Does the Ridership-Coverage Question Apply to Bikes?

For over a decade, I've been encouraging transit agencies to be clear about how they balance the contradictory goals of ridership (as many customers as possible for the fixed operating budget) or coverage (some transit service everywhere, responding to needs rather than to demand).  I lay out the tradeoff in the opening part of this explainer.  

Michael Anderson, the editor of the excellent blog Bike Portland, has a very thoughtful article exploring how, and whether, this paradigm applies to cycling infrastructure.  Disclosure: It would be fascinating even if they hadn't interviewed Michelle Poyourow, a bike-and-transit planner who's also a Senior Associate at our firm.  (Did you know, btw, that we're hiring?)

Really, if you care about cycling, read Michael's piece.  It's a great piece of writing, one that I'm still thinking about.

11 Responses to Does the Ridership-Coverage Question Apply to Bikes?

  1. Morgan Wick August 21, 2015 at 3:42 pm #

    Eh, bike lanes are something more akin to roads than transit lines, although there is the additional complication of needing to build a critical mass of biking that can create more momentum for more bike infrastructure. Bike-share might benefit more from considering the ridership-coverage question, but even there there are significant differences, since people can take bikes wherever they want that you might have a bike-share station.

  2. Michael August 22, 2015 at 5:55 am #

    With all due respect Jarrett, this ridership-coverage theme is just starting to get ridiculous.
    The ridership – coverage debate is not the panacea in transit planning to building a good transit network. And it is not the way to plan a bike network either. Sometimes you can push one idea a little too much.
    Often you do not create demand until you actually provide the infrastructure or service.
    A great example is my suburban neighborhood. You almost never really saw people on bikes.
    The government built a exclusive bike highway (as well as pedestrian path) through open fields that cross the entire suburb. This was in addition to bike lanes (on regular suburban roads which never had them before). And the result? You see people biking all the time. The demand came out of nowhere.
    Transit and biking infrastructure are both inadequate in most North American cities. You need plans to bring both to everyone. This idea to just red line entire areas of cities as never being able to support anything other than driving is really troubling.

  3. Al Dimond August 22, 2015 at 3:27 pm #

    There are some pretty big differences between how the coverage-ridership question works in transit and biking:
    – Bike planning is more advocate-driven. Even when transit planning exercises are held in public (and even in cities, like those in the PNW, where a lot of laypeople follow transit planning), agency planners are almost always the most knowledgeable people in the room; they drive the conversation because they’re qualified to do so. On the other hand, planners, individually and institutionally, are shockingly ignorant cycling, far less knowledgeable than daily bike commuters (even in places like the PNW where governments are generally supportive of cycling), and rarely show much motivation to improve things unless pressured. Essentially every official government document on transportation cycling in the United States, from city plans to state laws and federal design guidance, was written by people with less knowledge of and concern for transportation cycling than myself — and I’m a pretty average daily bike commuter (for the US).
    – The financial cost of expanding bike network coverage can be very small. Sometimes it costs literally nothing to simply paint lane lines differently after a paving project, and in some cases this actually results in decent bike routes (especially if there aren’t many driveways). Beyond even these cases, bike network improvements regularly come cheaply with other necessary projects, sometimes due to activist pressure. Even when there’s not much ridership potential a cheap and opportunistic project doesn’t have much impact on the city’s ability to fund high-ridership projects. The biggest obstacle to coverage in transit networks is limited funding and a reasonable desire to spend that money where it will be useful to the most people. The biggest obstacle to extending coverage in bike networks is often bike-hostile locals.
    – The transit agency typically gets an operating budget and then has to make area-by-area tradeoffs within that. The presence of bike infrastructure is often determined before budgets are set, or as part of tradeoffs for costs or space usage on a particular street. In Seattle we don’t hear, “You get the Northgate Ped-Bridge, a Portage Bay Bridge bike path, or a downtown cycletrack network.” Instead we fight to get the transit agency to build our thing at Northgate, fight to get the state to build our thing in Portage Bay, and fight to get the city to build our thing downtown — in every project we fight to increase our slice of the funding and the road space. These are more like the fights to get bus lanes or TSP. Even if, like it seems in Portland, there’s a set budget for bike improvements that requires prioritization, a lot of really important stuff takes places outside of that framework. That means advocates get to be on the same side a lot of the time, which is pretty important in an arena where advocates are more knowledgeable and committed than officials.

  4. Jim August 24, 2015 at 9:14 am #

    In transit, there is no productivity-coverage debate. It’s sustainability vs unsustainable urban sprawl. Many transit agencies are discovering costs rising and coverage is unsustainable. And why should transit or bike planners promote urban sprawl? Why provide commuter service to middle class whites in the suburbs and exurbs at the expense of poor minorities closer to downtown? Why give wealthy people who are promoting urban sprawl in the suburbs bike lanes so their lazy big a**es can get some nice exercise at the expense of more poor people getting killed downtown because of inadequate bike lanes that are not separated from traffic and poorly designed intersections putting bikes in danger of red-light running 2-ton killing machines? There is much more to be spent on bicycle amenities downtown before you should even think about building exercise lanes for well-to-do urban sprawl problem makers who will use these lanes significantly less than their poorer counterparts. Transit needs to fix their model as well as bike planners. I am getting so sick and tired of middle class planners spending so much time and tax money trying to solve middle class problems at the expense of both poor people’s safety and transportation accessibility, even worse rewarding middle class people for moving out in the suburbs and exurbs and providing them any type of taxpayer amenities. They don’t even pay their fair share of municipal services and now they get bike lanes, bike highways, and commuter bus service. Wonderful, how about you get them tax rebates while you’re at it.

  5. EngineerScotty August 24, 2015 at 3:11 pm #

    @Jim,
    Your analysis is backwards when it comes to Portland.
    Downtown and close-in, where the bike infrastructure is already quite good, is generally populated by middle-class residents and above. Other than downtown’s homeless population, most of the Portland area’s working class and working poor has been slowly shoved out to outside the core–specifically to East Portland (within the city limits, but east of Interstate 205), as well as to various suburban municipalities and unincorporated areas.
    The “coverage” areas that the City of Portland is considering here, are places where the poor are living, and where the infrastructure (bike, sidewalks, and streets) is frequently substandard.
    This is not an instance of building bike lanes that go nowhere for yuppies to exercise on.
    Also, note that this is a City of Portland project. The City of Portland is not going to be spending money to build bike lanes in Hillsboro, Gresham, Oregon City, or Vancouver, WA, in any case.

  6. Michael August 24, 2015 at 4:51 pm #

    @Jim,
    Bicycle commuters tend to usually have higher incomes, and be in the middle to upper middle class and higher segments of society.
    The same is true in most world cities (other than the USA) when it comes to transit. Recent studies in Australia and Toronto have found that transit commuters tend to come from higher income households and have higher wages.
    Residents in lower wage jobs tend to drive to work more than higher income residents.
    And this makes sense. Lower wage jobs tend to be in the suburbs, where transit service is not providing enough coverage or service levels.
    Same goes with cycling. People are not riding their bike to suburban industrial parks.
    Of course, more would bike, if infrastructure was built to allow for safe cycling.
    We also need to get off the idea of pitting different segments of society against each other.
    You may not like the suburbs. But even if we changed all our development tomorrow, we would still have suburbs. It is better to spend energy on coming up with solutions to the transportation puzzle, than leaving these places reliant on nothing but the car.
    I am so glad I got to grow up in a suburb that was provided with outstanding transit, and now cycle infrastructure. It has allowed me and hundreds of thousands of others to live a car free or car lite lifestyle.

  7. Brent August 24, 2015 at 6:36 pm #

    Al Dimond hits one side of the coin, being that the bike lanes, unlike transit, often have a low implementation cost for “coverage” areas. The flip side, though, is the cost in terms of road space and the related cost in political support. If you have a road network where space is at a premium, it is difficult to galvanize public and political support for a coverage type route. Instead of seeing the cost of running empty buses, opponents see the lost automobile capacity that only sees infrequent bike use.
    If this is the same Michael and same city that I am thinking of, the same city that he cites as implementing bike lanes on suburban arterials where none had previously been before, ended up repainting them (or at least some) in their previous configuration a couple of years later after public and political outcry over perceived auto congestion and bike lane underuse. (This for a fairly conventional road diet from four lanes to two plus left turns plus bikes.)
    It might be closer to public outcry over perceived underused bus or HOV lanes, which I know Jarret has written about in the past.

  8. EngineerScotty August 24, 2015 at 6:45 pm #

    If this is the same Michael and same city that I am thinking of, the same city that he cites as implementing bike lanes on suburban arterials where none had previously been before, ended up repainting them (or at least some) in their previous configuration a couple of years later after public and political outcry over perceived auto congestion and bike lane underuse. (This for a fairly conventional road diet from four lanes to two plus left turns plus bikes.)
    That would be unfortunate, for many reasons–both because of the loss of bike lanes, and because the four-lane-no-left-turn refuge promotes all sorts of unsafe passing and weaving behavior, as leadfoots view these as highways (whether designed as such or not). In additionally, passing left-turning cars on the right, right-turning cars on the left, ad naseum makes such roads especially dangerous for pedestrians.
    (At Portland Transport, we get occasional complaints about such a road diet on SE Tacoma Street… which fortunately is NOT going away anytime soon…)

  9. Alex Bailey August 26, 2015 at 3:42 pm #

    While useful for the provision of basic service, I think the coverage vs. ridership paradigm creates a blind spot about the way that capital works in transportation. Critically, because local roads already exist for local buses and bicycles, capital expenditures are generally about enhancing existing service, not providing some service where none existed before.* But, unlike coverage service, which necessarily must be located in the neighborhood it intends to cover to achieve its goal, the best capital projects for a neighborhood may or may not be projects actually located in (or “covering”) that neighborhood. Locals are often better off with a capital project that improves a connecting bus service or the bicycle infrastructure at an important dangerous area 2 miles away than with concrete in their own neighborhood. This is because transportation is about origin-destination pairs, not just origins.
    More importantly in aggregate the relative benefits of focusing on centrally located ridership maximizing capital projects becomes clear. Focusing capital on areas that lots of people want to access, including a few folks from each outlying area, will generally have more net benefit for all low ridership areas than distributing capital such that each far away area gets a little bit of paint and concrete in their neighborhood that helps them but nobody else. In this way, providing capital coverage to all those outlying areas can be worse for those outlying areas than the counter-factual of heavier, ridership maximizing central city investment. Thus, while equity should matter, a notion of coverage for capital projects is generally misleading about how capital can actually improves equity for outlying areas.
    *Of course there are exceptions where bicycling is so dangerous in an area that capital expenditure is a coverage issue. But determining where that line is for biking is harder than with the provision of transit service, and coverage remains misleading about how capital generally improves transportation.

  10. Robert Wightman September 7, 2015 at 3:10 pm #

    When bicycles become a major component of public transport their carriage on buses or trains will be forbidden as there will be too many of them. Any major city in Europe with a large bicycling community does not allow them. However I saw a lot of foldable scooters carried by people in suits who unfolded them when the got off the train, tram or bus and scooted their way through the city. That is the future for the “Last Mile.” They are much easier to carry than a bike.

  11. Michael Andersen October 14, 2015 at 7:37 pm #

    Hey, somehow I just saw this — thanks for the nice words, Jarrett (and sorry for getting your title wrong, Michelle).
    @Michael, it’s not true that bike commuters tend to have higher incomes than the average commuter — not true in the Portland metro, at least, and not true nationally. They’re richer on average than transit and foot commuters (nationally, at least).
    Some good points made above; I especially appreciate Al’s point that the limiting factor on most bike stuff isn’t money. But that’s changing! The physically separated bike infrastructure required to get biking beyond the 10% mode-share barrier in the leading cities is a lot less cheap than paint.
    In any case I agree that proposed bike infrastructure is more complicated to psychoanalyze than proposed bus lines. But here’s the basic fact of the matter: in Portland, at least, we are constantly returning to the question of whether bike network improvements should be maximizing ridership or coverage. Jarrett’s insight is that it’s useful to face that choice rather than trying to shove it aside and spending your whole life having proxy battles about it.

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