartmentalized benches we see nowadays that have hard, raised separators that would prevent someone from lying comfortably on them. Such separators should be spaced at realistic widths. Those used by the PATH [Port Authority Trans-Hudson] system for benches at, for instance, the World Trade Center station, are preposterously too narrow. Americans are big, both tall and wide. One might even rudely say we are a fat country. We need wide spaces to sit. In any case, separators would prevent benches intended for paying passengers from being used by bums. And besides, there aren't many places in New Jersey that benches would be taken over by bums (and by nuts who should be in mental institutions but in the post-deinstitutionalization era are left to their own devices in a society they can't cope with). In most places, spacers wouldn't even be needed. Ordinary benches would suffice. And whatever benches are installed should be comfortable, such that people who have to wait for an hour could do so without hurting their butt!



The very first plaque in the NJ Walk of Fame is of the NJPAC building and top-notch performers who have had intimate connection with that institution. I don't know that any of them is from NJ. See closer view, below.
[Plaque dedicated to frequent performers at NJPAC, New Jersey Walk of Fame outside NJPAC, Downtown Newark, NJ]



(2) Safety. Even if the bus is safe, getting to and from the bus, especially at nite, can entail dangers. There's not much a public-transit authority can do about that. My house is about 500 feet from the bus stop I would get off at on the way home at nite, and another hundred feet to the stop I would need to wait at to go Downtown. By contrast, with a car, I drive up my driveway to the back of my house, 80 feet from the street, and enter via the back door, avoiding potential miscreants on the street. In a neighborhood perceived by its residents to be safe, such a difference would not make a difference. But public transportation officials must be concerned about perceptions of danger. As I say, there's not much, that I can think of, that a transit authority can do about the safety or the distance between a transit stop and a potential rider's home. So let's move on to things we can control.
[Closer view of plaque dedicated to frequent performers at NJPAC, New Jersey Walk of Fame outside NJPAC, Downtown Newark, NJ]
Every bus or other transit stop should have a public phone with free 9-1-1 calling so that people who feel themselves in danger can call for help. The mere presence of such a phone would discourage criminals and increase the number of decent people on the streets able and willing to watch out for each other, and to call police about crimes or dangers they perceive that the police would otherwise not know about. The police cannot be everywhere, but passengers of public-transit systems can be an awful lot of places. 9-1-1 phones can also be used to report fires and medical emergencies. And pay phones would give people waiting for the bus who don't happen to own cellphones a chance to catch up with personal business or pass the time with friends while waiting for the bus. NJ Transit might even be able to negotiate special untimed rates for payphones at transit stops so that people wouldn't have to feed the phone every few minutes but could talk leisurely to friends and catch up on personal business while waiting for the bus or lite-rail train. Waiting could thus be, for many, transformed into useful time, much as some commuters see their time on the train as a refuge from phone calls and other demands, a chance to catch up on their reading and relax before plunging into the rigors of the office on the way in or kids and housework on the way home.
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Safety is part reality and part perception. In many places, perception trumps reality, and people may fear for their safety in places where there is actually little or no risk. People are irrational. It is not enuf that a bus or lite-rail stop be safe. It must be thought safe. Phones at every stop would go some distance to making people feel safe.



The second plaque is dedicated to Neeme Järvi, an Estonian who served as the NJSO's musical director.
[New Jersey Walk of Fame outside NJPAC, Downtown Newark, NJ]



(3) Frequency and Predictability of Service. When you have a car, you know when you're going to leave, and have some control over when you will arrive at your destination, tho congestion renders unpredictable all surface transportation but trains that travel over dedicated tracks, separated from other traffic. When you set out for a bus stop, however, you have no assurance whatsoever that if you leave your house at 12:20 for a 12:26 bus that stops a two-minute walk away, you will make it in time. You might walk down the street and see the 12:26 pass in front of you 4 minutes early, when the next bus isn't until 12:46 or 12:55. That is infuriating. In the alternative, you might arrive at 12:22 for the 12:26, and have to wait until 12:43, in the freezing rain, until the bus finally arrives. And then you might not be able to find a seat, because a driver was out sick and was not replaced, so two busloads of passengers had to cram onto one bus.
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Public transit must be reliable, predictable, and on-schedule, not ahead by anything, not behind by more than a couple of minutes. If everyone understands that buses must not pass a stop early, everyone will be patient if a bus slows down or even stops for a couple of minutes to stick to a schedule. Because they wouldn't want to miss a bus that arrives early either.
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Frequency is a function of demand. Peak travel times must provide greater frequency of service than off-peak, but off-peak service must still be frequent enuf to allow people to go places when crowding has subsided. Ideally, a transit system should have a steady stream of paying customers at all times.
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In my area, New Jersey transit authorities must consider bar-closing time, not just in New Jersey but also in Manhattan. Bars in New York City close at 4am, but many bargoers are too tired from their day at work to stay out to closing time. On Fridays and Saturdays, then, PATH trains from Manhattan are absolutely jammed the whole nite long, till at least 5am at the last Manhattan station, Christopher Street. Has the PATH system increased its service on Fridays and Saturdays to accommodate that enormous increase in passenger volume? Of course not. Because the people who run the PATH are idiots. They never heard of bars. It is inconceivable to them that passenger volume would vary to any significant degree from one nite to another. But every sensible, intelligent person knows that late-nite travel is much greater on Friday and Saturday nites, and Sunday nites before Monday-shifted holidays, than on other nites of the week. New Jersey's transit overseers must be alert to changes in passenger volume.
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How can you tell if passenger volume varies by time of day, or day of the week? Well, you have fare boxes and total receipts. If you see greater receipts for some nites on buses that run late, you have some indication. Perhaps fare boxes could be made to record the time fares are paid. But even if you have no automated way to determine passenger volume (that is, no time-stamped record made on paper or electronically), you do have human bus drivers who could press a clicker to count passengers as they enter. They might not like doing so, at first, but if it were to mean that the bosses run more buses on heavy passenger-traffic nites, they might be very happy to do so, at least on occasional days or nites scattered across the year.
[New Jersey Walk of Fame outside NJPAC, Downtown Newark, NJ]
Predictability of service is enormously important. People must be able to trust in a schedule, especially in bad weather. They must be able to calculate, "If I leave now, I can make the X" or "Oh, darn, it's too late to make the X. Now I have to wait for the X2." If they think, instead, "It should be too late for the X, but maybe it's running late, so if I hurry, I might just make it" — but then see the X run past them and face a long wait for the next, they will be disgusted — not with themselves for leaving late, but with the transit system for making them think, from prior experience, that they might just make the bus they should miss if it were running on time. That is maddening.
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There is another aspect to predictability that most people would not think about but which the disabled or partially disabled (like me) do think about: where the heck is the PATH train from 33rd Street going to let us off at Jersey City? Will it be on the same platform as the Newark train, in which case we need merely cross the platform to catch our ride? Or will it be on the other platform altogether? — in which case we will have to find a stairway or, if we can't climb stairs, then an escalator (the elevator goes only to an exit to the street), in a hurry so we can get up from one platform and over and down to the other platform in time to catch our train. If we aren't in the right location, we can miss the train. Late at nite, that could mean we have to wait a half hour for the next train, not because we did anything wrong but because the PATH system decided to pull the train into the wrong platform for no apparent reason, as almost willfully and maliciously to make us miss our train!
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(4) Comfort and Capaciousness, capable of accommodating grocery and other shopping. People often need to haul heavy things or numerous bags from the supermarket to their home. A bus is far from ideal for that purpose. Not only is there little room for packages if the bus is crowded with passengers, but there is also no mechanical lift to help bring onto the bus a heavy shopping cart, nor room for a passenger to roll and store a shopping cart once on the bus. That must change.
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(a) We should create a new form of public transportation, the CargoBus. (Think "Airbus" for publicity purposes.) A cursory search of the Internet reveals no transit feature of that sort by that name, but perhaps some transit systems provide means by which passengers can comfortably carry large packages, multiple shopping bags, and bicycles on the bus, obviating private ownership or rental of a car, van, or SUV. A CargoBus would be an ordinary bus on the outside, with, however, some prominent indication, like windows overpainted in huge letters "CargoBus" or "Shoppers' Special", to indicate that this particular bus is intended for people with large or multiple packages or a bike to carry. On the inside, a CargoBus would have perhaps half the regular seats and many tie-downs, as for wheelchairs on present buses, to keep shopping carts and bicycles from rolling around dangerously. Heavily burdened passengers would pay the same fare as if they were carrying nothing.
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Initially, CargoBuses would run along regular routes that stop at shopping centers, supermarkets, etc., and are regularly patronized by passengers carrying shopping bags or packages. They would run on an absolutely predictable schedule, adjusted to accommodate shopping patterns. For instance, they might run more often on weekends and on the days that welfare and Social Security checks arrive. They would, for the most part, run along the same route as the regular bus(es) that stop at those shopping complexes, but, like NJTransit's Access Link service for the handicapped, be capable of deviating from that route by a given permissible distance (say, a quarter mile) to let someone who is particularly heavily burdened, get off at his or her house. Other passengers, recognizing that someday they too might want such a service, would be patient with such departures from the regular route. Or they would just take the regular bus if such departures irritated them too much.
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(b) In carrying bicycles, a CargoBus network would empower people to use their bikes over longer distances than would otherwise be possible, the CargoBus making up for the part of their trip they do not care to pedal.
[New Jersey Walk of Fame outside NJPAC, Downtown Newark, NJ]
(c) As to comfort more generally, bucket seats must be abolished in favor of benches. The bucket-seat size now in place is nothing like realistic. Only children and small adults can sit comfortably side-by-side in, for instance, the seats on PATH trains, alongside strangers.
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(d) One major issue of comfort is more like a necessity for a great many passengers and potential passengers: elevators and escalators for people who have trouble with stairs or are carrying heavy luggage or packages. Elevators are in very short supply, and unreliable, in much of New Jersey. Most stations of the PATH system, for instance, have no elevators, ever. Others are supposed to have elevator service, but the elevators go out of service with infuriating frequency. In Newark Penn Station, the elevator from platform H is completely unreliable, especially late at nite, and passengers must walk down a RAMP! Ramps are notoriously difficult to negotiate for people who have difficulty walking even flat-horizontal. Having to walk down a 100-foot ramp is as close to a nitemare as most walking-impaired people ever want to deal with. Elevators must be widely installed, reliable, and available at all hours.
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Lavatories are another thing New Jersey transit systems give absolutely no regard to. It is as tho the executives in charge of our transit operations aren't people at all but some kind of alien that evaporates or incinerates all wastes and doesn't need to go to the bathroom, ever. But human beings DO need to go to the bathroom, fairly often. And if in a trip one must walk 10 minutes to a stop, wait 40 minutes for a bus or train, sit (or stand) 30 minutes during the trip, then face another wait, as for a bus that could also take 40 minutes to arrive at their stop, or they have to walk 15 minutes to get home, that gets to be a very significant span of time, especially if one has been out on the town drinking beer! Add it up: 10 + 40 + 30 + 15 = 95 minutes, over an hour and a half, minimum, and maybe a half hour longer if a connecting bus is involved — with not a single lavatory in sight. That is literally inhuman. ARE the 'people' in charge of our transit systems from another planet? DO they evaporate or incinerate their wastes? WE sure don't. WE need lavatories. But where are they? There are none in the entire PATH system, and the lavatories in Newark Penn Station close in the middle of the nite. On weekends, especially, huge numbers of passengers move thru Penn Station in the middle of the nite, discharged from PATH trains from Manhattan. Many arrive in desperate need of a place to pee, but find nothing! Why the hell is that?
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(5) Geographical spacing. Public transit lines that are more than about a quarter mile away are prohibitively unattractive to most people. A ten-minute leisurely walk is about the uppermost limit most people are willing to contemplate in opting for public transit, and if once they get to the stop they have to wait standing up, exposed to the elements in bad weather, public transit becomes unacceptably harsh an alternative to the private car. The willingness of a person to walk or wait is proportional to the distance s/he will travel on the bus or train once aboard. For long journeys, then, a person may be willing to put up with more inconvenience than for a short journey. However, we must keep ever in mind the model of the train station. Many train stations have indoor waiting rooms, or at least covered platforms sheltered from both rain or snow and wind, and they also have lavatories. That is civilized.
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The comfort or discomfort in which a person must wait for the next ride is also important, and interacts dynamically with other considerations, like distance and cost. If a bus is cheaper than the train but there is no shelter while waiting for a bus but is while waiting for a train, each potential passenger will do a personal calculation of what is more important, money or comfort. At end, public transit authorities should strive to minimize discomfort at every step of the process of getting from home to work, school, store, etc., because beyond a general, variable, and indefinite point, depending upon weather and time of day, the choice will be not between bus and train but between public transit in any form and driving one's own vehicle.
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Many trips involve a combination of private and public transportation, and parking must be a consideration in all transit planning. When I need to travel into Manhattan from my home in western Newark, I have to drive beyond Newark, to Harrison, to find parking near the PATH station. There is no parking near Newark Penn Station that ordinary people can afford. The alternative seems to most people to take the bus to Penn Station's PATH terminal, and then the bus home. But the bus doesn't run all nite; there is no shelter after 10pm; there is no place to sit to wait; and many people, especially women traveling alone, may feel very insecure waiting for a bus at nite, even at a stop as well occupied by good people as Newark Penn Station. For public transportation over longer distances to be attractive, parking must be available free or at very low cost near major transit hubs.
[New Jersey Walk of Fame outside NJPAC, Downtown Newark, NJ]
In areas of dense populations of potential passengers, we need to consider "people movers", be they in the form of extremely frequent buses or trains operating in shuttle fashion, back and forth frequently over short distances, or of moving sidewalks as are found in some large airports that save travelers having to walk long distances burdened by heavy luggage. There are not, in New Jersey, many such areas of dense pedestrian traffic as would make people-movers appropriate, but parts of Newark and Jersey City might warrant people-mover treatment.
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Public transit should be denser in terms of both distance and wait time, within densely populated areas and especially within areas that we as a society decide we want to back-fill. That is, there has been a stark and socially unhealthy emptying of our cities and older towns, in favor of suburbs, especially new suburbs. We spent a huge amount of money in creating the infrastructure of our cities and long-established towns, in water, gas, electric, and telephone distribution systems, sewer lines, sidewalks, schools, parks, hospitals, and other facilities. And then the people moved away!
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New Jersey should be doing everything it can to restore the populations of cities and older towns that have been progressively depopulated for no good reason. Providing really good public transit, of people and their personal cargo, is one way to do that. In places like Newark and Jersey City now, and perhaps even Camden in a few years, we should strive to provide 24-hour transportation within a half mile (at the most) of every densely populated point in the city, and provide warm shelters with comfortable seating at every single urban bus and lite-rail stop. If our cities and older towns have fantastic public transportation, with comfortable waits and room to carry groceries, hundreds of thousands of people now resident in suburbs will give serious thought to returning to the cities and towns they abandoned, especially as they get older and have only themselves, and not children, to think about.
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If we are serious, then, about moving large numbers of people away from the private car, SUV, van, and pickup truck, we must make public transit an acceptable alternative to any and all of those private conveyances.
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It's not good enuf to assume we are just dealing with commuters, because commuters need to pick things up from the supermarket too, and some of those things, like a gallon of milk, two-liter bottles of soda, and ten-pound bags of cat litter can, individually and collectively, be both heavy and space-consuming. How are you going to get someone to ride the bus, lite-rail system, or train if s/he wants to stop at the supermarket on the way home, but carrying heavy or bulky shopping bags on public transit is impractically difficult and unpleasant?
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Thus do I urge transit planners to think FUNCTIONALLY, not in terms of routes or fares or other specifics of geography or economics. They must think about what people need to DO — in their lives, in their day — and how public transportation fits, or does NOT fit, their needs.

[New Jersey Walk of Fame outside NJPAC, Downtown Newark, NJ]
(6) Expense. For a single person traveling alone, public transit may seem cost-effective, even if less convenient than a private car. In some situations, such as the lack of affordable parking at one's destination, public transportation will actually seem far the better choice. But if multiple people are traveling together, to multiple destinations, public transportation may seem more expensive as well as far more inconvenient, especially if one is traveling with small children. The costs of a private car are the same whether a single person takes a trip or several people do.
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A partial solution to that problem is to discount the fares of people traveling together. The first pays full fare; the second, half-fare; a third, one-third fare; fourth, one-fourth the fare; fifth, one-fifth the fare. A group larger than five could not usually travel in a single private car unless some were small children, and small children ride free on public transit, as they should (unless they occupy a seat to themselves that other people need).
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But owners of private cars may underestimate the costs of traveling by car (or SUV, etc.). Yes, the costs of owning a vehicle are fixed (purchase price, maintenance, insurance), but the costs of using a private car for a given trip may not be adequately appreciated. Better education, as for instance, a website with a trip-cost calculator that figures in gas, tolls, and parking, and reminds people of non-monetary costs of driving yourself (risk of accident, frustration in traffic, difficulty finding a parking space, risk of a parking ticket or citation for a moving violation, etc.) could give people a more realistic appreciation of the advantages of public transportation. It could also remind people of the "and leave the driving to us" idea: when you ride, you rest, and can catch up with reading or listening to music or talking books or downloads of TV shows without risking an accident due to distraction. Once people run the costs, side-by-side, of public vs. private travel, some will doubtless still see public transportation as more of a hassle and expense, but others might be pleasantly surprised to see that they can actually save by taking the bus or train.
[New Jersey Walk of Fame outside NJPAC, Downtown Newark, NJ]
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(The current U.S. military death toll in Iraq, according to the website "Iraq Coalition Casualties", is 3,357 — for Israel.)

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