how much should agencies explain their planning thoughts?

A reader recently asked the Whatcom Transportation Authority — which covers the Bellingham, Washington area — why they didn't have service to their little airport.  (Bellingham, located just below the Canadian border on Interstate 5, has been getting new nonstops to places like Las Vegas and Honolulu, as Canadian travelers demand a lower-cost alternative to their beautiful but expensive airport, Vancouver International (YVR).)

Maureen McCarthy, WTA's manager of Community Relations and Marketing, took the time to write the following email in response, which I wanted to share because it's so respectful and cogent (and also explains, once again, why transit to airports is such a difficult issue).  

Hi ____,

We’d like to offer service to the airport, as ideally all major transportation modes would be connected via transit.  A number of factors are holding us back:

  • As you probably know, our routes are built to work as a system.  In order for people to go from route to route within the system, routes need to come together, or “pulse” [link added] through our stations.  Adding the airport to Route 50 wouldn’t allow Route 50 to meet the pulse.
  • An alternative would be to serve the airport with its own route.  This is problematic because neither the current demand to the airport, nor demand to the industrial area that surrounds it would warrant  a dedicated route.

Why doesn’t the demand to the airport warrant its own route? 

  • Canadian travelers make up a large percentage of travelers in and out of Bellingham Airport.  These would not be transit users.
  • Flights before or after our regular service hours make up a significant percentage of departures/arrivals to the airport.
  • Nearly everyone would require a transfer to reach the airport.  This would not only make for a long trip, but luggage would make this inconvenient.
  • To be viable, service to the airport would have to be frequent.   Frequent service is expensive service.
  • While airport parking or  taxi rides are expensive, neither seem cost-prohibitive enough (to the average airline passenger, that is) to cause people to seek a much less convenient alternative.  For example, I regularly ride the bus to work and for other trips.  I wouldn’t take it to the airport, however.  The bus would require a transfer and I’d be relegated to the bus schedule. Cost would be $2.  For only $8 more, I can take a taxi door-to-door, exactly when I need to go.  Many, many people would be in this same boat—requiring one or even two transfers.
  • When you consider how tough it is to motivate people to take the bus for easy trips (like to their office, once per week, with no luggage, during regular hours), it feels much more daunting to get them to consider it for a trip to the airport.  Again, we perhaps solve this by offering frequent service—like every 15 minutes, from early until late, but this would be extremely costly—drawing resources away from other routes, serving people’s everyday needs.

Again, we recognize the value of linking all modes of transportation!  And perhaps now that flights from Bellingham are more affordable (it used to be more of a luxury to travel from here), there will be greater demand for this.  In the meantime, for a system of our size to be efficient, we need to focus on the everyday needs of most people.

Would be happy to discuss further if you’re still curious.  Thanks for asking!


Now, a big transit agency would need an enormous staff to do this kind of interactive feedback, but notice a few things:

  • Well-intentioned public ignorance about the basic geometry of transit service and demand is nearly universal, so there is an intense need for people to hear cogent and reasonable replies to their complaints.  These explanations both convey useful education and also make it harder for the complainant to decide that the agency is just stonewalling.
  • Not all agencies have someone like Maureen.  Note that although her title is Manager of Communications and Marketing, she clearly understands transit planning.  As a result, when she receives an intelligent question, she can give an intelligent response.  Unfortunately, I've met many people in the Communications/Marketing role in transit agencies who do not have this skill or training, and have not thought about the importance of communicating planning ideas.  In fact, mutual incomprehension between the planning and marketing worlds is a major source of frustration inside many transit agencies, though by no means all.
  • Fortunately, a great deal of this kind of communication could be automated.  Giant transit agencies are unlikely to employ vast sweatshops of Maureens to knock out such emails on a big-city scale, but they could publish more extensive documents with pre-prepared explanations just like the one above.  After all, Maureen's explanation is perfectly appropriate to anyone who asks the very-common question about why transit to the airport isn't better than it is.  So put that on a FAQ list on the website, offer this explanation, and share links to that page when someone asks you that question.  It doesn't need to take much staff time.  See the TransLink (metro Vancouver) Network Planning Primer as one example.  (And yes, I can help your transit agency write exactly what's needed, in an appropriate voice.)

How would your transit agency perform when asked a question like this one?  (Remember, phrase it as a question rather than a complaint, and don't express anger as you're asking the question.)  Even if the answer is automated, ask: Did I get a coherent answer to my question?  

These days, you can quickly identify customer-hating corporations because they respond to your questions with automated emails that prove to you that nobody read your question.   They brush you off with banalities and ignore what you actually asked. When United Airlines or AT&T talk like this — and they do it routinely — they're saying: "We're too big to care, we know that you're stuck with us, and it's easier for us to pretend that you're a credulous moron than to take the trouble of reading what you wrote."    

Transit agencies can't afford to take this view, especially when they get an intelligent inquiry.  United and AT&T may have accurately decided that their customers are stuck with them, but despite all the confusing talk about "transit dependent" riders, transit agencies should never assume that riders are stuck with them.  Even if some are, the frontier of the battle between transit and the car lies in the hearts of people who are open to transit and have good reasons to use it, but who are very much not stuck, and won't have any patience for an agency that assumes they are.  

That's why clear explanations of how transit agencies think is so urgently needed, right there on the website, and it's why a lot of my own work, including my entire book, is about filling this void.  The forthcoming CNU Transportation Summit in Long Beach, by the way, will be working on this very question.  It might be an exciting thing to attend.  

17 Responses to how much should agencies explain their planning thoughts?

  1. anonymouse August 20, 2012 at 2:46 pm #

    I would venture that “mutual incomprehension between the [actual work] and marketing worlds is a major source of frustration” not just inside transit agencies but many companies in general. At least, I know that that’s occasionally been the case everywhere I’ve worked.

  2. EngineerScotty August 20, 2012 at 3:25 pm #

    I’m assuming that airport workers wouldn’t justify demand for a transit link–often times it’s the staff rather than air passengers who justify a transit link. This is particularly true of a small auto-centric city like Bellingham.

  3. Eugene Wong August 20, 2012 at 5:33 pm #

    No comments yet? Wow…
    It’s interesting that you mentioned Translink. I’ve communicated with them on several occasions and spoke to fellow riders about realigning the #326 away from 140 St. This would give longer crosstown bus service, and would free up space on the #321. Translink never gave me a satisfactory answer.
    Maureen’s answer above would be mostly satisfactory to me, because she strongly implies that she thought about the numbers.
    I think that the lesson here is to try to justify it in terms of a cost-benefit analysis, when saying “No!!”.
    Also, it is interesting that your example speaks of a *new*, instead of what I want: a route realignment. I can understand Translink’s need to speak to the public, before realigning a route, but I felt that I covered Translink’s objections, in my own research and proposal. 140 St is not a major destination, and it already is serviced by another route with more consistent frequency.

  4. Tom West August 21, 2012 at 6:56 am #

    “… they respond to your questions with automated emails that prove to you that nobody read your question.”
    That is the the most annoying thing to me. Not the “we didn’t quite understand your question” but “we saw two key-words in your question, and here’s a stock response”.
    I remember sending an email asking why service on a route was so frequent (every 4 minutes) in the day when the buses were 75% empty. I got back an email explaining why they didn’t operate a higher frequency…

  5. Joseph Alacchi August 21, 2012 at 7:11 am #

    Do not get me started on the marketing department at my local agency!

  6. Neil August 21, 2012 at 7:35 am #

    It’s a good response, and the kind that I would have appreciated getting from my own transit agency. Mostly, when I ask a legitimate question (why do all 6 different routes that pass through my central neighbourhood come at the same time with 15 to 20 minute gaps between service?), I get snark about how transit planning is hard and it’s not all about me.
    I suspect the answer has something to do with this “pulsing” thing, and perhaps a respectful answer along these lines would still make me prefer to avoid transit when the weather is pleasant for biking, but would at least leave me not angry with the people running the system.
    One thing I was wondering though was the repeated justification that the existence of a transfer means the service won’t be used. My understanding from reading your blog is that whether changing routes is a problem or not depends a great deal on how frequently those routes run, which isn’t addressed.
    Where I live, we finally got airport service last year, after decades of being the largest city in Canada without airport transit. Of course, the taxi alternative was typically $60 instead of $10, so there’s substantially more cash savings to having a bus option available than in Bellingham.

  7. Abram August 21, 2012 at 4:12 pm #

    Houston has useful and frequent bus service to both airports, which I’ve used on many occasions. Their secret lies in understanding the target market.
    The 102, to Intercontinental, runs express most of the way there, but spends the last few miles winding through various garden apartment complexes, including an easy connection with other local routes at Greenspoint. This makes it exceedingly useful for people who work at the airport, as well as people who work downtown and live in the Greenspoint area. There is an almost complete changeover of ridership between Greenspoint and IAH, with perhaps 3-5 people per bus riding the full distance from IAH to Downtown.
    The 88, to Hobby, runs express from Downtown to the UH, local through campus, express to Gulfgate, then local again through several miles of garden apartment complexes to the airport. So again, you’ve got Downtown-Gulfgate trips, and local airport worker trips, with the addition of University-Downtown trips – and that’s not considering the extension to Sagemont.
    Service to an airport as small as Bellingham’s is stymied by the fact that the small town airport isn’t the same sort of employment center as a big city airport is. But the basic methodology is sound – design an airport route that’s useful for the workers and the budget-conscious air travelers will follow.

  8. Murray August 21, 2012 at 10:50 pm #

    Such a well-reasoned and written letter. Having worked in a government transport department (albeit working in the cycling area) I can’t imagine being able to send something like that out without it being translated into meaningless corporate speak.

  9. Paul K McGregor August 22, 2012 at 8:07 pm #

    So many topics to discuss so let me jump right in.
    First, the answer to your question that you posed is that I as a staff planner I fielded a lot of service suggestions and had to provide responses to them. Most times the response that would be provided would be that we don’t have resources available to provide the service and/or there isn’t sufficient demand to justify the cost of providing the service. In a bigger, regional transit agency where you get a large volume of “suggestions”, sometimes this response is all you have time to provide.
    For smaller agencies, you can get into more detail. The only peeve I have with the response is instead of saying that the pulse could not be maintained, it would’ve been more appropriate to respond by saying that in order to maintain the pulse, we would have to add additional buses to the route which we do not have available at this time. It is always important to provide a reason for saying no and hopefully it would help people understand the reason behind saying no.
    Finally, just a brief word about providing transit service to airports, which could be the subject of another post. I’ve had the opportunity to look at airport services in major metropolitan areas like Dallas and Houston as well as intermediate cities like Austin. Smaller airports like Bellingham would probably not be good candidates for transit service but larger airports would certainly need them. It is interesting to note here in Salt Lake City, the current bus route to the airport operates every 30 minutes directly from downtown to the airport. They will open a light rail line next year that will operate every 15 minutes, a dramatic increase in transit service to the airport that extends beyond just serving employees. Let’s hope it will draw more users that just employees.

  10. calwatch August 22, 2012 at 10:40 pm #

    In Bellingham’s case, there are actually buses on I-5 from Blaine to Bellingham that could pull off the freeway and serve passengers. They are fairly infrequent but would provide some sort of lifeline service. The probable issue is that the dogleg from getting off the freeway to the terminal is too time consuming, even though the terminal is visible right from the freeway.

  11. Quasimodal August 23, 2012 at 8:21 pm #

    At a large urban transit agency I worked at, I was piqued – not to find that thoughtful responses weren’t written, but to find that once written they were not delivered back to the customer unless the customer called again to request them. The performance metric seemed to be that comments and complaints have responses entered in the system in a timely manner, regardless of whether anything was ever done with those comments.
    It was galling in two respects. The obvious one is that customers never knew how much care was taken to develop a thoughtful response to their concern, and instead had their suspicions confirmed that the big bureaucracy is impenetrable an uncaring. The other reason it’s galling is that it failed to use one of the richest sources of customer feedback to make change. The waste of a planner’s time writing a careful explanation that would not be read is the least concern, but ridiculous still.
    I wish there was also a review process of comments and complaints to ask whether there is an action possible to address them. Usually the planner’s response is limited to an explanation of policy or resource limits, regardless of whether the comment has merit. That’s because responders aren’t asked to recommend changes in policy; only to state the agency’s position. But couldn’t comments and complaints be mined as a resource through a more challenging review process to resolve issues that are important enough for someone to go out of their way to comment about? Shouldn’t there be a step in the comment response process where the responder is challenged to consider whether a change might actually be warranted? That’s what motivates commenters to write, not the tying up of a planner’s time explaining company policy.

  12. Eric August 23, 2012 at 11:15 pm #

    One interesting approach to serving airports that I would like to see tried more is to arrange things so that the same buses that serve park-and-ride commuter markets can also facilitate trips to and from the airport.
    The way this would be implemented is very simple. Lots of cities locate their airports at the edge of town. Which means lots of people living near the airport who want to drive somewhere close by to catch a bus going downtown.
    Now, suppose that instead of building one parking area for long-term airport parking, then building another parking area a couple miles away for commuter parking, we built one parking area to serve both airport travelers and transit customers. (The parking rates would be structured so that the first 24 hours would be substantially cheaper than each additional 24 hours so that price would not be a deterrent for commuters).
    Now, the commuter express bus you have to run anyway for the commuter market and the 5-minute-headway terminal->parking lot shuttle you have to run anyway for the airport parkers can combine to provide a fast, two-seat ride between the airport and downtown at virtually no additional cost.
    Even if the downtown express bus runs only during rush hour, it’s still a whole lot better than nothing. It is possible to plan plane trips to depart or arrive during rush hour to align with the bus. And when a plane that’s supposed to arrive during rush hour actually lands 3 hours late, forcing you to miss the last bus, as long as there are taxis running, one way or another, you will still get home.

  13. Keep Houston Houston August 24, 2012 at 10:16 pm #

    The problem with a unified parking garage is that airports handle huge mass of pickup and dropoff traffic and if the short-term parking is priced too low then you’re building a lot of excess capacity for people who could’ve otherwise just rolled up to the curb.
    Seattle in the pre-Light Rail era used to route a lot of the southern express routes through SeaTac, you might have a bus that runs up I-5 from 348th to 188th, goes through the airport, then heads downtown on 509. But this requires that your airport access road complex isn’t a stub terminal a la O’Hare.

  14. Nathanael August 26, 2012 at 1:04 pm #

    I got a very polite, if frustrated, response to my complaint about online information, which said that they don’t have an IT department or even an IT guy, and that scheduling was done by untrained, jumped-up bus drivers.
    I consider that a fair response, although it does show that they have some very serious problems!

  15. sar July 4, 2014 at 9:26 am #


  16. Haakenson Viera July 11, 2014 at 8:39 am #

    It is all the responsibility of every transit agency to answer to any questions raised by the passengers with regard to the inconvenience of their services. It is a big challenge for them to be realistic in facing those questions and answer them politely to be more transparent in running their business. I hope that every agency particularly in transportation can now provide a good and quality services to the people so there will be no questions to raise like this from the passengers.

  17. Andrew Paul | Airport ASAP April 11, 2018 at 7:58 pm #

    This is one well elaborated and descriptive write-up. Here, the WTA’s manager of community relations has touched upon every key point to put across the difficulties they face in offering transit to airport. It’s clear, comprehensible and logical to the core.