how do you compare to your peers? should you care?

Admit it:  You've always cared, at least in secret, about how you compare to your peers: your friends, your fellow students, your graduating class, your co-workers, your generation.  Well, deep down, transit authorities and city governments care too, which is why comparing a city to other similar cities always gets attention.

Sometimes peer comparisons cause complacency, especially if you choose the wrong peers.  Wellington has the highest transit mode share in New Zealand, but in a country with only one other big, dense city, that obviously shouldn't imply that it's reached nirvana.  Working in greater Vancouver I always have to emphasize that they are doing so well by North American standards that they have to start comparing themselves to European port cities in their size class (Glasgow, Edinburgh, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Marseilles).  My general advice: If your peer comparison says you're wonderful, throw a party and revel in this for 48 hours, then look for a more motivating group of peers. 

At the other extreme, nothing is more motivating than being told that you're dead last among your peers.  Earlier this year I worked (through my Australian employer MRCagney under the leadership of Ian Wallis Associates) on a peer comparison study for Auckland, New Zealand, which compared Auckland's transit performance with all the five biggest Australian cities plus a selection of North American ones.  Download the full report here.  Remember, if you're in any of the peer cities that it uses (Wellington, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, Sydney, Melbourne, Edmonton, Ottawa, Calgary, Vancouver, Honolulu, Portland, Seattle) this is your peer study too!  Just keep the tables and refocus the text (citing the source of course!).

More generally, the report is a good illustration of how peer comparison can work at its best, and also of the cautions that must be shouted from the sidelines once the conclusions take fire in the media, as they certainly have in Auckland.  From yesterday's New Zealand Herald:

Consultants have ranked Auckland last out of 14 cities – in New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the United States – included in a benchmark study for the average number of public transport trips taken annually by its residents.

Aucklanders also pay the highest fares of any of the cities, amounting to 24c for every kilometre travelled on the average 44 public transport trips they take each year, compared with 17c in Wellington.

The rest of the article is further grim statistics, plus quotations from political leaders demanding that something be done. 

I'm  sympathetic to Auckland Transport in this case.  Remember, a city's transit performance is mostly about the physical layout of the city and the constraints on other modes; the quality of the transit system by itself can't overcome problems in those areas.  The nature of the economy also matters.  Wellington is much smaller but it has much more severe chokepoints in its urban structure.  In fact, all travel between the northern and southern parts of the city must go through a single chokepoint less than 1 km wide, which is also the (very dense) downtown.  Wellington's economy is dominated by government, which is generally a sector disposed to use transit heavily. All of these features are hugely important in driving Wellington's mode share above Auckland's, and yet they don't include anything about the respective quality of the transit systems. 

Peer comparisons also carry the false assumption that everyone wants to be the same kind of city, and is therefore working to the same kind of goals.  (This attitude, taken to extreme, produces the absurdity of top ten "best cities for transit" lists.)  Low mode share for transit may mean your transit system is failing, but it may mean that it's not trying for mode share, or at least that it has other objectives or constraints that prevent it from focusing on that goal.  It may just mean that your city has different values.  It may mean the city stikes a different balance between cycling, transit, and walking based on its own geography.

Still, service quality matters, and there's a lot that Auckland can do.  I hope the city's opinion leaders are listening to Auckland Transport as well as berating it, so that they understand the real choices that must be made to move Auckland forward.  If there's a real conversation, great things can be accomplished. 

17 Responses to how do you compare to your peers? should you care?

  1. Tom West October 11, 2011 at 12:30 pm #

    My professional work often results in me doing peer reviews – and we often get client comments about how their city/town isn’t like the ones that are ranked better on the list for some reason….

  2. Joshua October 11, 2011 at 1:08 pm #

    As a public transport advocate in Auckland, studies like these are really useful. Not just to hammer home the message about how badly we’re doing but also to provide useful guidance in relation to how we can do better – often through measures that aren’t particularly expensive. It’s particularly useful to know which particular policy interventions have helped certain cities come up with really strong patronage statistics, or really low comparative operating costs.
    It would however be potentially even more useful for studies like this to go to the next level and start looking at the issue of “what does this actually mean for the city?” Per capita annual trips is a really good measure of a system’s quality, but what does that mean for the city?
    For example, we know from this study that Ottawa has 168 trips per capita a year, compared to Auckland’s 44. What does this mean for Ottawa? Do residents spend far less of their money on transport, enabling a higher quality of living? Is much less of the city given over to providing road-space, allowing for greater development densities? Does the city have a more thriving and vibrant downtown – leading to better economic productivity? Does it have lower greenhouse gas emissions per capita? Has it been able to get away with spending far less on expensive road-based transport infrastructure over the past few decades? And so forth.
    Getting back to this study, I think it’s useful to point out that Auckland Transport has only existed since November last year, while the problems the study highlights are perhaps more than anything else the result of an extremely car-focused transport policy from 1955 onwards. Which has only recently started to change (yet still only locally, central government in NZ continues to spend vastly more on highways than on public transport).

  3. Alon Levy October 11, 2011 at 5:20 pm #

    Relatively nitpicky question: where did they get their Australian journey-to-work mode share numbers from? The US and Canadian numbers are in line with official numbers, but the ABS numbers I’ve seen are self-contradictory and in all cases give higher figures for Sydney (e.g. here).

  4. Brent Palmer October 11, 2011 at 5:50 pm #

    @Alon Levy: “The ABS numbers I’ve seen are self-contradictory and in all cases give higher figures for Sydney”
    That may be due to the Sydney Statistical Division including low-density areas further afield, such as the Blue Mountains and Central Coast.

  5. Brent Palmer October 11, 2011 at 5:53 pm #

    Whoops, on second thoughts, that would result in *lower* figures for Sydney. My bad.

  6. Alon Levy October 11, 2011 at 7:08 pm #

    The report mentions in footnote #8 that the journey-to-work numbers are based on the Sydney Statistical Division, same as the ABS.

  7. Alan Howes October 12, 2011 at 5:30 am #

    An interesting and well-constructed report – thanks, Jarrett. It even tries to make clear whether its mode-share figures realate to all modes, or motorised modes only (which many studies fail to do).
    That figure of annual PT trips per capita is indeed a useful bench-mark. Surprisingly, Hong Kong only (seems to) achieve 383 on this measure – exceeded by London (424), Glasgow (452) and Tokyo (467) – New York only manages 287, and Paris 253. Edinburgh manages 230 on buses alone, though Edinburgh doesn’t have much else.
    (Figures from multiple sources, not guaranteed!)

  8. Tom West October 12, 2011 at 6:48 am #

    ON transit trips per capita… you can get problems where the users of a transit system come from outside the area served by that system. A lot of people using London’s transit network have commuted in from outside of London.
    A better measure would be the transit rides by residents per capita (although this is much harder to measure).

  9. Alon Levy October 12, 2011 at 5:16 pm #

    Alan: this is where you’re getting into problems involving comparability, especially when transfers are involved. For example, we know the transit trip-to-work mode shares in both Greater New York and Greater Paris, and Paris has the higher share (42% in Ile-de-France vs. 27% in New York’s CSA). Greater London, i.e. the city proper excluding some suburbs, has a 40% share if I remember correctly; most likely, the high number of trips per capita comes from counting people who change between different modes multiple times.

  10. Rob October 12, 2011 at 7:11 pm #

    It seems to me that an industry group like APTA would need to become involved in peer reviewing for it to be meaningful. While it’s possible to produce statistics from peer agencies, what’s more useful is a discussion of the factors that differ between agencies, and no single agency is in a position to assess those factors or to understand the different ways that data are interpreted at each agency. Every agency can produce a statistic with a name, but that doesn’t mean they all have the same understanding of what that statistic means. If peer reviews are important, then more time is needed for interpretation than any single agency can afford.

  11. Zoltán October 13, 2011 at 4:58 am #

    @Alon Levy
    I think you’re almost certainly right that this is a factor in very high shares in British Cities, where free transfers are the exception, not the norm – so most of the time there is no way of knowing if a trip on a vehicle is a discrete trip or part of a transfer trip.

  12. Alan Howes October 13, 2011 at 7:46 am #

    Oh yes, there will be all sorts of problems with those figures I quoted, transfers being just one. Though in London’s case, most transit riders are on Oyster Cards – but I still don’t know whether the trip totals are linked or unlinked (and I have not the time to check back!).
    I have never come across a transit statistic yet that can’t be questioned in some way. And remember that the UK has universal free bus travel for seniors, which increaes ridership markedly (through no positive action by the transit agencies and operators themselves).

  13. Richard Campbell October 13, 2011 at 1:25 pm #

    Too bad they focused on trips per capita instead of passenger km per capita and the km/trip. For short trips, people have many options including walking, cycling, bike sharing, electric scooters. For long trips, there are two realistic options, driving and transit. Not too much point in investing a lot in transit that gets people off their bikes and off their feet as much as it gets people out of their cars.
    Replacing long car trips also reduces the demand for road space much more than replacing shorter trips thus the road space can be repurposed for bus lanes, bike lanes and wider sidewalks.
    Also, especially for the short term, low speed, limited range electric vehicles are far more practical and affordable than electric cars built for longer, higher speed trips.

  14. In Brisbane October 14, 2011 at 3:54 am #

    Didn’t Auckland used to have decent patronage on par with Toronto pre-1955??

  15. Andrew October 14, 2011 at 8:18 pm #

    Marseille has a terrible transit system by European standards, most of its bus network shuts down at 9pm and the subway shuts down at 10:30pm (used to be 9pm). Vancouver is much better in this regard. Also Marseille transit goes on strike a lot more often. Also, Marseille has a lot of suburbs/satellite cities (Vitrolles, Aix en Provence, Aubagne etc.) which are not very well served by transit, and are connected to Marseille by a crummy commuter rail system (TER).

  16. Alon Levy October 15, 2011 at 7:41 am #

    Richard: no, on the contrary. If the average transit trip is long, it means that people are still living in low-density exurbs. All first-world transit competes with cars; if the trips are short, it means that long-term TOD is such that people live closer to where they work.

  17. JJJJ October 22, 2011 at 5:16 pm #

    I dislike when people use peers to warrant lowered standards. Its like a race to the bottom.
    “MBTA proposes raising fares”
    Justification: MBTA charges $1.70 vs $2.25 in NYC, clearly Boston is too cheap.
    I see this a lot. Ever thought that
    a) Service is not comparable
    b) NYC is….too expensive?
    Again, same with 24 hour service
    “Why should we offer 24 hour service when almost no one else does? ”
    Just because everyone else sucks, doesnt mean you should suck too.