Explainer: The Transit Ridership Recipe

For a while I’ve wanted to synthesize some material that’s scattered through my book (and more recent work) but that needs to be presented more directly.  It’s long, but there are handy section dividers along the way, and pictures near the end.  Comments welcome!  This piece will be refined in response.  

Expanded a bit July 17, with the new “But wait …” section.

 

When transit is planned with the goal of high ridership, what does that mean?  When you tell network designers like me to maximize ridership, what do we do?

Maximizing ridership is like maximizing the number of customers for any business.  You have to think like a business, and the first thing businesses do is choose which markets they will enter.   Unlike governments, businesses feel no obligation to provide their service in places where they would spend a lot of money to serve very few people.

(Businesses also want customers to pay more rather than less, but for our purposes here let’s hold fares or prices constant, and just think about how you get lots of customers.)

Everyone understands that McDonalds is a business, which means it is under no obligation to provide a burger restaurant within 1/2 mile of every citizen.  If they were, every ranch (population 4) in North Dakota would need to have its own McDonalds at the end of the driveway.  Obviously the company would go bankrupt staffing all of these shops dotted across the prairie, miles from the nearest town, each with a smiling team waiting (and waiting, and waiting) for a customer to appear.

So in the real world of business, a rancher in North Dakota may have to drive 50 miles to find a McDonalds, because the only one will be in a large town where there are enough customers.  We don’t describe this situation as McDonalds being unfair to rural folks, because we know McDonalds is a business doing what businesses do.  Businesses deploy their product or service where it will succeed.

The Ridership vs Coverage Problem

Commentators sometimes criticize transit authorities for low ridership, as though transit were a failing business.  But transit authorities are rarely directed to maximize ridership as their primary goal, so they’re not failing if they don’t.  In democracies, whoever makes the decisions for a transit authority is accountable to voters.  These officials listen to their constituents, and sometimes decide that to some degree, low-ridership services are necessary and important.  This is usually because either (a) someone feels entitled to service (“We pay taxes too!”) or (b) someone needs the service really badly (“If you cut this bus, we’ll be trapped.”).  Those can both be valid government purposes, but they lead to the creation of services where ridership is not the objective.  The objective, instead, is to satisfy (a) and/or (b) above.

Services whose purpose is not ridership are called coverage services – or at least I’ve been calling them that for over a decade and the term is catching on. Coverage is an apt term because the result is usually to spread out service over a vast area so that everyone gets a little bit, no matter where they live.

Spreading it out sounds great, but it also means spreading it thin.  Any fixed service budget, divided over such a huge number of routes, yields low frequency, maybe a bus once an hour, and not many people find that useful for reasons we’ll explore below.  So ridership is usually low on these services, exactly as we network designers expect. This can be fine, though, so long as everyone understands that ridership is not the goal.

So you will not begin to make clear transit choices until you are clear, at every moment, about whether you want transit service to have high ridership.  To the extent that you do, you need to tell transit agencies to think like businesses, which means deploying the service not where people feel entitled to it, or where they need it badly, but where the maximum ridership will result.  On the other hand, if you do want to respond to people’s expectations and needs, you need to carve out an exception to your desire for high ridership, because high ridership is not, in fact, what you’re advocating.

Did you just hear me say that we should deploy transit service for maximum ridership?  If so, read the last paragraph again. There is no “should.”  There is only a description of the consequences of choices that you, and your community, are free to make.

It’s not a yes-or-no question, of course.  A more precise question is: “what percentage of our resources should our transit authority spend pursuing maximum ridership?”  When transit authorities answer that question, then everyone knows what the purpose of the service is.  The services that are trying to attract high ridership can be assessed for their ridership, and the coverage services, where ridership isn’t the goal, no longer count as failing because ridership is not what they’re trying to do.  In our network redesign for Houston, for example, the Board said “deploy 80% of our budget pursuing ridership.”  That’s what the plan does.  We know which lines in the New Network are intended for high ridership, and those are the ones where we’ll expect that outcome.  (For my peer-reviewed academic paper on this issue, see here.)

So for now, I’ll suppose that you do want a ridership-maximizing transit system.  What does that look like?  How do we network designers know that we’re designing one?

Frequency Matters

First, you really must understand transit frequency.  It’s the elapsed time between consecutive buses (or trains, or ferries) on a line, which determines the maximum waiting time.  People who are used to getting around by a private vehicle (car or bike) often underestimate the importance of frequency, because there isn’t an equivalent to it in their experience.  A private vehicle is ready to go when you are, but transit is not going until it comes.  High frequency means transit is coming soon, which means that it approximates the feeling of liberty you have with your private vehicle – that you can go anytime.  Frequency is freedom!

At the opposite extreme, if you live in a single family house with a driveway and usually get around by car, imagine that there were an automated gate at the end of your driveway that only opened once an hour, on the hour.  When it’s closed, you can’t get your car in or out.  If that were your situation, your biggest transportation problem would not be traffic congestion, or how fast you can go on the freeway; it would be how to get this frigging gate to open more often.  That’s how low frequency feels to a potential transit customer, and why frequency often swamps other factors, like speed, in determining whether transit is actually useful.

Frequency has three independent benefits for the customer, which helps to explain why high frequency is so critical to sustained high ridership:

  • It reduces waiting, which is everyone’s least favorite part of a trip.  (No, a smartphone that tells you when the bus comes doesn’t solve the problem of waiting; we are still talking about time when you’re not where you want to be.)  The basic sensation of being able to go when you want to go is the essence of frequency.
  • It makes connections easy, which makes it possible for a pile of transit lines to become a network.  In transit, this is huge.  A transit line without good connections is useful for travelling in one dimension, along that line.  A network of frequent lines makes it easy to travel in two dimensions – all over the city, or at least all over the part of it that supports frequent service.   This network effect massively expands the usefulness of every line in the network, thus increasing each line’s ridership potential.
  • Finally, frequency is a backstop for problems of reliability.  If a vehicle breaks down or is late, frequency means another will be along soon.

If you think about how these three things govern the real usefulness of transit, you can begin to see why frequency is such a ferocious ridership-driver.  Notice that these three mechanisms are logically independent of each other, so they represent three different ways that a frequency change transforms the usefulness of transit for the better.  So it helps to think of frequency as cubed value; its benefits tend to be exponential, up to a point, because improving frequency is actually three different improvements at once.

Here’s a simple scatterplot with a dot for each bus route in a whole bunch of US agencies where my firm has had occasion to collect data.  Note that higher frequency (leftward on the X axis) correlates with high productivity (ridership per unit of service cost).

Frequency vs productivity

This is more amazing than it looks.  Double the frequency of a line and you’ve doubled its operating cost, so you would expect high frequency to pull productivity down.  And indeed, if you do that to a particular line at a particular moment, it usually does.

But overall and in general, high frequency correlates with high productivity, despite the high cost of the frequency.  That’s because (a) frequency is such a powerful ridership-driver for the reasons outlined above and (b) frequency tends to be deployed where it will succeed.

How do we identify those places?  Stay tuned.

Finally, the duration of service matters, and it works much the way frequency does.  Service later into the evening, or on weekends, initially appears to be a bad investment, because we’re adding lots of service when there aren’t as many riders.  But in the long run, its availability tends to correlate with high ridership.   That’s because riders won’t use the service in one direction unless they can get back, so evening service, even if the buses aren’t full, is a key part of how we build high ridership all day.   The same is true of weekends.  If you commute five days a week including some weekend days – like many people in the retail, entertainment, or service sectors – you are unlikely to rely on transit unless it works for you on all of those days.  One of the key features of our Houston redesign is bringing weekend service up to the same level as weekdays, so that except for the weekday rush hour, the bus comes the same time every day.

Diversity, Not Specialization

How do we network designers know where transit will succeed?  You might assume that this is about detailed demographic analysis, detailed studies of travel behavior, and lots of conversations with citizens, finding out who people are and exactly what their needs are.

Well, we do a lot of that, and the data are interesting and helpful in resolving many details of a network plan.  But in the end, it’s less important to high-ridership planning than a simpler question:  “Where can we find lots of people, and places where lots of people are going, located in ways that are cheap for us to serve?”

The most successful transit, in terms of ridership achieved for a fixed operating budget, is called mass transit for a reason.  The busiest transit lines – a big city subway system, for example – succeed precisely because they are not designed around the details of anyone’s needs.  You will not get much assurance that planners of the system understand you in particular, or know what trip you’re making now, or care much about your unique point of view.  Instead, you’re likely to notice how many different people are finding the same vehicle useful.  You’re likely to notice diversity.  We’ll come back to that.

At the opposite extreme, if you use a suburban or small town bus that never has more than five people on it, you may get very personal attention.  The driver may even remember your name.  But that charming fact is made possible by how low the ridership is.

As transit ridership potential goes up, responsiveness to each individual’s needs and desires goes down.  The big-city subway doesn’t take care of your personal needs, but that’s inseparable from why it’s massively liberating to so many people.

It’s flattering to us, as individuals, to think that if transit just specialized more – just took better care of me or people like me – it would have higher ridership.  That’s why we hear so much about it in the media – because it’s what we want to hear.

But specialization is simply not how the transit product succeeds at attracting great masses of people.  Transit achieves high ridership by being useful and liberating to lots of people, not to any particular kind of person.  High ridership arises from diversity, not specialization.

There are small exceptions, which happen when a large number of people are all doing the same thing at the same time.  A big suburban school lets out at 3:00 PM, or the ball game ends at the stadium, or white-collar workers all want to get from an outer suburb to downtown at 8:00 AM.  The “peak only” column in the scatterplot above shows some of those.  But these exceptions are always about brief periods of time.  What I’ve been talking about, everywhere but this paragraph, is the kind of ridership that’s sustainable all day and all week, and that supports continued growth into evenings and weekends to support an  “18-hour” or even “24-hour” city.  Specialization by time of day can fill some transit vehicles, but it’s a vastly smaller market (and a more expensive one to serve) than the kind of demand that’s happening all the time.

But wait, I thought ridership was about …

The notion that ridership depends on network design may be new to you.  Haven’t you heard that ridership relies on having the right marketing, the right logo, an attractive vehicle, a courteous driver, or whatever?  Well, those things can help, but only if the service is useful.  Those features attract people to try transit, but people only use it routinely if it’s a good use of their time and money, day after day.  Marketing can attract customers, but only the product will keep them.

What I am talking about, throughout this post, is the math of how we deploy service that’s useful to large numbers of people.

The core of being useful is being a logical choice, compared to your alternatives, for getting lots of places that you need to go.  And since most of us are in a hurry, travel time matters.  Frequency, for example, is an overwhelmingly important factor because it is so dominant in determining actual travel time in the urban context.

Here’s another thing that motorists and cyclists can get wrong: in a personal vehicle, your travel time is identical to the time spent in the vehicle, but in transit, your travel time includes waiting.  Waiting is not just time spent at a stop; it’s all the time when you’re not where you want to be.  In transit, the correct measure of travel time is forward from the moment you want to go (not necessarily when transit is going) or backward from when you really have to arrive.  For example, if you must report to work at 8:00 AM but the hourly bus arrives at 7:05 or 8:05, then you’ll have a 55 minute wait at your destination.  That’s part of your travel time because you’d rather have spent those minutes in bed.  Do you still doubt the overwhelming power of frequency?

Another way to think about travel time is to turn it inside out, and think of it as “what places and opportunities can I reach in a given time, if I locate here?”  Framing it that way helps us see how good transit (and good information) can guide people to locate based on where transit is useful, which is the ultimate source of the energy behind “transit oriented development”.  I call that idea Abundant Access, and you can read about it here.

So Where Should We Run?

So to the extent that a transit authority is seeking sustained high ridership across long hours, it would focus its most powerful-but-expensive tools, high frequency and long duration, in the places where they can succeed.

Where are those places?  Like any business, we need to put the service where

  • (a) there are lots of potential customers;
  • (b) those customers will be able to access our service easily; and
  • (c) our costs of providing service are not too high, compared to the number of customers we’ll attract.

Now, let’s think about the high-ridership transit product.  It’s simplest unit is a line or route with a number of vehicles running back and forth along it.

The cost of providing the service is based on the number of transit vehicles running along it (let’s call them buses, but all this is the same for trains or ferries as long as each one has employees on board.  This number goes:

  • Up with frequency.  Double how often a bus comes, and you’ve doubled the number of buses on each mile of the line, doubling the cost.
  • Up with distance.  Double the length of the line and you’ve doubled its cost.
  • Down with speed.  Double the speed of the service, and the buses take only half as long to cycle the line as they did before, so you need only half as many of them to deliver the same service.  You’ve halved the cost.

For now, let’s hold frequency and speed constant, and focus on distance.  The key question for high-ridership transit, then, is “how far do we have to go to be available to a given number of people?”  This is transit’s version of the question any business asks about a particular venture, like opening a shop in a particular place:  “How much will it cost to be useful and attractive to an adequate number of customers?”

In transit, the answer is:  It depends on the pattern of development, and especially on four measurable things:

  • Density
  • Walkability
  • Linearity
  • Proximity

Let’s look at each in turn.

Density

The image below shows two towns and a transit line running through them.  The transit line in the two images is identical, so it has the same cost.  But in the first town, the line is available to twice as many people, because the town is twice as dense.  That means that if everybody in both towns had the same propensity to use transit, ridership would be twice as high on the first route as on the second.  Since the costs of the two services are the same, the top town is twice as good an investment for the transit agency.

It really is that simple.  Density means that any given service investment is useful to more people, so of course it attracts more riders.

In fact, density is even more powerful than that.  We’re looking at two towns where everything is the same except that one is twice as dense as the other.  But in fact, this difference in density generates other important differences that also tend to increase ridership.  Parking is more difficult or expensive, and because more things are in walking distance, people are more likely to walk or cycle short distances.  People without cars (because they can’t drive, or can’t afford one, or simply don’t want one) also logically choose to locate in higher-density areas where transit, walking, and cycling are easier, and this further reinforces the ridership from these higher density areas.  So in many cases, we find that the difference in ridership between these two towns is more than double.  It’s double just because there are more people, but in addition, each of these people is also more likely to use transit, because of these other factors that also track with density.

So can we get high ridership out of low density ?  Only if we can create artificial density of demand around a transit line or stop.  Park-and-Ride, for example, is a way to get people from a low-density area to gather, densely, around a transit station, so that they justify intense service.  Park-and-Ride raises other challenges because of the space it takes, but there is a huge range of potential non-transit solutions for giving people ways to get to a transit station, including bike-and-ride, roles for private sector demand-responsive service, and others.  From the customer perspective these are called “last mile” solutions.  But for a ridership-mazimizing transit authority, these are ways of creating the density of demand, at a transit stop, that makes good service viable, even though that density is not present in the land use.

Walkability

In the drawing about density I assumed that people could walk to the transit line easily, but that’s not always true.  The local street network, and the design of the street that transit runs on, determine whether it’s possible to get to the service.  People who can’t get to the service aren’t going to be riders, so this impacts ridership directly.

Walkability

In this diagram, the two circles on the left have a gray dot in the center, representing a transit stop.  The circle is the area that is within a reasonable crow-flies distance of the stop (say 1/4 mile, but it doesn’t matter what you think this distance is).

The circle is a very crude measure of the area where people might find this transit stop useful.  However, if you are only willing to walk a certain distance, say 1/4 mile, then the real limit is how far you can walk along the available streets and paths.  The streets shaded in black indicates the parts of the neighborhood that are within 1/4 mile walk of the stop, not just 1/4 mile by air.

The local street network makes all the difference.  In the neighborhood on the top, the gridded street pattern puts about 2/3 of the circle within walking distance, while the disconnected suburban street pattern on the bottom puts only 1/3 of the circle within walking distance.

So if all other things are equal, including density, the neighborhood on the bottom will have half the ridership potential as the one on the top.  That means that a transit agency focused on ridership will deploy much more service to the neighborhood on the top than to the one on the bottom.

Another important dimension of walkability is whether you can get to the transit stop in the correct direction.  When transit runs on a major street or road, the stops in the two directions of travel are on opposite sides of the road.  If you want to make a round trip by transit, you will leave from one side of the road in the morning and be dropped off on the other side in the afternoon.  So it has to be possible to cross the road, as a pedestrian, at the stop.

 Again, if this is impossible, because there are no signals or other crossing provisions near the stop, then you should expect a ridership-maximizing transit planner to run less service.  Some transit professionals argue that transit should never stop where it’s not safe to cross the street, because when pedestrians are hit by cars in this situation, the transit agency is sometimes held liable for having put a stop in an unsafe location.

Linearity

In the image below, two towns are made up of the same four centers of development.  Maybe one is a college, one is a shopping center, one is a mass of apartments, or whatever.  In any case, the two towns are identical except for the locations of the four centers.

Linearity

In the first town, the centers are in a reasonable straight line along a path that transit can follow.  That means that a single transit line connects all four centers, in a way that feels reasonably direct for travel between any two centers.

In the second town, a single line connecting all four centers is maddeningly circuitous, and therefore much less attractive if you’re traveling between centers that are not adjacent.  There would be another solution for the second town, which is to run a direct bus route between each pair of centers, bypassing the others.  But that’s more route-miles, and hence less frequency and duration of service for a given service budget, and hence service that’s less likely to be useful to many people.

Putting development at the end of a long cul-de-sac makes it a worse prospect for ridership, which means a ridership-maximizing transit agency will give it less service.  Remember: if you want good transit, locate “on the way” between other places that support good transit.

Finally, notice that you can create the same problem by slowing down a transit service, as road-dieters, traffic-calmers, and bike-lane advocates often inadvertently do.  Look at the first town, but now imagine that the two centers in the middle of the line have slowed down the transit service as it runs through them.  For ridership, this has exactly the same effect as the layout of the second town: it turns the middle centers into obstacles to travel between the outer centers, discouraging the use of transit for travel between them.  (The outer centers will demand an express bus to get around the obstacle, but again, solving the problem with more lines means you can afford less frequency, so service is less useful, thus ridership will be lower.)

Proximity

In this image, two towns are identical except for the distance between the main residential area and the main business area.  Longer transit lines cost more to run than short ones, so in the second town it will cost more to serve the same number of people.  If a transit budget is the same in the two towns, the second town will have less frequent service or service for a shorter duration.  That’s because the same resource is spread over more route miles, yielding less frequency.  That, in turn, means lower ridership.


Summing It Up

If you come from a neighborhood that looks like the second town in one of these drawings, how did you react to these images and explanations?  Did it sound like I was criticizing your home, or saying you shouldn’t have transit service?

No, those would be aesthetic or moral judgments, and that’s not my job.  My job is to explain how transit is designed if high ridership is the goal.  I’m not saying that ridership should be the goal – a moral judgment again – but only that if it’s the goal, this is what transit would logically do.  It would look for markets that offer density, walkability, linearity and proximity, and focus excellent service there.  Where those features are absent, it would recognize that ridership potential is lower regardless of the service provided, so it would deploy little or no service.

This is how businesses behave, by choosing the markets they will enter, based on where the conditions are right for them to excel.  Do you want transit to carry as many people as possible?  To what extent do you want that?  That’s up to you, and your community.

 

50 Responses to Explainer: The Transit Ridership Recipe

  1. Tony Morton July 15, 2015 at 9:43 pm #

    Thanks Jarrett for an excellent summary of the issue. I would only add (or rather clarify) that there’s a difference between a fixed operating _budget_ and a fixed operating _subsidy_. ‘Ridership’ service affects the former much more than the latter, while ‘coverage’ service affects the two about equally.
    What this means is that if transit agencies can frame the political discussion around a tolerable subsidy figure, as distinct from the size of the gross budget, there should be scope for providing a lot more ‘ridership’ service without this coming at the expense of ‘coverage’ service – in other words you’re no longer playing this zero-sum game where there’s a fixed budget pie to divide up with more ‘ridership’ meaning less ‘coverage’.
    And of course as more frequent ‘ridership’ service is provided and benefits from network effects, you can ideally get the positive-feedback situation where increasing service volume results in less subsidy per unit of service, and the net subsidy impact (as distinct from budget impact) of additional service is negative. We’ve actually got evidence for this in Melbourne, although it sometimes takes a couple of years for ridership to respond, and many public officials still don’t quite believe it.
    By all appearances, Canadian transit agencies seem particularly good at this kind of framing exercise. This I think helps explain how the TTC survived Rob Ford, and gives transit advocates hope that Vancouver will yet survive its referendum result.

  2. P July 16, 2015 at 12:04 am #

    If advocates want to advocate increasing the transit pie, they need to advance credible funding/finance solutions to pay for their increased consumption of public goods. Land Tax or Council levies or charges, for example.
    Anyone can demand anything, but not everyone wants to pay for it. The recent example of Vancouver is an example of this.

  3. Tony Morton July 16, 2015 at 5:32 am #

    P, I think we have to question why it’s a decade since car use per capita stopped growing in the developed world while transit use per capita has accelerated, yet throughout the English-speaking world public funding for roads is still essentially automatic while transit funding is withdrawn at the drop of a hat.
    The people of Vancouver were asked to approve a new tax to fund transit: they weren’t asked whether the existing tax they pay to fund new roads should fund transit instead.

  4. Dave Patman July 16, 2015 at 6:05 am #

    Great reiteration of your Human Transit content.
    Perhaps a visual that could be added to this would be a map of an imaginary but realistic city network, with a slider that would allow one to toggle (in a graduated way) between a focus on coverage and a focus ridership.

  5. P July 16, 2015 at 7:39 am #

    Which Vancouver roads would have their funding reallocated?
    From what I can gather the Vancouver transit referendum was about an integrated package of measures covering transit, cycling, and roads. The roads component was to cover maintenance, and also the replacement of a bridge. Happy to be corrected on these points.
    Source: http://mayorscouncil.ca/transportation-investments/
    The thing about democracy is that you have to be prepared for and accept the possibility that the people might say NO to what otherwise is a good idea. Ultimately it’s the peoples’ money, and the people the right to make ‘bad’ choices if they want to. Advocates have the right to try and persuade them otherwise.
    I am reminded of a passage from Paul Mees’ book in fact:
    “The solution developed by the tramway operator VBZ … was to put the main tram routes underground and convert the rest to buses…
    As cantonal law requires all projects costing more than 10 million francs to be approved by referendum, the scheme was put to popular vote – and soundly defeated, with a No vote of 61 percent.”
    – The Zurich Model in Transport For Suburbia, Mees (2010) p130
    There is nothing wrong with increasing funding pies, so long as it has public approval. And I’m sure public agencies advocate for more money very strongly. If there are proposals to increase public goods consumption, then one needs credible proposals for funding those things – land tax, rates, levies, road user charges, congestion fees etc. And I have to say, I often find that’s that part of the conversation nobody wants to talk about.
    The good thing abut Jarret Walker’s bus network restructurings is that they are generally cost-neutral, and hence the usual arguments that “oh, it would cost too much, we cannot afford it” cannot be used as a reason for avoiding engagement in reforms.
    Tony, you ask why it seems that funding for transit can be cut at the drop of a hat. I think that’s because road infrastructure is *built* and durable, whereas transit is *operated* and ephemeral. It is much easier to cut a bus line (and save money) than it is to demolish sections of, say the Calder Freeway (and try save money that way).
    I am confirmed in this view because I once I asked a former Victorian Transport minister at a forum that question, and the answer was that increased bus service was a permanent ongoing charge to the state budget whereas building infrastructure was not.

  6. Tony Morton July 16, 2015 at 8:18 am #

    It’s a common fallacy that roads don’t require recurrent operating expenditure. They have to be patched up and resurfaced regularly or they fall apart. In Melbourne, even councils in the suburban growth areas spend nearly as much each year rebuilding and maintaining existing roads as they do building new roads.
    The ongoing expense of roads really comes out with the move to PPP financing. We now have roads in many cities that are fully built and operating but will go on demanding quarterly financial outlays (‘availability charges’) for decades to come.
    Well-run transit services at least generate direct revenue streams to offset operating expenses. Cut the service and you lose the revenue as well as the expense – but you also lose revenue from other users because you’ve done damage to your network. And even if you don’t operate the service you’ve still got a lot of serviceable buses, trains and other assets lying around incurring holding costs, just like a road stays in place even when no-one uses it.
    Mees’ point about the Zurich referenda is an important one about taking the people with you on transit system design. Zurich’s planners originally wanted to replace trams with buses or to put them underground (the way Brussels and some other cities did) – in both cases to accommodate more private cars. The public rejected both ideas, so the planners instead had to look at other ways to make the trams run more efficiently. Zurich now has the best traffic priority system in the world, ensuring trams move through the city with almost no delay due to cross traffic.
    Vancouver’s referendum embodied a double standard: the transit improvements were dependent on a tax increase but provincial road projects were not. Had it been the other way round, it’s likely the roads would have lost. Frame anything as a tax increase and it’s likely to lose: that’s politics. And ultimately, politics will determine what gets built and operated quite independently of cost or benefit – what we hope to do as planners and advocates is ensure that political decisions are informed to some degree by evidence.

  7. Jim July 16, 2015 at 9:31 am #

    There should be no more debate about productivity versus coverage in this day and age of climate change and oil wars. Like highways, we have overbuilt the coverage of transit systems, and like highways, maintaining them has become unsustainable. Transportation costs have increased greater than the rate of inflation. Transit needs to focus on productivity and shape the environment they serve to meet more sustainable ends versus shaping it to encourage sprawl and unsustainable fiscally destructive ends. There should be a moratorium on new coverage service. If you moved to an area that is not served by transit, don’t expect transit to ever serve it. The old paradigm of developers building in the middle of nowhere cheap and forcing government to subsidize expanded services out to nowhere must end now. Why are you Jarrett, encouraging this and not fighting this? Why are you saying it’s not your job to make moral decisions? If your recommendation is to destroy the environment, create unsustainable communities, create an unsustainable fiscal model for transit, you are pushing an immoral agenda. Why aren’t you more aggressively arguing to your clients that any attempt to expand or maintain coverage will bankrupt them. Keep in mind, expanded transit coverage entails expanded, more expensive paratransit coverage. If you were a bridge consultant and you knew one option was cheaper yet would ensure the collapse of the bridge and kill people, oh, but your job is not to provide any moral direction? Yet but saying nothing bad about coverage, you create a situation where disabled people move further out from the city but then eventually transit can no longer serve them and they no longer can get medical treatment endangering their lives.
    The problem with transit is that it’s a monopoly and as such, it’s encourage not to think nor innovate. Comparing all private models to McDonalds is insincere. It’s like comparing all political models to North Korea. The private sector’s model is not maximizing prices but profits which mean either cutting costs or raising prices. But it also means innovating and becoming more productive and efficient. They would acknowledge that providing paratransit service is considerably more expensive than transit so they would better cater transit service to the disabled. They would be ahead of the tech curve and would now be operating Uber-style stop-to-stop flexible routing instead of criticizing or fighting it like you have suggested. They would be embracing vanpools more. How many times have you suggested to clients that they use vanpools? You may argue that it’s not your job to shape society, but you are. By constantly maintaining or expanding coverage, you encourage the most vulnerable people in society to move further out, you encourage an unsustainable dangerous situation where one day they may not have any mobility options. THE DEBATE IS OVER. Supporting coverage is supporting unsustainable sprawl. On top of this, it also means providing less frequency to senior housing, medical service, youth, and disabled people who are living in dense areas, punishing the smart by subsidizing the stupid. Government.

  8. Jarrett July 16, 2015 at 10:38 am #

    Jim.
    As a consultant, my job is to help communities implement their values, not mine.
    But yes, I’m very positive about the many ways other than fixed route transit that you can serve low-demand areas. I’m all for vanpools, bike parking, appropriately sited Park-and-Ride etc etc. These are all part of solutions that can reduce the political pressure on transit authorities to run coverage services.
    What all those have in common is that the transit authority isn’t paying a driver to drive around in low-density area.
    UberPool’s role in this environment still has to be worked out. If they can serve a suburban area with such a low cost/rider that they’re comparable to urban fixed routes, they become ridership services. But I don’t believe this is geometrically possible, unless you amplify the pay differential between bus drivers and Uber “contractors” to such a degree that you are magnifying other severe social problems of inequality and affordability. Or unless Uber just turns into a private fixed route service, which also shows signs of happening.
    Because flexible routing is intrinsically inefficient — you spend a lot of driver time on each customer’s needs, compared to fixed route — these services should be much more expensive to ride, which means they are not the solution for everyone unless they’re subsidized. And if they’re subsidized, who subsidizes them and why? Not to maximize ridership.
    See? UberPool (or more generally, Dial-a-Ride, which has existed for decades) is just a somewhat more efficient kind of coverage service. Low productivity is designed into the essence of what it is. If you’re against coverage, why are you for that?

  9. P July 16, 2015 at 10:47 am #

    It is true that roads do have a maintenance cost – any right of way, whether it be a road or a busway (which is just a road for buses) or a railway has an ongoing maintenance cost, with perhaps the sole exceptions of airways and ferries on a river.
    However, with public transport you don’t have a transport service until you hire vehicle operators and pay them (exception: automated vehicles) This is a cost on top of the maintenance of the right of way. I stress that I am making this point purely for descriptive explanatory purposes about why it appears to be easier to cut transit operating funding.
    How would you go about implementing your recommendation to reduce funding for roads? Does the state government just put barriers on the Calder and Tullamarine freeways and just say ‘Well, we are not maintaining this anymore.’ How realistic is that?
    And when you think about suburban roads, how is the bus, and in particular feeder buses to rail, going to get to people’s houses without driving on a road? And one that requires maintenance? So I think there is an element of irrealism when it comes to this idea that less roads funding = more transit. A lot of those costs would be locked in already and thus unavoidable, while in others these expenditures would be supporting, not detracting from, the operation of the transit system.

  10. P July 16, 2015 at 12:30 pm #

    Jim,
    Governments generally look to occupy space that private markets have vacated or have trouble entering. You can think of the state as a producer of last resort.
    There is a possibility that non-profits will enter a space, but the inability to raise funds through taxing powers limits this to whatever can be raised through goodwill. Why do private service providers move out? Because willingness to pay is not the same as ability to pay.
    It is possible in rare cases to bundle an unprofitable operation with a profitable operation in a piggyback or cross subsidy arrangement. An unusual example is the Swiss PostBus which tacked a bus service on to the back of a mail delivery service because people realised that you could transport both mail AND people. (services have now diverged into separate functions)
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PostBus_Switzerland
    On the other hand you are right about innovation – but that can be rather slow. If automatic vehicles take off, that would change the planning completely. Although that could mean even more sprawl, not less.

  11. Michael July 16, 2015 at 5:12 pm #

    I know we are just talking in circles here, because Jarrett very much believes in this ridership verses coverage, even though providing service to only a select few people will never make transit a viable service with high mode shares. But that being said, I am still going to state again, that I really don’t like the idea of automatically assuming that certain areas that don’t have all the checkmarks cannot produce high ridership, when there are countless examples that prove they can.
    Also if you are following the business model, then businesses do operate at times of low demand and when they are not making a lot of money. Stores stay open late or seven days a week, because they understand it generates more business in the long run. Business also operates many more places than you think, that either turn very little profit or no profit at all. They do this, because in benefits the chain by being available.
    Public transit is also not a business, it is a public service, and if you are going to have a viable transportation service, then everyone has to be connected.
    Jarrett still fails to explain how a system that only serves a select number of people who are deemed worthy of transit can actually produce ridership? If this was the case, then would American cities not have outstanding ridership?
    I am going to be completely honest Jarrett. It is very troubling to me that you think a city can have viable mass transit by not providing service to everyone. Clearly you have to understand that a system that does not take you wherever you want to go in an urbanized area, is not going to attract high transit usage?
    How do you expect people to make transit a lifestyle choice, or decide to rely on it, if they know they can’t get to entire areas of their city, or have to use a really poor service?
    Is that something you are prepared to do? I know most people would not, and that is why they buy cars and use them.
    And as a consultant you do not have tell anyone to choose ridership or coverage. You have made it your trademark to do that. But plenty of consultants, most notably in Canada, work at what kind of coverage a transit system will have. Will 95% of residents be a 5 minute walk from transit, or will it be 10 minutes, with the trade off being more frequent service?
    So cities do not need to choose either or. And it is the ones that provide transit to everyone that have high ridership. Not the other way around.
    The Houston redesign is great and is a big improvement over the existing system. But Houston is not going to be making any top spots for transit use or mode share anytime soon, because at the end of the day the system does not serve everyone. And so millions of Houston residents have no viable mass transit to utilize.
    You really need to start pushing for transit solutions for everyone. Not just people in select areas that you think are worthy of good transit. Because that is never going to make transit a viable travel alternative, and will continue to make transit a last resort option for a niche market.

  12. Michael July 16, 2015 at 5:20 pm #

    I would also like Jarrett to address why ridership in Metro Vancouver has declined since Translink has started reducing service on “coverage services” and focusing those resources on “ridership services”.
    If putting the focus on ridership services is supposed to generate more ridership, then why is Vancouver seeing ridership decline? Ottawa also reduced some coverage services, and has been in a ridership slump as well.
    York Region, Ontario has also reduced service on services not deemed high ridership. The result, ridership decline.
    One example, Brampton, Ontario, has done the opposite. They are building a base attractive network that serves everyone with strong minimum service standards. The result is massive ridership growth.
    From talking with people who are taking transit less, the issue is that they could care less if there is great service on some corridors. It does nothing for them, because they don’t have access to all areas by transit. And so the car is going to win for them as a travel choice.

  13. Tony Morton July 16, 2015 at 6:56 pm #

    P: I don’t know of any transit advocates calling for the closure of existing motorways or arterial roads – this is a red herring. The real political debate is about funding the expansion of road capacity (via big new roads or new lanes on existing roads) versus funding the expansion of transit service. And when the default is to throw public money at new road capacity as-of-right, it becomes a relatively painless question of just diverting these funds to transit, not of shrinking the existing road network or even ceasing to maintain it.
    The provision of road networks in new suburbs is a different matter. It should go without saying that new homes require road access. But the requirement for road capacity even in new neighbourhoods is a good deal more modest when 50% of residents use transit for at least some journeys, compared to when 5% of them do.

  14. Jeff Wegerson July 17, 2015 at 12:25 am #

    Michael,
    Do you believe that Minneapolis can provide coverage service to Jarrett’s North Dakota farm family? No, of course not, they are not in the quote city. So even you have limits as to how far into low density a service SHOULD extend. You seem to call your limits city limits. San Francisco has great Transit. It also has city limits that don’t go out as far as Houstan’s. You simply differ from Jarrett as to where to draw a line. But in the end it is the client that draws the line not you or Jarrett.

  15. EngineerScotty July 17, 2015 at 12:29 am #

    A couple of notes:
    * Both “transit” and “roads” have operating costs, the former in the forms of energy, maintenance, and driver labor; the latter in the form of repaving. The difference with roads is that it’s easier to push costs off into the future and live with a deteriorated road surface–were public works departments required to close roads with excess potholes, it would be more like transit (where the buses don’t run without a driver), but they’re not. That, and roads have a larger constituency–not just motorists, but freight, public services like police and fire (a common obstacle to road diets is the fire marshal, who objects to anything that might impede the response time of his trucks) and even bus riders and transit agencies. (And buses are one of the leading causes of road deterioration, a cost which is generally not shifted on to the transit agency).
    * If a land-use is sufficiently transit hostile, then even providing hourly service to a majority of residents might be like putting a McDonalds franchise in the middle of North Dakota; there’s no reasonable route the bus can take that can serve everyone, or even a fraction of everyone. The same problem applies to many suburban office parks, which are often set back from main roads.

  16. crakening July 17, 2015 at 1:04 am #

    Michael makes an important point here – access is an important part of transit, and successful transit. The network effect also plays into that – when you double the number of destinations that are served, the combinations of trips that can be served increase by an even greater factor.
    I think Jarrett’s point, however, is not that we should restrict service to only the most dense, transit-friendly neighbourhoods of the city. I interpret it as bringing the balance between quality of service, and quantity of service (purely in terms of areas being served).
    In any political environment, it is always a tradeoff between quantity and quality, after all, budgets are not unlimited. When making decisions about routes, we need to take into account the fact that it is less cost effective to serve some areas. I have no data, but I would imagine when you start trying to reach the last 10-15% of a sprawling urban area, that is where the cost burdens begin to become too great, and at best, a tokenistic service will be provided, if any. With these factors, service will always be inefficient and carry few passengers, compared with the resources being deployed in an area more amenable to transit. So which is best then? There’s not right answer – and that is what Jarrett is leading us to discuss here, and in our own communities.
    Michael is right in saying that a transit system must serve the vast majority of destinations to be able to be successful – a transit system that only serves half the city isn’t very useful. The tradeoff that the community must make and must reconcile is in serving the last isolated corner of a distant housing estate. Jarrett is simply presenting this decision in a way that he feels better reflects the reality of providing transit services. Ideally, we’d have good service across the city, but, in the real world, there are always some scenarios where a tradeoff needs to be made – and where that occurs is a function of the budget and land uses of the city.

  17. Michael July 17, 2015 at 3:39 am #

    I think we are putting way too much energy into land use and productivity when it comes to planning transit in North America, just as Paul Mees said.
    There are countless examples from Canada and Europe that show transit succeeds in lower density areas, and is cost effective.
    When I was talking with the planner form Europe, he was like sort of taken back about so much talk on productivity and minimum service. His view was you are building network, so everyone must have a basic level of service, and you pick the service and do not relate it so much to ridership. So his example was all buses must run every 15 minutes. If a route is less busy, you put a smaller bus. But to have a viable network, all routes must operate together depending on the service area they serve.
    In terms of coverage. I do not go by city limits, I go by the built up urbanized area. I am not advocating that we put buses into farm fields. Although in Europe there are many services that do serve rural areas and do well.
    But in general, lets start off with the urbanized area, the inner city and the suburbs.
    Despite all the talk of transit hostile areas, the vast majority of suburban areas can support transit, if effort is made to provide a service people actually want to use.
    I still stand by my word that the best way to plan transit is to start with a minimum coverage goal for the urbanized area, and you work up from there.
    The coverage goal can be modified, and some cities will choose 400 meters, others 600 meters. But you at least have equitable service across the whole area.
    I think that is where Jarrett got in trouble with Edmonton. He went in there and basically told them they had to make service bad for a large section of the city, and cut whole areas off from transit.
    The discussion should more have been about walk distances. The current standard is about 400 meters. The discussion should have been about what kind of system could be made if that distance was extended to 600 meters. Could routes have been streamlined a little by asking some residents to walk just slightly further than they do now.

  18. Jim D July 17, 2015 at 6:20 am #

    Some of the criticism above seem to be arguing against these restructuring plans while ignoring the specifics. The Houston bus re-imagining plan isn’t abandoning large areas in favor of a select group of riders, unless by ‘select’ you mean 99.5% of the existing ridership. According to Metro’s materials, 94% of existing riders will board their vehicle at the same stop as today and 99.5% will be within 1/4 mile of scheduled transit service. The 0.5% of riders who will lose access to nearby scheduled service will not be left high and dry, but will still be able to use flex service. In exchange for inconveniencing a small portion of the current rider base, almost three-quarters of the system’s passengers will have access to frequent service seven days, including a massive increase in weekend service (both in expansion of Saturday and Sunday service to some routes and increases in frequency to others).

  19. Matthew July 17, 2015 at 7:19 am #

    Michael: I think that if sufficient funding could be guaranteed to run useful, high-quality transit down every street in a given American city, Jarrett would have no problem implementing that plan. The reason we have to evaluate on the ridership vs. coverage tradeoff is limited funding.
    Using my hometown of Raleigh, NC as an example: we have the authority to levy an 0.5-cent county sales tax to fund expanded transit service. You can see how much transit service that would pay for on this map: http://stuebegreen.com/mapping/wake15.html
    Even if we sacrificed all the capital projects and just used all the money to fund service, we still wouldn’t have enough money to provide even every-60-minute service on every major street in Raleigh (much less the entire county). We would have to sacrifice service on other corridors – such as New Bern Ave, where we’re already running near-full buses every 15 minutes.
    If we had the funding equivalent of a 1- or 2-cent sales tax on the table, then that might be enough funding to provide every-60-minute service everywhere, every-30-minute service on city streets with high population, and every-15-minute service on the main corridors of the city (Capital Blvd, New Bern Ave, Hillsborough St…) But we can’t evaluate that as an option right now. We only have the authority to levy an 0.5-cent sales tax, and even that level of funding is continuously under threat from the General Assembly.
    So when we think about how we want to spend that 0.5-cent sales tax, we have to prioritize. We can’t run service that does nothing – we have to deploy it to gain a high degree of ridership (which could provide additional revenue for more service in the future), to provide access to the most vulnerable populations (“social” coverage), or to garner political support for the plan (“political” coverage).
    The reason Jarrett looks at transit planning in terms of ridership vs. coverage is that he’s usually working in environments where the amount of money is fixed – such as Raleigh, where we only have an 0.5-cent sales tax to work with, or Houston, where there is no additional money and one can only reallocate service. Having more money would allow us to create a network based on a useful minimum service standard. But the amount of money on the table isn’t within the scope of a transit planner to control – that’s a political decision.

  20. Jarrett July 17, 2015 at 10:32 am #

    Michael’s comments sound intriguing, but he just doesn’t seem to be reading what I wrote. This piece positively bends over backwards to emphasize the distinction between geometric facts and value judgments, and to respect the right of every community to make its own value judgments in light of the geometric facts. Michael’s refusal to notice that, and his insistence that I am confusing something that I’m really clear about, makes it impossible for me to engage his comments further.
    But the geometry will always define the limits of the possible.
    However much you’d like to believe it, Michael, it is geometrically false that the highest-ridership transit system (for a given budget) will be one that is available to everyone, no matter where they are located or how much it costs to get to them. That’s just not how the geometry of the product works for reasons I’ve explained.
    If you want your views to affect reality, you need to reconcile them with those facts. Your values and ideals won’t change the facts of geometry, any more than they can change the value of pi.

  21. Willem July 17, 2015 at 11:05 am #

    One of the reasons I enjoy Jarrett’s book so much is that he frames transit planning and design in the form of trade-offs. This is one of the most important ones mentioned in his book, so I’m glad to see it out here on the internet where it can generate a healthy dose of discussion
    Trade-offs are very useful to my research, since my focus is on modeling these compromises in transit, and finding ways to optimize them. In a basic sense, by summing the two competing factors together and minimizing, it’s possible to find conditions that provide the most efficient balance between the compromises.
    Of course, the models developed are usually weighted by values of time and operational cost for passengers and operators, and adjusting these values to reflect the value judgments of the community. In this way, Jarrett’s philosophy can be incorporated.
    The main point I’m trying to make is that once a point on the continuum between these two extremes is reached, there is an optimal way to balance them, and that should be understood and investiaged. Jarrett has shown us what to do in one extreme, though I believe in his book he mentioned that no transit company he’s worked with has requested a completely ridership-oriented solution.
    I’m looking forward to the “coverage” equivalent of this post.

  22. Leebier July 17, 2015 at 12:59 pm #

    I think Michael does not sufficiently appreciate the nature of the deep suburbs in much of the US.
    I grew up on a cul-de-sac in suburban St. Louis that was over 1/4 mile just to the street that feeds into the cul-de-sac; a street that seems hard to envision having bus service of any reasonable frequency along the way.
    It was 2/3 of a mile to the nearest minor arterial (one lane each way). That road is at least long, straight, and serves a mix of destinations (community centers, residential, subdivision access, and commercial some 5-10 miles down the road).
    1.5 miles to two different major arterials that could reasonably support frequent bus service (to the constant stream of stripmalls on the other side of giant parking lots).
    This isn’t a rural farm, but a moderate-density 70s era suburb (50,000 population with imperceptible boarders to other such suburbs on all sides) with quarter-acre lots and 1200+-student high schools every few miles, and I fail to understand how one could provide frequent service in any reasonable walking distance.

  23. P July 17, 2015 at 1:26 pm #

    I hear the word ‘viable’ a lot, it’s one of those words that could mean anything.
    Using Toronto as an example is also a problem – what is the definition of ‘Toronto’, compared to say ‘Melbourne’. Transit north of Steeles avenue is horrible, as is Mississagua, Oshawa and Brampton, which are exactly those lower density, further away places.

  24. Transit Riding Transit Planner July 17, 2015 at 1:44 pm #

    Jarrett – Does your book or website have any further commentary on how so-called “coverage” services should be designed? Personally, I find your distinction between “ridership” services and “coverage” services a bit too neat. It reminds me a bit of the term “transit dependent,” which you have (rightly) criticized on the grounds that it implies a population who is completely insensitive to how bad their transit service gets. Similarly, my impression is that you are dismissing “coverage” service as a type of service where standard rules of productivity do not apply. But, it seems to me all the considerations we would give to ridership services still apply to coverage services – just with the added overlay that we want to make sure a certain coverage need is met. In other words, once you’ve decided you must provide service to Poor Minority Seniors in Far-Flung Disadvantaged Community X, you still want to design a service that gets the greatest numbers of Poor Minority Seniors to the greatest number of destinations they want to reach for as little operating expense as possible for the transit agency.

  25. Jarrett July 17, 2015 at 2:46 pm #

    TRTP:
    Yes, when you’re designing for coverage, you’re focused on availability rather than ridership. It helps to have a metric you’re designing to, such as “% of the population and jobs that are within 1/2 mile of a bus stop.” Planning to that metric, you tend to choose a minimum tolerable frequency, then deploy service in ways that spread that frequency over the largest possible area. This is why coverage often generates one way loops, for example, because they double the area covered compared to a two-way route.
    Of course, we still want the service to be as useful as it can be, given that it’s coverage service. So we’re careful to set up timed connections so that even though the frequency is low, you can move through the system quickly to other connections once you’ve gotten past the initial wait.
    Then, of course, we sometimes deploy demand-responsive service if it covers an area more effectively than fixed route. Demand-response means that we can take credit for covering an area without having to actually drive through it once an hour all day, so long as we drive through it when someone actually needs the service. This tends to be a solution at very low densities, almost rural, though if private operators like UberPool and taxis run at dramatically lower driver pay rates than transit, this can make the tradeoff point a little higher.

  26. Jarrett July 17, 2015 at 2:48 pm #

    TRTP. Re your next to last comment, about the ridership-coverage distinction being too neat: I should add that the need to balance these competing goals doesn’t mean that the planning is black-and-white. Of course we try to gain ridership while doing coverage, and of course we take credit for the coverage that ridership services provide. But it does mean that in designing each service, you are clear about what the primary goal is, and which is a nice but secondary outcome.

  27. Ruediger Herold July 17, 2015 at 3:56 pm #

    I’m not an expert, but an interested citizen, and I don’t remember how I found Jarrett’s page, but now I’m visiting it quite often.
    I live in Luebeck, in Germany’s state of Schleswig-Holstein. German states are comparable to US states in population.
    In my state, there is a small but good newspaper of the cyclists’ association. One article mentioned, that comparing the two big cities, Kiel and Luebeck, with about the same population, accidents of cyclists, caused by cars or not, happened more often in Luebeck. Rendsburg and Reinbek are much smaller, but also comparable in population, and there also was a huge difference. The conclusion of the article was, that there was since then no explanation for the discrepancies.
    Well, I got an explanation, but did not dare (until now) to make it public. It helped me to understand the structure of the city, when I was stopped by the police on a bicycle 1 km before home after a party that went to far. Shame on me! but it would have been less likely in Kiel…
    Within the built-up area of today’s Luebeck (for historical, topographical and other reasons) there’s many rivers, canals, railway, motorway. Kiel has all of that too, but to a much lesser extent or on the periphery. Same for Rendsburg and Reinbek. (I did not test it, but I’m sure you’ll agree zooming in and out on openstreetmap or wherever).
    Ironically, the connection to the world, turns out to be a barrier in (or into the adjacent) neighborhood.
    So, in Kiel a cyclist moving from one neighborhood into the other might use a parallel street (same for cars) to get to the destination. In Luebeck bikes and cars alike will “meet” if they want or not at the limited number of bridges (or meet the police).
    Until now I haven’t talked about busses, but in Kiel it’s also easier for a bus to leave the straigt line (e.g. for coverage purposes) but go back into it later while in Luebeck transit planners must focus on bridges and alike, whilst the public is blaming them being less effective than elsewhere.
    -Well, I’m tired now, but think I made my point.

  28. Michael July 17, 2015 at 4:19 pm #

    “Using Toronto as an example is also a problem – what is the definition of ‘Toronto’, compared to say ‘Melbourne’. Transit north of Steeles avenue is horrible, as is Mississagua, Oshawa and Brampton, which are exactly those lower density, further away places.”
    Many of these places are not low density. In fact, the new suburbs have much more dense single family housing than the older suburbs. IF you go out to Brampton, for example, the housing is so tight that is resembles inner city housing more than suburban housing. Very very small lots and almost no space between houses.
    Toronto’s outer suburbs are on track to be as dense as the old inner city areas like East York in inner city Toronto.
    Also the bus service in many of the outer suburban areas has greatly improved, and is improving. Brampton now provides 30 minute or better service on all core routes, and the majority of residents are within walking access of this service.
    During weekday peak hours, almost everyone in Brampton has access to high frequency bus service. High frequency bus service is also be extended into midday and Saturday, and Sundays.
    Brampton is actually a great example of a suburb that had poor transit and poor ridership. They made a goal to improve transit and it is paying off big.
    Ridership has skyrocketed. But the key is that everyone has quality transit within walking distance of their homes.
    It has taken Toronto’s outer suburbs a while, but they are starting to really improve transit.

  29. Michael July 17, 2015 at 4:24 pm #

    “Michael: I think that if sufficient funding could be guaranteed to run useful, high-quality transit down every street in a given American city, Jarrett would have no problem implementing that plan. The reason we have to evaluate on the ridership vs. coverage tradeoff is limited funding.”
    I agree funding is a problem. But the biggest issue is American style planning. Equitable transit planning has never really been something American planning has gotten into.
    Very very few American cities, for example, have coverage standards. Coverage standards are more of a Canadian, Australian, and European planning ideal.
    Also, funding is never going to get better if planners keep telling city governments you can just cut coverage services to pay for higher frequency service on other routes.
    The coverage verses ridership debate just reinforces that it is ok to not improve the funding situation.
    Again, take the Edmonton example. Edmonton does not have a funding problem. But Edmonton being told they could just cut services to provide more service elsewhere, tells the city government that they can just not continue to improve funding for transit.
    So it goes both ways. I have heard of more than one consultant who has told different city councils that they will never make transit a viable travel option unless they provide more funding.

  30. P July 18, 2015 at 12:52 am #

    “The coverage verses ridership debate just reinforces that it is ok to not improve the funding situation.”
    I think it is the opposite.
    Service reallocations generally find large volumes of waste/duplication (as in Auckland) which extend mobility and high-frequency service into areas that did not have them previously. This increases ridership. Increased ridership has two effects (1) larger transit voter base to vote for more services and (2) an increasing ridership base to justify expansion.
    If advocates want the funding pie to grow, that is a TAX POLICY issue which advocates need to advance credible funding/financing proposals for – which they usually do not want to talk about! These are things like service cuts to other areas of the budget (i.e cut road projects, cut road maintenance), sales or land tax increases, council rate increases, congestion charges, petrol taxation and so forth.
    Auckland Transport, whose network has been subjected to bus network review in exactly the coverage/ridership paradigm being objected to is also having this conversation to increase funding. So it just isn’t the case that reviewing a network this way “reinforces that it is ok not to improve the funding situation”. There is nothing preventing a separate conversation about tax policy from happening at the same time.
    VIDEO Fixing Auckland’s Transport https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DEuLN4pTPpA
    “Aucklanders have told us they want us to fix Auckland’s transport. But how much are we prepared to pay for it? Tell us how you’d move Auckland forward. Go to: http://www.shapeauckland.co.nz to have your say.”
    “We’ll need to raise an extra $300 million a year, or an extra 1% in rates each year plus a petrol tax”

  31. Michael July 18, 2015 at 5:24 am #

    P,
    Auckland had a lot of service that required an optimization, and the optimization done there is amazing.
    But it was done without the idea of punishing people in certain areas. Rather most of Auckland is getting a much more enhanced system.
    However, this is not the case in most American cities, where there is too little service to do any kind of optimization, without cutting areas out, or providing really poor service.
    Again, Auckland is a great model of how to optimize, and I am not against optimization done right, because we always have to work at building a better product, and using resources and funding to the best level possible.
    Where we differ, is the standards on guidelines to provide a basic service to everyone.

  32. P July 18, 2015 at 6:52 am #

    Public works mean taxes. If advocates want to push for large increases in public goods consumption, they need to be open and honest about who and what they are going to tax and how much.

  33. P July 18, 2015 at 7:11 am #

    “We all know Auckland traffic is a problem. Many of us sit in it every day. In fact it’s the single biggest issue facing Auckland as we grow. And with the population set to rise by another 1 million in the next 30 years, it will only get worse unless, we act.”
    “You have made it clear that you want to fix the problem. We can, but it means we have to make a choice.”
    “Do we opt for a basic transport network that costs less but falls well short of what we need? Or do we invest more and build a better transport network that is faster, more frequent and with more transport choices to finally get Auckland moving?”
    “To get all that, we’ll need to raise an extra $300 million a year”
    “One option is a daytime motorway charge.”
    “Or an extra 1% increase in rates, every year, plus a petrol tax.”
    “Tell us how you would move Auckland forward.”
    (Abridged transcript from VIDEO Fixing Auckland’s Transport https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DEuLN4pTPpA)

  34. Ruediger Herold July 18, 2015 at 10:09 am #

    Public swimming pools have things in common with public transport, including kind of a ridership challenge.
    When most people go there, they’re unpleasantly overcrowded. Most of the time they’re empty and wasting taxpayers’ money.
    Recently our municipal swimming pool company was trying to find out how to attract more visitors. A very good idea! But it felt like they were asking partly the wrong questions, just as in transport companies’ opinion polls.
    Another thing is that swimming pool opening hours do not necessarily correspond to bus operating hours. And pools are placed in cul-de-sacs which begin 200 meters away from a bus stop in both directions.

  35. EngineerScotty July 18, 2015 at 12:22 pm #

    Public swimming pools have things in common with public transport, including kind of a ridership challenge.
    When most people go there, they’re unpleasantly overcrowded. Most of the time they’re empty and wasting taxpayers’ money.

    And private swimming pools are like private automobiles, for analogous reasons.
    (It should be noted that around here, the municipal pools serve a variety of uses, and actually have limited hours where they are available for open swim. Much of the day, they are instead reserved for swimming classes and competitions; uses that are just as socially important as letting the public come in and cool off).

  36. EngineerScotty July 18, 2015 at 12:35 pm #

    Where we differ, is the standards on guidelines to provide a basic service to everyone.
    I don’t think we differ here, actually. The problem is environments where there isn’t enough money in the budget to even provide a basic level of service to everyone. If a transit agency can’t afford to do that, then somebody or other will be left out; how to perform this triage is the subject of much of Jarrett’s advice.
    And in such an environment, I tend to agree that preferring to serve a) dense environments, b) “transit-dependent” populations, and c) major commute nodes are the right choices. Transit agencies provide the bulk of their social value when there is actually a butt in a seat, or someone hanging from the strap (though some value is provided by mere availability of the service, even if the service isn’t used).
    (Again: This applies only to places where there isn’t enough funding to provide comprehensive service, and somebody must be left out; or else everybody gets nothing better than hourly service).
    And while “I can’t ride the bus because it doesn’t come near me” is a big problem, so is “I can’t ride the bus because the last two to come by have been too full to board”. It may strike you as a bad idea to increase service (beyond the basic level) on a corridor speculatively, while other areas receive no or token service–but I’m assuming you have no object to service increases in response to actual demand and overcrowding, even if this means some other area gets less service.

  37. P July 18, 2015 at 3:44 pm #

    Other cities have votes about transit increases – you can get either a YES or a NO returned from that. You have to provide value for money and make a convincing case that shows what is on offer really is worth paying for.
    http://www.seattle.gov/transit?utm_source=Seattle%20Met%20-PubliCola&utm_medium=banner&utm_content=300×600&utm_campaign=Prop1_Phase1
    Funding
    Seattle residents voted for better bus service when Proposition 1 was approved in November 2014. Every year for the next six years, funds from Proposition 1 will be spent on improved bus service in the city. The project is funded by a $60 vehicle licenses fee and a 0.1% sales tax increase, which went into effect in spring 2015.
    So, plan your trip today and hop aboard!”

  38. Dave July 19, 2015 at 7:17 pm #

    I kind of wonder why Michael keeps reading this blog since he believes Jarrett is ignorant/crazy/wrong in everything he writes. I usually don’t read blogs for very long when I find myself constantly frustrated with the writer’s POV. Michael – the Internet is vast, and in it, you can probably find a transit blog more to your liking. Please move on to that blog or “agree to disagree” with Jarrett and move on in your responses… Because you’re sounding like a broken record on here.

  39. Wanderer July 20, 2015 at 1:51 pm #

    No politician wants to tell their constiuents that not everybody can have a certain service. The American opposition to “rationing” medical care is a good example. Of course medical care is rationed, it’s just rationed in unplanned, covert ways (e.g. who screams the loudest).
    San Francisco is a rare example of an American city where almost every resident is within 1/4 mile of a transit stop. Of course San Francisco is small (46 square miles), dense (over 17,000 people per square mile), and affluent. By American standards San Francisco is relatively tax-friendly. These conditions don’t exist in most American cities and urban areas, except in some small core areas.
    So it’s generally a given that not everyone will get served. The question, whether it’s politic to state it or not, is who’s going to get served how. Most transit agencies see that their ridership is concentrated along certain corridors. It is indeed an issue of tradeoffs and choices.

  40. Michael July 20, 2015 at 8:06 pm #

    Dave,
    I never said that Jarrett is ignorant, crazy, or wrong.
    We are never going to fix public transit, if we do not debate, critically think, and ask questions. Jarrett, myself, and no planner has all the answers, and we should not listening to one person as if they are the official word on what is right.
    I think it is troubling that you would say we should not be debating and asking questions.
    Wanderer,
    The transit picture in the USA is never going to improve, unless funding is fixed. Funding is not going to be fixed, if leaders keep being told they can choose between ridership or coverage. American transit systems also spend significantly more resources to offer much less service than their counterparts in other countries, and this has to be addressed.
    Ridership is not concentrated in certain corridors. It is concentrated in certain corridors, because they are the only corridors getting transit service.
    The USA has a serious transit access problem, and it is not going to be fixed by choosing between ridership or coverage. The USA is probably the only country that actually has studies on how few people can access jobs via transit, as well as other services.
    Less than half of Americans have access to transit within walking distance of their homes, including in major cities. Of residents who do have transit access, they often are not served by any transit is that useful to actually getting anywhere.
    Contrast to this, with other countries:
    Canada: Over 90% of residents in urban areas are within a 5 to 10 minute walk of a transit line.
    Germany: Over 80% of the population of the entire country, including rural areas are within 1km of a transit stop.
    People can go on about density all they want. This is not the issue in the USA. The issue is transit is not being planned as a true travel option in most regions of the USA. Even in New York City transit is almost non existent in the suburbs. My friend was dating someone from Long Island for a while, and she could not believe how non of the teens there use the bus to get to the mall or to go to university or college. Of course they are not using the bus, as most don’t even have a bus within walking distance of their homes.
    Transit is never going to work in the USA if a transit rider cannot access almost all areas in a built up area. That is just a fact.
    What is next? Should we to provide police and fire protection to all areas?

  41. P July 21, 2015 at 2:43 am #

    “Funding is not going to be fixed, if leaders keep being told they can choose between ridership or coverage.”
    This is not correct. As seen in Auckland the network was changed according to ridership/coverage. AND at the same time there was a SEPARATE conversation about increasing the funding pie by $300 million through imposing a petrol tax, a motorway toll or 1% increase in rates.
    You are not going to increase the funding by advocating for more coverage if the issue is the funding pie needs to be bigger. That is a Tax Policy issue.

  42. Dave July 21, 2015 at 1:02 pm #

    Michael – But you’re not “asking questions,” you’re trying to get Jarrett to agree with you and/or admit he’s wrong/ignorant/crazy for not agreeing with you all this time. And your method of persuading him is to barrage him (in front of the rest of us) with the same question over and over again, which is always some variation of “Can you explain to me why you consider some areas to be fundamentally unserviceable if an agency seeks to maximize ridership as its one and only goal?” Your line of questioning is not wholly unlike the kid who asks “but why?” after every attempt of his/her parent to explain that something just is the way it is.
    Jarrett has already told you, here and in other postings, that he’s not going to agree with you. Whether he’s totally wrong/ignorant/crazy for not agreeing with you, it’s his blog and so he gets to dictate whose questions are worthy of responding to and whose aren’t. He’s exhibited a great deal of patience in dealing with you… if it were my blog, I’d have simply blocked you (the same way that I totally stop listening to kids when they insist on asking for the 27th time “BUT WHY?” when I’ve already told them 26 times before what I believe to be the answer they seek).
    It’s never wrong to question things. It is disrespectful (and thus wrong in my book) for anyone over the age of approx 5 to be stubborn and ask the same question over and over again, wasting everyone else’s time, when it’s evident that there is no way to satisfactorily answer your question because YOUR QUESTION IS NOT REALLY A QUESTION. It’s a veiled demand for everyone to see things exactly your way.
    It’s time for you to grow up and move onto another question.

  43. Ilya Petoushkoff July 21, 2015 at 3:36 pm #

    I think there is much sense in what Michael is saying, but it’s also absolutely true that Michael’s point ‘we need more money for more service’ absolutely cannot be set up as something contradictive to what Jarrett is putting in this particular post, and throughout the entire blog and this ridership/coverage approach.
    Moreover, I think that the Jarrett’s methodology for network optimizations within the given costs is very good, clear and, as one may notice from this particular blog, proven to be practical, being a little bit more complicated story than playing SimCity.
    Within a democratic decision making process, and this is my message to Michael, it is of utmost importance that the amount of people that would like or attempt to accuse the transportation professionals (be those accused agencies, entities, consultants, or anyone else) in wasting money would be low-to-none. In the same time, governments or advocates cannot establish a process for asking money every day. That’s why a basis should be prepared before anyone initiates a budget reshuffling campaign.
    As Michael successfully pointed out, the level of service on the transit in America is obviously incomparable to what we call ‘best practice’. But whenever you have a network that is considered (especially by the community) any useless, any attempt for just asking more money for increase of amount of service or even an investment would, in the end, be failed.
    That’s where the fixed-cost optimization approach appears to be vital for the American transit networks, and not only from economical, technical and geometrical points of view. Obviously, you cannot achieve the best network out of only this approach, but you can build a very good one instead of nearly useless one, convenienting much more people with the services, increasing the ridership, and, in general, putting the positive attitude towards transit in each taken city.
    Just it should be one step done at a time. Yep, this is a long road. The world is not perfect.

  44. Kyautowalk July 21, 2015 at 6:40 pm #

    I think that the key to getting increased transit ridership to take advantage of a full network (coverage and frequency) is to focus on what will cause sectors of the population to give up car-ownership. That is the way Uber will approach their next challenge to a city monopoly: transit. Their current taxi-like services is just their first salvo — and they are using it to learn about the “mo-mar”(mobility market).
    Jarrett is saying that you have to create a complete network that evenly delivers its service in a predictable manner, so that those living in the city can count on it to be there when they need it. People don’t expect personal service; they only want a standard met personably.
    Next, transit needs to be provided in a way that links to all the other options that don’t require using a personal/owned car. It is more than “last-mile” bicycle-sharing and walkable sidewalks and, yes, crossable transit-bearing streets. For instance, park-n-ride lots should also be “slug” centres, where people can get a ride in a person’s car to either their workplace or to another park-n-ride closer, where yet another ride is more likely to go to their ultimate destinations. Smart phones can easily to this, and Uber — or a competitor — will deliver it.

  45. Nathanael July 28, 2015 at 11:39 pm #

    I really like the old term “mass transportation”.
    “Mass transportation” is awesomely great and efficient when you have MASSES of people. It’s really expensive when you have few people.

  46. Charlotte September 17, 2015 at 6:55 am #

    Regarding the interaction among these variables, here is a recent TRB paper and there are a number of studies cited in it that have numbers across the world for these relationships:
    https://www.researchgate.net/publication/260183285_Riding_More_Frequently_Estimating_Disaggregate_Ridership_Elasticity_for_a_Large_Urban_Bus_Transit_Network

  47. Nathanael November 5, 2015 at 4:27 pm #

    Good piece, but you really should consider adding a paragraph on speed.
    Faster travel makes mass transportation *cheaper* to operate and increases ridership, as you note.
    The single most common thing slowing mass transportation down is *traffic* — cars and trucks on the roads; perhaps freight trains on the railways.
    Getting exclusive lanes / tracks and signal priority at intersections (or railroad/road crossings or railroad junctions!) *speeds mass transportation up*, and speeds it up by a *lot*, which means it makes it cheaper to operate *and* gets more riders.
    Streets & roads typically have driveways or parking off of the right lane. This means running a bus (or streetcar) in the right lane has *constant* intersections, often where it doesn’t have priority. There’s basically no way to run it at a reasonable speed, unless there is coincidentally no traffic.
    Center-lane running can eliminate large numbers of intersection conflicts and therefore speed up your bus (or streetcar), but it requires center boarding platforms. With buses this often takes up too much space to retrofit.
    With rail it’s done routinely, partly since a train can be made to sweep a narrower width than a bus, and partly because trains can have left-side doors, which allow actual center platforms to be used, which are narrower than a pair of side platform.
    Another alternative for getting speed by avoiding traffic is completely standalone (not linked to a road) busways or fully separated rail corridors; if you’re looking at these, the rail corridor is simply cheaper to build and maintain, because the buses have higher axle loads and sweep a larger width of area.
    This — speed — is one of the two things which make rail generally preferable financially for high-ridership routes.
    The other is, of course, that you can get more people per vehicle (and thus move more people for the same amount of money) by making the trains *longer*. There is a very severe, and low, limit to the ability to do this with buses, thanks to fishtailing and axle loads and so on. This is only useful if frequency is already high enough to attract lots of people, but on your high-ridership routes, it should be.
    Jarrett loves to attack people for “mode bias”, but he has shown a bad case of mode blindness in the past. If you do build a frequent network of high-ridership routes in a high-population city, you pretty quickly discover that you should have built rail.
    Of course, you can also do stupid things like Toronto did and extend subways out into cornfields.
    I guess to use Walker’s coverage v. ridership terminology (which is excellent):
    — buses are a technology which is excellent for *coverage* applications, and mediocre-to-bad for *ridership* applications.
    — trains are terrible for coverage but very good for *ridership* applications.
    Knowing what I do about the technologies, this was obvious to me, but it seems not to have been fully clear to Walker.

  48. Nathanael November 5, 2015 at 4:32 pm #

    P.S. an incidental benefit of using rail for trunk lines:
    It’s documented by survey that most people are much more comfortable with train/train transfers and train/bus transfers than with bus/bus transfers. This may partly be because trains have stations and platforms, and buses might not, but it seems to be true even when the bus facilities are grand stations. So this also increases people’s willingness to transfer and therefore increases ridership.

  49. Jerry April 12, 2016 at 4:15 pm #

    Ridership vs. Coverage does not seem be the right discussion point. They are both important and need to be optimized. Our valley is particularly stressed by increasing traffic on freeways during commute hours. This seems like it should be the key focus. Mapping routes that bring workers to jobs should be the top focus. This would require focus on coverage and ridership specifically as it works to reduce commute congestion. If our system was designed well, it would be used. The Bay Area began requiring employers to provide commuter benefits to their workers, but non-optimized transit options along with not enough support from employers has led to little increase in usage. We should focus on this!

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