transit’s product: mobility or access?

This post is an important early section in the book I'm working on.  Longtime readers will recognize the primordial muck from which it arose.  I thought I would share it because it's a key conceptual marking-point and I know it will be controversial.  In brief, I argue that while "mobility" is problematic as a goal of a whole transportation system, we can't abandon it as a descriptor of transit's primary purpose and function, because to do so makes it impossible to understand how and why transit does what it does.  If anyone has a better word for what I'm calling mobility, I'd love to hear it. 


Because transit debates so often lose track of transit’s defining product – which I’ve called personal mobility – it’s worth pausing to clear some weeds around this concept.

In contemporary urbanist thinking, the world mobility is profoundly out of fashion. Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute defines mobility this way:

Mobility refers to the movement of people or goods. It assumes that “travel” means person- or ton-miles, “trip” means person- or freight-vehicle trip.   It assumes that any increase in travel mileage or speed benefits society. (Litman, 2008)

By this definition the output of transit that matters is passenger-miles or passenger-km.  A passenger-mile is one passenger carried for one mile.  (Ten passenger miles, for example, could mean one passenger carried for ten miles or ten passengers each carried for one mile.)

Defined this way, the concept of mobility can be misleading because it doesn’t measure how readily people got to where they were going; it just measures how far they were moved.  Most of the time, though, our travel isn’t motivated by a sheer desire for movement; it’s motivated by the need to do something – make some kind of economic or personal contact – that is too far away to walk to.

Suppose that your favorite grocery store is reachable from your house only via a circuitous bus route.  When you ride this bus to the store, you only want to go about 3 miles, but the bus takes you 5 miles in the course of getting there, and the bus company will claim to have delivered 5 passenger-miles of mobility as a result of your trip.  Obviously, that’s unfair, because you only wanted to go 3 miles. 

But really, you didn’t even want that.  What you wanted was your favorite grocery store.  You wanted access to your grocery store, not 3 miles worth of mobility.

So there are two problems with mobility, defined and measured this way.  First, it measures how far you were moved, even if some of that movement wasn’t necessary.  Second, more fundamentally, it implies that a greater good was delivered by taking you to shops three miles away than would have been delivered if the same shops were close enough to walk to. 

Transit that participates in reshaping the city, by encouraging greater density and walkability so that the basic needs of life are available with less travel, has the effect of increasing access even as it reduces our need for mobility.   From the perspective of almost all of transit’s goals, replacing long trips with short trips that achieve the same outcome is a good thing.  If shops identical to the ones you have three miles away were to open next to your house, you wouldn’t travel as far. In fact, you wouldn’t make a transit trip at all.  The bus company would lose a customer and its ridership would fall as a result.  Yet clearly, the ability to do something via a short trip rather than a long trip is better for you, better for the energy-efficiency in your city, and better for the environment. 

That’s why Litman suggests we should care more about what he calls access:

Accessibility (or just access) refers to the ability to reach desired goods, services, activities and destinations …   Access is the ultimate goal of most transportation, except a small portion of travel in which movement is an end in itself (jogging, horseback riding, pleasure drives), with no destination. This perspective assumes that there may be many ways of improving transportation, including improved mobility, improved land use accessibility (which reduce the distance between destinations), or improved mobility substitutes such as telecommunications or delivery services.  (Litman, 2008)

Mobility is how far you can go in a given time.  Access is how many useful or valuable things you can do.  If a new grocery store opens near your house, that doesn't improve your mobility but it does improve your access.  You can now get your groceries closer to home, so you don't need as much mobility as you did before.  You can also improve your access by working at home instead of commuting, downloading music instead of going to a CD store, and moving in with your romantic partner.  In other words, a lot of the work of access is simply about eliminating the need to move your body around the city in order to complete the economic and personal transactions that make up a happy life.

But before we dismiss mobility as a distraction, let’s look again at the three ways of improving access, as Litman lists them:

  • “Improved mobility”
  • “Improved land use accessibility (which reduces the distance between destinations)”
  • “improved mobility substitutes such as telecommunications or delivery services”

When I say that transit’s product is personal mobility, I’m emphasizing the first of these three ways of improving access.  I’m not implying that the others are unimportant, only that the first of these – improving access by improving mobility – is transit’s primary job, just as firefighting is the fire company’s primary job.

Transit does have side effects, though, that affect the second kind of access, and we’ll return to these in Part II.  If an especially popular or exciting form of transit, such a streetcar or monorail, is built in an area, this may raise the land value of the area in a way that encourages denser development, and denser development often improves access by putting shops and other destinations that you value closer to your house. 

Designing transit to trigger desirable development is one of the core ideas of the New Urbanism, but like many new ideas it’s really an old one.  In 1900, when public transit was the primary form of urban transport for distances too far to walk, the public transit infrastructure determined the shape of the city’s growth.  In fact, many transit lines were created and owned by developers whose real goal was to build and sell houses along the line.

So transit can improve access two ways: (a) by providing personal mobility and (b) by influencing development to create denser communities where less mobility is required to do the same things. 

The second of these, however, is obviously an indirect impact.  Transit may lead to access-improving development, but only via several intermediate and unreliable steps.  You can build a rapid transit line and still not get more density if several other things don’t fall into place – including zoning, economic growth, cooperative neighbors, and bankers willing to lend to developers.  In that case, the new transit project doesn’t improve access at all, unless it has improved the first kind of access: mobility.

What is more, the ability of transit to stimulate development is clearly related to how well that transit seems to promise good mobility to the people who will live, work, or play there.  We don’t pay more for an apartment over a transit station because the station is a nice community amenity, like brick paving and planter boxes.  A transit station adds value to development precisely because buyers think it will make it easier for them, or their tenants, to get around.  So if transit isn’t credible in offering mobility, or at least appearing to do so, it’s unlikely to stimulate development.

In 2009, we began to see web-based tools that allow you to enter an address and see where you can go, in a fixed amount of time, from that address.  Here, for example, is the output from's travel time tool, when queried by someone near the San Francisco Civic Center at 9:00 AM:

 GoogEarth walkscore

These tools aren’t for planning a trip, they’re for visualizing your freedom.  Not your freedom in some improved city of the future, but your freedom now.  That’s what mobility is: your freedom to move right now.

But the genius of these tools is that they let us see how choices we might make would affect that freedom.  Imagine that you’re deciding where in a city to live.  For each house or apartment you’re considering, you can check one of these sites and see quickly where you’ll be able to get to easily on transit.  And you won't get just an abstract "transit score."  You can look at this map and see how easy it will be to get to the places that matter to you.

The tool might save you a fortune.  If you’ve decided that you can only afford a house in a distant suburb, enter that address and you’ll get a clear map of just how far away things that you care about will be.  You might run the numbers on the cost of commuting and decide you’ll save money by spending more to live in a better location, closer to rapid transit and/or closer to the city, where you’ll spend less on transportation. 

In other words, you might make a decision that requires less mobility, because it has better access.  That access will consist not just in being closer to things you value, but also in having better transit options for the trips that are still too far to walk or cycle.

Mobility and access aren’t opposites, and mobility isn’t some tired doctrine worshipped only by blinkered traffic engineers.  If we want cities to be built in ways that require less travel, cities with better access, we will do that by ensuring that those cities still have generous transit mobility.  We need to show that if you locate in a transit-intensive place, you will be able to get to lots of places that matter to you, on transit; indeed, that you’ll have full access to all the riches of your city, or at least those that you care about. 

So in a book on transit, I’m going to insist, unfashionably, that in the transit business mobility is still our primary product.  Mobility is only one dimension of access.  The other two, as Litman defines them, are urban redevelopment and telecommunications, both of which can reduce the need for travel.  But mobility is the kind of access that most people expect transit, in particular, to deliver.

One of the major hazards of urban planning is that planners and theorists can get so excited by their visions of the future that they lose track of the present.  We can imagine futures in which transit systems help us to build denser cities, where we can have more access because things are closer.  But if we want today’s voters to support our vision, we have to care equally about what their needs are right now. 

In the short term, most of us are stuck with the current geography of our lives.  Our homes, jobs, relatives, friends, and favorite shops are wherever they are, and we’ve accepted, consciously or not, the need to travel the distances between these important things.  We can try to relocate some of these things in the months or years ahead, but we can’t relocate any of them today. 

This book will look more at urban form and all the ways we can change it, but we can’t use transit to create better cities unless we first understand how transit does its primary task of providing mobility.  Meanwhile, though, transit needs to focus on the shorter-term perspective: the perspective of someone who needs to go somewhere, and get there soon, to address a need that they have right now.  This person isn’t thinking about how better transit might help transform her city.  She’s thinking: “I just need to be there!”  We need to figure out whether transit can help her, and if so, how.

19 Responses to transit’s product: mobility or access?

  1. jarbury January 26, 2011 at 2:39 am #

    Very interesting. I’m certainly looking forward to seeing the book as a whole!
    I blogged a bit about mobility v accessibility back in April last year – in response to your earlier blog posts on the debate. In general, I felt (at least at that time) mobility was more of the “means to the ends” whereas accessibility is the ends.
    Ultimately, we want accessibility. In some cases accessibility can be enhanced through better mobiilty, in other cases increasing mobility may reduce accessibility or accessibility may be improved in other ways (ie Manhattan has fantastic accessibility even if it it slowish to get around).

  2. Misha January 26, 2011 at 4:45 am #

    I’m with you on this one. I would even take it further and claim that mobility is more important for personal freedom than accessibility
    Local accessibility is very nice – when you live in a good central neighborhood and rarely have to leave it… But for one to enjoy both the diversity and economies of scale created by cities – mobility is crucial. It’s especially relevant to working in the best position for you in the Metro area without the need to compromise because it’s more than 3 km away; and when your social circle goes beyond that radius.
    I’m an Architect and do appreciate the greatness of accessible neighborhoods. However, normally those places are a symptom of working cities rather than a cause.

  3. Tom West January 26, 2011 at 6:16 am #

    If you have a city set up a certain way, then you have top increase mobility to increase access. However, if you deliver some significant improvement in mobility (e..g building a subway), then you can end up with an gradual improvement in access (through intensifcation), even though mobility remains at a constant (higher level).
    So Access < -> Mobility seems to be a two-item loop.

  4. David P January 26, 2011 at 8:55 am #

    Thanks for posting on this, Jarrett – it’s one of the aspects of transit planning that is misunderstood by many professionals in and the field. Your post does a good job of explaining it from the medium-term perspective of the transit planner, rather than the more widespread ultra-long-term views of the urban planner or the regional economist.
    The Federal Transit Administration’s guidelines for evaluating transit projects are centred on mobility (travel time improvements) for the exact reasons you outlined: the impacts of a project and eventual redevelopment is indirect, uncertain and difficult to quantify, whereas the mobility improvements are immediate and easily quantifiable.

  5. Agustin January 26, 2011 at 9:37 am #

    A very interesting subject, and well addressed.

  6. MU January 26, 2011 at 1:39 pm #

    I think your point is insightful and very valid. Expecting agencies to pursue goals that are generally beyond their control is just a recipe for failure.
    But I have to quibble with this sentence, “This map is, quite literally, a picture of your mobility.
    By your initial definition of mobility (Litman’s), a person’s “mobility” would be increased if they had to take a circuitous route to get to the area shown on the map. But since the map also accounts for travel time, it is incorporating some of the aspects of “access”.
    You then redefine mobility in this sentence, “Mobility is how far you can go in a given time.
    I think it’s a valid redefinition. Your meaning is much more ‘meaningful’ than what you describe as Litman’s usage. I’m not in the industry so I’m not sure how prevalent the various definitions are. But it seems to me that if you’re going to redefine a term, you need to devote more than a sentence to doing so. It’s not fair to dispute Litman’s argument about which goal is more appropriate if you’re going to change the definition of the terms mid-argument.
    (I also wouldn’t be so picky about terminology for a blog post…but you say this is for print. You won’t get to rebut people’s arguments until the paperback edition!)
    (While I’m proof reading, you also have a typo in “It shows where you can go, in a give time, right now, in the city as it is.”)
    But, as always, I think you’re going after very important concepts and I appreciate your willingness to bounce them off the blog first. 🙂

  7. Jarrett January 26, 2011 at 2:28 pm #

    UPDATE: In response to MU’s excellent comment, I’ve deleted the paragraph he refers to (“This map is, quite literally, a picture of your mobility.”) That also eliminates the typo he found!

  8. Multimodal Man January 26, 2011 at 9:44 pm #

    A critically important point! A few years into transit planning I recognized the point you are making but I couldn’t articulate very well because I got stuck trying to frame it in passenger miles. A job well done. This should be a required intro for all transit planning course work.

  9. Ron January 26, 2011 at 10:23 pm #

    As a lyperson, I think that transit service is simpy a means of conveyance from A to B.
    The hours of operationa nd the frequency of service will depend on ridership demands and destinations on a case by case basis. That will of course change with development and changes in land use.
    I don’t think that you can apply a universal measure of mobility or access as a transit “goal” because of vastly different circumstances where transit service may be provided. i.e. buses can’t climb steeply twisting roads in hilly communities, and certainly not economcally in sparely populated areas.
    i.e. Depending on the circumstances, I think it’s perfectly reasonable for a transit system to decide “you can’t get there from here” (that it’s not economical to provide a service), and that shouldn’t be a black mark against the system (maybe riders are just being too demanding).

  10. Rob January 26, 2011 at 11:36 pm #

    Good post! My thought is: talking about mobility and access as if they’re separable is pretty difficult. People want access to activities – their functional reason to make a trip. And they need mobility to get there.
    Obviously any measure of “mobility” that measures how far people travel as an indicator of quality of life is crazy. Sometimes what people want is a generic good they can get closer to home or over the internet. But other times it’s access to the soccer field one’s team is playing at, a family member or romantic interest across town, a particularly great deli, or a really great job that’s hard to get to from a place where one can afford to live. In those cases, the ability to get where you want to get to, and when, does make a big difference in one’s quality of life. I don’t know how one comes up with a measure that’s careful enough to distinguish between access that could be had closer to home or without a trip, vs. access to something very specific at a particular time and place.
    I don’t see how the two can be separated, is all I’m saying. People have a radius they can travel within, and most people feel their life is better if that radius is less constrained. That’s inherently at odds with a societal interest in conserving travel. It’s one of the reasons I’m in favor of pricing, because setting a price makes people consider whether the trip they’re making is valuable enough to go the extra distance instead of accessing a generic activity closer to home.

  11. Jase January 27, 2011 at 3:02 am #

    Hi jarrett,
    Love the discussion of conceptual issues. I feel you could benefit from experimenting with their presentation- after all, the book will sell to a wider audience than those who seek out the blog.
    I think it could be useful to test the readability of separating the conceptual and descriptive content. I’d try 1. a soft, narrative scenario where we travel in the shoes of someone making these decisions, & 2. A concise treatment of the concepts in abstract terms.
    Could be the blend style works better, but if this is the lynch pin of the book, I think the layperson (and even the jaded pro) want an easy way in.

  12. Jack Horner January 27, 2011 at 3:34 am #

    Very good.
    Hope this doesn’t seem like nitpicking, but it’s worth distinguishing –
    1. mobility: the ability to get around; more of of it means it is easier to get around; and
    2. movement, which is the outcome of mobility plus desire; more of it means there is more travel per person.
    Sometimes you use 1 to cover 2., which can be confusing. eg para ‘so there are two problems…’
    and ‘three miles worth of mobility’
    and para ‘Defined this way…’
    and para ‘Transit that participates…’
    The Litman quote at the start which is said to ‘define mobility’ does not actually do so very clearly, and it veers onto other issues which probably should be postponed and dealt with explicitly.
    All the best with it.

  13. EngineerScotty January 27, 2011 at 8:37 am #

    Transit agencies already count passenger-trips, linked and unlinked–why not make it clear (in the book) when those statistics are more appropriate? Most transit agencies already understand this in their promotional literature–TriMet boasts of 100 million boardings per year, not X billion passenger miles–but the latter figure is used inappropriately, as you note.
    One other issue, which you hint at here (and which you have tackled more directly in other threads, such as discussion of Prof. Condon’s proposals for Vancouver BC’s Broadway corridor), is the notion that mass transit is in fact in opposition to improved land use–that it only encourages things such as suburban-dwelling, long commute distances, etc. (essentially, that it promotes many of the same vices as do freeways, though certainly not all of them). You might address this forcefully in the book, if you haven’t done so already.

  14. 3rdDegreeBurns January 27, 2011 at 11:38 am #

    The precise relationship between these two concepts is indeed quite murky and I’m glad you are taking on the challenge of sorting it out in your book. However, I think you have incorrectly limited the term accessibility to land-use effects. Accessibility is a function of both land-use AND mobility. Mobility is one of the mechanisms by which accessibility is calculated/created. The transit providers primary job is to provide greater access to destinations that riders want access to. The mechanism through which they do this is mobility, but access to destinations is still the goal.
    I think you are onto something by using the map. This map is calculated based on the existing transit network. It shows all the geographic locations a rider originating at the point/time can get to. However, what really matters to the rider is what destinations are located within those zones. Of course, which destinations are valued is different from rider to rider. I like the map because it explicitly shows the mobility provided by the transit system. The accessibility is left to the rider to determine for themselves based on their own values/preferences. The short-term goal of the transit agency could be seen as providing the greatest access to destinations for the greatest number of riders while maintaining some minimum level of accessibility to key destinations for all riders. Of course, for a transit agency calculating accessibility is a much more complicated task because it requires that they understand which destinations their riders value and which ones they don’t.
    I also agree that from the perspective of the transit operator, land-use change is a secondary, long-term effect. However, if encouraging denser, more transit-friendly development is a long-term goal of the community, then some transit investments can support that goal. To me, this is an argument for better integration of transit operations with regional planning and with other aspects of city governance (economic development for example). If we restrict the goals of the transit operator to mobility for existing customers, then I think we may be missing an opportunity to link transit to other city/regional priorities. In some cases, a region might be willing to provide greater subsidizes for a transit investment they think will provide significantly greater long-term accessibility (through land-use change and real estate development) than an investment that only provides an incremental increase in accessibility because it doesn’t drive a long-term land use change.

  15. jack horner January 27, 2011 at 4:18 pm #

    Further miscellaneous subediting suggestions. These are general comments – I’m not suggesting you would do the things I’m advising against. I think your material is pretty good in terms of clear ideas and line of argument. For the record:
    – Don’t say ‘commuters’ (as many do) when you mean ‘public transport riders’. ‘Commute’ should refer to the journey to work. Using it to refer to all public transport riders blurs the distinction between different market segments and subliminally encourages the undesirable view that handling commuters (work trips) is public transport’s only significant task.
    – Don’t say (as many do) ‘people’ when you mean ‘trips’ – as in ‘Sydney’s trains carry 300 million people per year’. Public transport trips are composed of some people who use the service a lot, some who use it a little, and some who don’t use it at all. Using ‘people’ to mean ‘trips’ blurs these distinctions.
    – Use language that encourages the idea that we are all ‘public transport riders’ at some times for some purposes. Don’t use language that encourages the idea that ‘public transport riders’ are a fixed subset of all people, like ‘old age pensioners’, for whom special provision must be made. Ditto for ‘motorists’, ‘cyclists’ and ‘pedestrians’ for that matter. The distinction is important to combat silly generalisations like ‘people are in love with their cars’ or ‘people won’t use public transport’.
    I maintain that accuracy on what may seem like small points like these is important for the writer’s clarity of thought and, cumulatively, for the reader’s understanding. Often when you realise that you have used some keyword in a sloppy way, it then makes you realise that the whole idea of the paragraph or section must be unpicked and resewn.

  16. Bruce January 28, 2011 at 9:01 pm #

    This sounds like one of the vaguely interesting yet ultimately unproductive semantic debates that my grad student friends engage in all the time. The US — and much of the rest of the English-speaking world — is still not sold on the basic idea that living in the city is for anyone but young, single, childless people and they are busy building and moving to exurbs with walk scores of zero. Until that changes, this is just navel-gazing.
    Being the stand-up bloke that I am, however, I will offer a compromise that should satisfy both sides in this “debate” in the hope that we can move on to something useful: the figure of merit for urban transit is the number of common destinations you can reach in a given amount of time using transit and walking; the “basic unit” is then “person-destination-miles per minute” or something like that.
    Note that this merit function is different for urban vs. suburban transit (where urban is defined as where it is easy for people of all ages, with and without kids, to live without a car): the purpose of urban transit is to make the city highly livable without a car so that people will (mostly) give up their cars and move there and thus should be high-frequency all-day in and between urban areas.
    People in the suburbs are simply not going to give up their cars, so attempting to provide them with an urban level of transit service is a pointless waste of money that could be better used in the city; so for those areas we should focus on reducing commuting VMT, which is much easier.
    So now you can call your publisher and tell them you’re going to write a book about why we should raise taxes on petrol and impose urban growth boundaries, both of which would do a million times more for transit and urbanism than this discussion.

  17. Abromfie February 3, 2011 at 12:07 am #

    I’m not implying that the others are unimportant, only that the first of these – improving access by improving mobility – is transit’s primary job, just as firefighting is the fire company’s primary job.
    I think that this is the most important sentence in your post.
    The analogy is crystal-clear. It’s obvious to anyone that the best fire departments are the ones that can most quickly put out fires. But it’s equally obvious that, given the choice, you’d always rather have fewer fires.
    Of course, the analogy isn’t perfect. Some people would prefer to have a 10-minute commute to a 0-minute commute, and some people ride trains (or drive cars, for that matter) just for fun. But as a first approximation, I think it’s fair to say that, holding everything else constant, less travel time is better.

  18. Nathan February 7, 2011 at 9:43 pm #

    As a conceptual matter, access and mobility can be separated. But in the ways people think about them, it’s no so easy. An actual example:
    Residents in a poor Oakland neighborhood have limited access to grocery stores. They complain about their transit service, even though it’s more frequent than many parts of town. They say it’s not easy to take the bus to a grocery store, they often have to transfer, it takes a long time. They ask for a direct bus to grocery stores out of the neighborhood, even though that would disrupt the pattern of lines in the city (see Jarrett’s previous posts on the need for connection).
    They’re not wrong, they have a real and serious problem. They look to the transit agency because they’ve gotten used to the idea of taking the bus to a grocery store.
    But they’re looking for a mobility solution to what is, IMHO, an access problem. People in more affluent Oakland neighborhoods don’t need to take the bus to a grocery store. The grocery store is within walking distance (or in the Hills, a short drive). I’m a bus fan, but I don’t want to have to routinely take the bus to reach the grocery store, and I don’t.
    A modest grocery store has opened within the neighborhood, the city is trying to bring in a bigger one. But it shows the difficulty of untangling these things.

  19. Seanpbender October 30, 2012 at 7:55 am #

    One enormous elephant in the room here seems to be the notion of accounting for the costs/spending on transportation and utilization of integrated billing/pricing to leverage said outlays resulting in optimal use, performance and benefit AND notable should potentially be able to play a critical role in driving and organizing cooperative transport modes/services over single-owner/driver mode, which is not only highly wasteful, but inordinant costly and thus a BIG factor in pushing many, many individuals and households into functional poverty here in the US. Said more simply when will there be a single mobility management and membership service that makes the bargain of dramatically reducing individual/household transportation costs? After all it seems pretty compelling to me that virtually no one wants to spend more on transportation itself….