Now and then, the media (New York Times, Atlantic Cities) rediscovers Mark Aesch, the executive who turned around the performance of Rochester, New York's transit system, and even succeeded in lowering fares. (Aesch now has his own firm promoting his consulting services, to the transit industry and beyond.) Here's a sample of what Aesch did:
[The Rochester authority] has, for instance, reached agreements with the local public school district, colleges and private businesses to help subsidize its operations, warning in some cases that certain routes might be cut if ridership did not increase or a local business did not help cover the cost. In recent years, income from these agreements has equaled or exceeded the income from regular passenger fares.
On the one hand, bravo. Aesch was ready to push back against the near-universal tendency of government agencies to save money by dumping the costs of their own choices onto the transit authority.
But at it's core, Aesch's work in Rochester expresses a value judgment that shouldn't be hidden behind puff-words like "creative" or wrapped in the mantra of "business": Fundamentally, Aesch was willing to cut low-ridership services — or what I call coverage services. And so, it seems, was his elected board.
That's very unusual in North America, for democratic reasons.
Demands for coverage service — defined as service that is unjustifiable if ridership is the main goal — are powerful forces at most transit agencies. Practically any American transit system could drastically improve its ridership by abandoning service to low-ridership areas and concentrating its service where ridership potential is high — which is what "running transit like a business" would mean. Ridership goals also meet other goals important to many people, including maximum impact on reducing vehicle miles travelled, and maximum support (through high-intensity service) for the dense, walkable and attractive inner-urban redevelopment.
But coverage goals have powerful constituencies too, including outer-suburban areas that get little or no service when agencies pursue ridership goals, as well as people with severe needs — seniors, disabled, low-income, whose travel needs happen in places where high-ridership service is impossible.
My approach to these issues as a consultant is never to brush aside coverage goals through a mantra like "run transit like a business," but rather to start by being clear exactly why most transit is not run like a business, and coverage goals, enforced by elected officials, are one major reason. I then encourage communities and ultimately transit boards to form clear policies on how much of their budget they want to devote to coverage, so that the rest can be devoted to chasing ridership unequivocally.
Like many slogans, "running transit like a business" can sound like just good management, but it is actually a strongly ideological stance that values some transit outcomes (low subsidy, environmental benefits) over others (social service needs, equity for all parts of the region that pay taxes to it).
If an elected board chooses that path, and understands what it's sacrificing, then fantastic: I'm ready to help "run transit like a business." But if an elected board decides that transit needs to be pursuing goals other than ridership — as practically all of them in the US and Canada do — I'm equally ready to help with that. Most of all, I recommend having a clear conversation about what goal the agency is pursuing with each part of its budget. The key is to notice that these are different goals, that both reflect valid government purposes, and elected officials have to choose how to divide their resources, and staff effort, between these competing goals.
(My professional approach to this issue is explained in Chapter 10 of my book Human Transit, and here).
Again, what's most impressive about Aesch is that even in a city where transit plays a minor role, he refused to let the transit agency be forced to subsidize the needs of other agencies without their financial participation. Crucial, this required credibly threatening not to serve these agencies' needs. Many transit agencies I've known in similar cities simply have not had the management culture — or elected board — that was ready to be that forceful.
But simply cutting low-ridership services is a value judgment, not a technical decision. It reflects a community's about the community's view about why it runs transit. In an ideal democracy, making those decisions is not the task of managers or consultants. It's what we pay elected officials for.