Why Does Ridership Rise or Fall? Lessons from Canada

by Christopher Yuen

With only a handful of exceptions, transit ridership has stagnated or been falling throughout the US in 2017.  The causes of this slump have been unclear but some theories suggest low fuel prices, a growing economy fueling increased car ownership, and the increasing prevalence of ride-hailing services are the cause.

A few North American agencies have bucked the trend, including Seattle, Phoenix, Houston, and Montreal.  By far the biggest growth was at Vancouver, BC’s Translink, which saw a ridership growth of 5.7 percent in 2017.

But notice the big picture:  In a year when urban transit ridership fell overall in the US, it rose in Canada.

Transit ridership urban areas with populations of over 1M are included in this chart. Ridership of major agencies that serve the same region are added together. (Source: National Transit Database; APTA 2017 Q4 Ridership Report)

There are three interesting stories to note here.

1.  If You Run More Service, You Get More Riders

Canadian ridership among metro areas with populations beyond one million is up about 1.3% while regions of the same size in the US saw an overall ridership decrease of about 2.5% in 2017 despite the broad similarity of the countries and their urban forms.  Why?  Canadian cities just have more service per capita than the most comparable US cities.  This results in transit networks that remain more broadly useful in the face of competition from other modes.  Note, too, that Canadian transit isn’t cuter, sexier, or more “demand responsive” than transit in the US.  There is simply more of it, so more people ride, so transit is more deeply imbedded in the culture and politics.

2.  Vancouver Shows the Effect of Network Growth, Higher Gas Prices, Great Land Use Policy, and No Uber/Lyft

Vancouver’s transit ridership has historically been higher than many comparable regions as a result of decades of transit-friendly land-use and transportation policies, including an early regional goal to foster density only around the frequent network.  (The Winter Olympics also had a remarkable impact: ridership exploded in 2010, the year of the Olympic games, but then didn’t fall back after the games were over; apparently, many people’s temporary lifestyle changes became permanent.)  By North American standards, Vancouver is remarkable in the degree to which development is massed around transit stations.

But Translink attributes its 2017 ridership growth to continued increases in service, high fuel prices, and economic growth.  The 11km (7mi) Millennium-line Evergreen Extension just opened prior to 2017, directly adding over 24,000 boardings a day.  Fuel prices in Vancouver have also reached an all-time high, at $1.5 CAD / litre (4.4 USD/ gal), an anomaly in North America, although still lower than in Asia and Europe.  Economic growth has also been consistent, with the region adding 75000 jobs in years 2016 and 17.  Notably, ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft are not available in Vancouver due to provincial legislation.

3.  There is Conflicting Evidence on the Impacts of Economic Growth on Ridership

Many commentators suggest economic growth to be a factor of the 2017 trends in transit ridership but there seems to be two conflicting theories, with economic growth cited as both a cause ridership growth and a cause of ridership decline. The positive link is obvious- economic growth leads to more overall travel, some of which will be made by transit.  Contrastingly, the negative link is based on the theory that increasing incomes allow for more people to afford cars.  Both theories seem plausible, but for both to be true, the relative strength of each must differ between cities.

Most likely, economic growth in transit-oriented cities is good for ridership, and growth in car-oriented cities, which encourages greater car dependence and car-oriented development, is bad.  This would explain the roaring success of Seattle, Vancouver, and Montreal, though it doesn’t explain why Houston and Phoenix are doing so well.

As North American cities work to reverse last year’s losses in ridership, they may best learn from Canada, and a select few American cities, to leverage economic growth for ridership growth.

Postscript by JW

For Americans, Canada is the world’s least foreign country.  There are plenty of differences, but much of Canada looks a lot like much of the US, in terms of economic types, city sizes and ages, development patterns, and so on.

So why is Canada so far ahead on transit?   All Americans should be asking this.  Ask: Which Canadian city is most like my city, and why are its outcomes so different?  We’ll have more on this soon.

Webinar: “To Predict with Confidence, Plan for Freedom”

On April 26, I’ll be doing a webinar on my recent Journal of Public Transportation paper, “To Predict with Confidence, Plan for Freedom.”  There’s some pretty transgressive stuff in this paper.  I hope you’ll join us; details on the webinar are here.

However, attending the webinar is not a substitute for reading the article.  It’s nine pages of friendly, non-technical prose.  If you read it, you’ll ask better questions in the webinar, which will help other people be smarter, including me.

In fact, I resisted doing the webinar a little bit, because like most philosophical arguments, mine isn’t improved by translation into PowerPoint, or by presentation as any kind of show.  On the contrary, you need to be able to sit with it, go back and forth, take it at your own speed, form your own thoughts.  This is what reading is for.  

Hope to see you, armed with your knowledge of the paper and your questions about it, at the webinar!

“Politics” Is Not a Political Actor

Anyone who believes in democracy should be appalled by the use of the word politics in this New York Times headline:

“Congestion Pricing Plan for Manhattan Ran Into Politics. Politics Won.”

Who is this “politics” that is capable of fighting battles, and winning or losing them?

Elected officials make decisions.  People who make decisions should take responsibility for those decisions.  This is why being an elected official is much less fun than it looks.

When we say that “politics” made a decision, we’re implying that the actual deciders aren’t responsible.  Some elected officials like it when we talk this way, because it helps them avoid responsibility for their choices.  But that’s not how a healthy democracy works, and if we accept that “politics” is a political actor, we are surrendering an important part of our right to democracy.

 

 

 

 

“To Predict with Confidence, Plan for Freedom”

 

The Journal of Public Transportation has a special issue out consisting of thinkpieces by a range of figures in the business.  I’m honored to be there alongside industry leaders like Susan Shaheen of UC Berkeley, Graham Currie of Australia’s Monash University, Kari Watkins of Georgia Tech and Brian Taylor of UCLA, as well as our favorite operations and scheduling consultant, Dan Boyle.

My contribution is called “To Predict with Confidence, Plan for Freedom.”  It basically outlines the argument of my next book, so this would be a great time to hear some critiques of it.  Here’s the opening:

What will urban transportation be like in 10-20 years? How will automated vehicles interact with social and cultural trends to define the city of tomorrow? Will the vehicles of the future be owned or shared? How will pricing evolve to motivate behavior? What will happen to public mass transit? What other innovations can we expect that will transform the landscape? This paper, which is merely the outline of a larger argument, suggests three interconnected answers.

  • We can’t possibly know. History has always been unpredictable, punctuated with shocks, but if the pace of change is accelerating, then unpredictability may be increasing too.
  • We can reach many strong conclusions without knowing. A surprising number of facts about transportation, including some fairly counterintuitive insights that would be transformative if widely understood, can be described and justified solidly with little or no empirical ground, because they are matters of geometry and physics or of nearly axiomatic principles of biology.
  • Prediction may not be what matters anyway. If we abandoned hope of predicting the future, we could still describe a compelling outcome of transportation investment, one that motivates many people who will never care about a ridership prediction or economic impact analysis. We could also predict it in the sense that we can predict the continued value of pi. That idea is freedom, as transportation expands or reduces it.

So if that catches your interest, read the whole thing, and share your comments below!

What If We Called it “Decongestion Pricing”?

Seattle’s KUOW picked up my argument on this today:

Transit consultant Jarrett Walker said the problem is with the name – “congestion pricing.” It’s like the term “death tax,” which was drummed up to discredit the inheritance tax.

Nobody likes death or taxes. Put the two words together and you get a thing politicians have trouble supporting.

Similarly, nobody likes congestion or paying the price for it.

“I’ve suggested the word ‘decongestion pricing,’ because that is what the price buys,” said Walker. “The price buys less congested streets, with more room for all people of all modes to get through. ”

An older, longer, more rambling discussion of this is here.

 

Basics: Slower Speed is a Service Cut

Does your transit agency have a recent history of operating speed that looks like this?

Source: Portland Bureau of Transportation, Enhanced Transit Corridors Plan, Feb. 2018, page 9

This is the “boiling frog” problem of bus operating speed. In a dense and growing city, it’s not unusual to see speeds falling by about 1% a year, as in this data for Portland’s busiest lines.

If you’re going to analyze how service levels relate to ridership, you have to think about speed. Speed is not just a disadvantage for the customer; slower speeds are also a service cut.

You, the customer, want to go a distance, but the transit agency will pay for your service by the hour. So the quantity of service you experience will be governed by how easily hours turn into distance — in other words, by speed.

So if a transit agency budget grows by 1% a year but speed is falling 1% a year, the customer should expect slower speed and no other growth in service.

When measuring the service quantity that affects ridership, then, look at service miles or km, not service hours.

Portland: Two New Plans to Watch

In most US cities, the city doesn’t control the transit agency, but it does make huge decisions that largely govern whether transit can succeed.  Cities control land use planning, which determines the number of people and jobs that are in places where transit can compete for them, and they control street design, which has a powerful impact on whether buses can operate reliably.  Other city functions, like parking and law enforcement, also have a big impact.

So we get great outcomes only when city government takes a strong leadership role on transit, partnering with the transit agency but also leading in the areas that it controls.

Two new plans out of the Portland Bureau of Transportation show the City of Portland rising to that challenge: the Enhanced Transit Corridors Plannow in public comment, and the Central City in Motion plan, which is just beginning.  While the city has nice transit priority policies and has done a few bus lanes before, we’re now seeing an effort to think more systematically about how to get buses moving again.

Short term indicators are not good:  Ridership is falling and buses are slowing down.  Indeed, bus operating speed is the ultimate boiling frog problem:

Source: Portland Bureau of Transportation, Enhanced Transit Corridors Plan, Feb. 2018, page 9

 

As traffic grows, speeds fall just gradually enough that the problem never makes the headlines, but a decade of this adds up to a major loss of access to jobs and opportunity.  We’re seeing this rate of drop — around 1% a year — in many growing cities we work in.  This chart shows the city’s busiest frequent bus lines, which collectively add up to a huge share of the transit ridership.

Losing about 10% over a decade doesn’t just mean that people’s trips are longer, but also that 10% more buses must be deployed to maintain the same frequency, consuming funds that could otherwise be spent on growing the network.

Portland’s Enhanced Transit Corridors plan is the first systematic look at this in a long time.  Focusing on the Frequent Network where the stakes are highest, the plan identifies critical points where work must be done to improve performance.  The plan doesn’t choose which transit priority treatments to do where; that’s the work of more detailed engineering.  But it does lay out the big picture and helps to define priorities.  Read the plan and follow it.  (There’s also a survey about it, closing March 26)

Many of the most critical problems are around the edges of downtown, where many routes converge on chokepoints — most commonly the bridges — that are also places where traffic converges.  The Center City in Motion plan is where those problems will be addressed in detail.  There’s also a chance to rethink the role of parallel streets to reduce conflicts between different modes.

This is a big change for Portland.  Too often in the past, the city has plan different modes in isolation — the bike network here, the freight network there, a streetcar plan here, the transit agency’s plans over there — when the best solutions arise only from thinking about all the modes together and how they can best share a limited transportation network.  I’ve worked on studies that do this, in Seattle and Minneapolis, and it’s great to see Portland finally insisting on this kind of thinking.

If you want to get in the weeds, here’s my own starting wishlist for the Center City in Motion plan:

  • Proper transit priority on approach to all of the congested bridges, and between the bridges and the transit mall.
  • Integrated planning of bike and transit to reduce bike-transit conflicts.
  • Reviewing all the east-west transit routings in downtown, possibly consolidating them onto fewer streets.
  • Making better use of the Transit Mall for buses.  At this point I wonder if too many routes have been removed from it and we are not getting enough value from our premiere transit priority facility.
  • Fixing the unacceptable 5-block separation of the two directions of Line 15-Belmont/23rd downtown.

If you live in Portland, get on the mailing list and share your own views!

 

Excellent Principles for Shared Mobility

Robin Chase, the co-founder of Zipcar, is apparently the genius behind a set of Shared Mobility Principles that came out recently.  I can’t praise them too highly.  Like the founding statements of New Urbanism, these principles cut past the noise and confusion of marketing and show what it would be like to deploy new technologies with the goal of humane and civilized urban life, not just the goal of personal convenience or profit.

Even more important, it’s been signed by many of the main players in the tech transportation field, including Uber, Lyft, Via and many others.  That means you can quote these principles back to them when their actions conflict with these ideals.

As I watch how tech marketing is sowing confusion about public transit, and damaging local officials’ ability to think about it clearly, it’s a relief to see principles such as

1. WE PLAN OUR CITIES AND THEIR MOBILITY TOGETHER.

2. WE PRIORITIZE PEOPLE OVER VEHICLES.

3. WE SUPPORT THE SHARED AND EFFICIENT USE OF VEHICLES, LANES, CURBS, AND LAND.

From these principles alone you can derive the urgent need to invest more in high-capacity fixed route services covering most of our major cities, except the most low-density or inaccessible fringes.  And the results would be something very different from what I’m seeing every day: Tech campuses built in inaccessible cul-de-sacs, or facing away from the available fixed route service, on the fantasy that in the new world everyone will use little pods that go door-to-door.

Then, when you add:

5. WE PROMOTE EQUITY.

… we derive the urgent need for shared transportation to be efficient enough to scale.  Efficiency is equity.  An inefficient service will only be available to a few people, and with rare exceptions like ADA paratransit those people will be an elite.   So we can conclude that only a robust fixed route network, aimed at the “middle 80%” but not the elite, can scale to the point of being a tool for equitable liberty.

Anyway, even apart from how it relates to my own passions, this is good stuff. Read, and share, the whole thing.

 

 

Orlando and Space Coast: Speaking on April 3

I could have used a picture of an Elon Musk rocket at Cape Canaveral, but I’m more of a botany guy. Photo: Leonard J. DeFrancisci

In my first-ever trip to Central Florida, I’ll be speaking at the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, Florida on the evening of April 3.  Please join me, but you need to register.  Do that here.