I flagged an article yesterday about South Delta commuters’ concerns about having their direct buses routed to Skytrain stations, and so having the an extra transfer added to their commutes each day.  Transfers are, other things being equal, a bad thing, since they can discourage people from taking public transit.  But I think it’s also possible to overstate just how bad they are. Here’s a story that I hope offers some perspective.

My last year in Philadelphia, I lived downtown but taught at a small private liberal arts college in a wealthy suburb outside of the city.  The commute was no problem, because there were two different rail connections between downtown and this suburb.  Why there were two different rail connections has a lot to do with Philadelphia’s deeply dysfunctional, racist past and present  Effectively, Philadelphia has a semi-segregated transit system.  The regional rail system is for bringing wealthy white lawyers and bankers into the city from their century-old stone suburban homes.  Other parts of the rail system are for bringing working-class, overwhelmingly African-Americans out of the city and into the suburbs, to work in suburban homes, restaurants, and hospitals, etc.

Thus two different ways to get from downtown to the suburb I worked in.  The regional rail was a single trip from a station close to my apartment downtown to a station close to my school in the ‘burbs, so that route didn’t take a transfer.  But the other route did.  For the other route, I had to get on the el at a station near my apartment downtown, take it to the end of the line, and then transfer to a Philadelphia’s weird and charming R100, the closest thing to an S-Bahn I’ve ever seen in North America.

After a couple of weeks of experimenting with both routes, I chose to take the el and the R100.  That is, I chose to take the route that required a transfer.  It was a bit cheaper.  On the other hand, it also required a little more walking, which in the rain wasn’t any fun.  But its schedule made it the better route.  Both trains I had to take on that route came faster than every 5-7 minutes during the morning and afternoon rushes.  But the regional rail train only came every 20 minutes.

The difference in train schedules between the two routes made for a completely different commuting experience.  When a train comes every few minutes, there’s no such thing as “missing the train.”  You never have to rush to catch “the” train, because you’re not trying to catch any specific train.  You just walk to the station and catch the train whenever it comes by, in one or three or six minutes.

I cannot overstate how radically this changes your mindset when you’re thinking about your commute.  It means never having to worry about any train schedule.  It means never having to watch the clock while edging towards the door in a meeting at the end of the day.  You just finish your day’s work, and then head to the train station.  It’s astonishing how much less time you spend thinking and worrying about transit schedules.  All that thinking is so pervasive that you don’t even know you’re doing it until you stop.

Of course, this isn’t to say that frequency of trains and buses in always more important than minimizing transfers or that transfers don’t discourage people from taking transit.  Other things being equal, transfers do discourage people from taking transit.  But it’s also worth remembering that other things aren’t always equal.