guest post: a leading transit manager on the ridership-coverage trade-off

This guest post is by Ron Kilcoyne, is the General Manager of Lane Transit District, which serves the Eugene-Springfield area in Oregon.  He is formerly the General Manager/CEO of Greater Bridgeport Transit in Bridgeport, Connecticut and of Santa Clarita Transit north of Los Angeles.  For many years he was manager of research and planning for AC Transit in Oakland, California.  The views expressed are his own and not those of his agency.

In a guest post last March, Alexis Grant responded to a Transport Politic
by Yonah Freemark which postulated that less affluent regions had less service
per capita than higher income regions. Ms. Grant questioned whether federal
transit funding should be used to “redistribute wealth” in the allocation of
transit service and questioned Mr. Freemark’ s use of the term “vital social
service.” More recently Jarrett Walker talked about the tension between
maximizing coverage or maximizing ridership. Ms. Grant drew the conclusion that
Mr. Freemark's focus on social service is akin to one of the goals of transit-

Reading this essay made me question the premise I have
worked under and impressed upon many people I mentored over the years – no one
is transit dependent and transit should be positioned as, and needs to be, an attractive
alternative. These views have often been considered elitist and condescending.
So let me explain how I got to them, what they really mean, why they still are
my guiding philosophy even after soul searching and how to apply in the real
world of limitations.

There were two events that greatly influenced me early in my
career. When I was a planner at AC Transit in the early 80‘s the District
proposed to restrict transfer usage. At the time transfers were free and there
was no limitation on how many times they could be used during the time limit on
them. A large number of riders were using 3 buses to reach their destination;
the proposal was to limit transfer use to the second bus only. There was a
large turnout at the public hearing with customers explaining how they needed 3
buses to get to work, school or medical appointments. When talking with my boss
the next day – a person not prone to condescension; he stated that “no one was
forcing them to take three buses” My reaction was “Huh?” Why would anyone take
thee buses if they didn’t have to?

The other event was a few years later when I was reading an
interview with a Canadian Transit official. He was asked why per capita transit
usage is three times that of the United States when economically and culturally
the two countries are very similar. His answer was that in the US transit is positioned
as a social service while in Canada transit is positioned as an alternative. This
uh huh moment brought me back to what my boss said a few years earlier. While
we may not do this intentionally, focusing on the transit dependent creates a
mindset that because they are transit dependent they will accept whatever crap
we offer.

No one is truly transit dependent. After all transit service
is not available 24/7 to all possible destinations and about half the
population has no access to transit. Individuals who don’t possess a driver’s license
and/or don’t have access to an auto may have limited choices but they have
choices. They can obtain a ride with a family member, friend or co-worker; take
a cab; walk; bike or stay home. Some of these choices may be poor choices (cabs
are expensive and staying home when wants or needs to be somewhere else may not
be considered a choice) but if transit service is non-existent or a hassle to
use that may be what the person chooses. 

The concept of positioning transit as an attractive
alternative does two things. It creates a positive image of transit in the
minds of the community at large and it generates a positive mindset among transit
managers and employees. This mindset is essential to providing high quality
service. As transit professionals we need to focus on bringing those who have traditionally
been called “choice” or “discretionary” riders on board, though not to the
point on spending money on high-end luxuries that could be spent on useful
service. By creating an attractive alternative that will be used by individuals
who have the full range of transportation choices (a driver’s license and
access to an auto) we are also providing better service for all including those
with limited choices. After all people with limited choices need to get to
work, school, medical appointments and other destinations just the same as
those whose choices aren’t limited. This is not condescending to individuals
with limited choices – feeling sorry of them is. People with limited choices
don’t want to be felt sorry for –they want useful transit service.

Focusing on the social service aspect of transit creates
another roadblock – lack of resources. Surveys typically show very high support
for transit, but if transit is pitched only as a social service – it is hard to
generate support for more resources. People will more likely vote or speak out for
more resources if they see a direct benefit to themselves, or to the economy as
a whole.  This may be an extreme example
but it illustrates the point. Alter sequestration took effect legislation
quickly passed to make sure it wouldn’t impact airport operations, but nothing
has yet to be done about the seniors who lost their Meals on Wheels or
preschoolers shut out of Head Start. Seventy to eighty percent of funding
measures involving transit may obtain positive votes each year, but collectively
they cover only a small portion of the country, are often multi modal funding
packages (something for everyone) or do involve new transit infrastructure that
is perceived as an attractive alternative.

I am still a firm believer that positioning transit as an
attractive alternative is essential for providing the best service, and for optimizing
transit’s ability to win battles for resources that will maximize the amount of
service provided. However when choosing between maximizing ridership or maximizing
coverage this approach seems to come down on maximizing ridership. I have always
leaned toward the maximizing ridership camp. Transit offers the community many economic,
environmental and social benefits – that is why public support for transit is warranted;
therefore the more riders the more benefit. Empty buses or trains don’t improve
air quality, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reduce energy consumption, reduce
auto trips or the need for parking, or provide access for many individuals. I
would argue that the focus on ridership at the expense of coverage will provide
service to most individuals with limited travel choices and will provide them
far superior service. And most of all the more people who use transit and the
more diverse the population group is – the more political support there will be
that can translate into more resources for more service.

It isn’t a black and white choice between ridership and
coverage.  Almost all agencies are
somewhere in the middle. At my transit agency — Lane Transit District in
Eugene-Springfield, Oregon – the official policy is 75% productivity, 20 % coverage
and 5% Board discretion. I feel we should aim for both.  At minimum 30 minute service within walking
distance of all areas that have densities to support transit service but also
provide the highest frequency that the market can support on each route. We
need multi destinational networks – grid or timed transfer depending on service
frequency that minimizes out of direction travel. Plus higher capacity transportation
systems where the thresholds justify the investment.  This may seem quixotic – we will never have the
resources for this scenario; maybe, but we will never get there if we don’t try
and we will probably not get there if our focus is exclusively on coverage or positioning
transit as merely a social service.  

Postscript by JW:  Opinions in guest posts are not my own, obviously, but to be clear, as a consultant I do not take a position on the ridership-coverage trade-off.  This trade-off is a non-technical value judgment, a choice between two things that most people want, and thus a decision that communities should make through their officials.  My role is always to help communities form their own view on this question, which I as a consultant can help them implement.

15 Responses to guest post: a leading transit manager on the ridership-coverage trade-off

  1. BruceMcF August 23, 2013 at 9:49 am #

    So, given {define_extreme_definition_of_term}, nobody is really {term}.
    This is a profoundly non-useful way to frame the question.
    In any pragmatic, common sense meaning of the phrase “transit dependent”, lots of people are transit dependent in areas with effective mass transit.
    That is, the range of things they can currently do depends on the existence of transit.
    That range of things may not include “without transit I will die” for any of them, so they will still live and be able to do some range of things without transit …
    … but the fact remains that there are some set of activities of their that are indeed transit dependent.
    The argument in this piece turns around perfectly well to say “nobody is car dependent”, but given the way that we have constructed the transport system in this country, large numbers of people actually are car dependent in a very real, legal sense. This is a challenge in traffic law enforcement, where a penalty is to lose a license and the motor vehicle criminal pleads that they need their car to get to work.
    If nobody was “car dependent” in this sense, then there would never need be special concessions made for this case.

  2. Will Douglas August 23, 2013 at 10:00 am #

    This is nothing more than an argument for cutting off the poor in order to get more middle-class and wealthy people to ride transit. It is, as always, a completely false choice. Transit is an attractive alternative AND a social service. The United States has plenty of money available to fund major expansion of both frequency and service area. There is no good reason to pit these aspects, and therefore pit riders, against each other. Especially since as the polling repeatedly shows, the people most likely to vote for transit are those who have the fewest choices.
    We need transit professionals who are thinking big, not thinking small, and looking to make transit the default mode for everyone, rather than accepting right-wing imposed constraints on our funding and trying to decide who gets good service and who gets screwed. But ultimately we need political leadership to reject these false choices and build a movement that can get a major transit expansion funded.

  3. Nate Wessel August 23, 2013 at 10:56 am #

    Good post!
    I think it’s important to look at people’s lives from a fairly removed perspective when thinking about ‘dependance’. People may indeed be now in positions to be ‘dependant’ on cars or transit or coffee or heroin or whatever else, but in most cases(fetal addictions perhaps excepted), these positions they’re in are the result of choices, if indeed not always quite balanced choices, collective and individual, accumulated over lifetimes.
    Few non-biological dependencies aren’t open to being challenged.
    We must all choose to be dependant on some specific set of things, and it’s our job as advocates of transit to make the case for people to choose to be dependant on that instead of something else. Right now we’re in a weird spot because in so many cities we’re simply not realizing the economies of scale that allow transit to compete as it used to and as I think it will again. In the meantime, I think the best approach is to begin to realize those economies on a small scale, in specific corridors and grow it outward to the rest of a city. That’s the targeted, ridership approach in a nutshell.
    The social service model just doesn’t look to me like it gets anywhere in the long-term.

  4. david vartanoff August 23, 2013 at 11:06 am #

    Thank you, Will, for making the case. I would add that AC Transit did tighten up transfer usage AND abandon neighborhoods (in the words of their own staff “savage cuts”) leading to a serious drop in ridership. As to transit dependency, yes, many of us are by virtue of low vision or other physical barriers both to driving and cycling. I have said before that transfer charges constitute redlining of neighborhoods because they penalize those whose residences are not adjacent trunk lines.
    Scrapping the F35 project alone would free up billions for improved transit.

  5. Josh F. August 23, 2013 at 12:44 pm #

    The author is right in that in order for transit to truly succeed, it does need to be thought of as a legitimate alternative and not only as a social service. However, striving too hard for the former can be dangerous if social service needs are not being met (such as abandoning coverage to people whose only reasonable mobility choice is transit). Focusing purely on ridership can be disastrous to those who do not happen to live in high-density areas and who do not have reasonable alternatives to transit.
    (Yes, in a technical sense, no one is completely transit dependent. However, that ignores the fact that many people do not have reasonable alternatives to transit and would experience extreme hardship if they did not have access to transit. It is imperative that these people not be abandoned in the strict pursuit of a ridership goal.)
    It is important to note that most Canadian cities also maintain coverage of the entire urbanized area, in that almost all metropolitan areas in Canada have 90-99% of the population within walking distance of transit. While these Canadian cities have managed to make transit into an alternative and not merely a social service, transit in Canadian cities still covers everyone who needs it. Thus, while Canadian cities achieve higher ridership, they still meet all social-service needs, which are also very important.
    Ultimately, the best approach in my opinion is the one the author himself mentions in the last paragraph with LTD: “At minimum 30 minute service within walking distance of all areas that have densities to support transit service but also provide the highest frequency that the market can support on each route.” In other words, cover everyone who needs it first, and then increase frequencies on major high-ridership routes. In this way, full coverage and social-service goals can be achieved, and then we can start working on the larger goal of making transit a legitimate alternative to choice riders.

  6. anonymouse August 23, 2013 at 6:30 pm #

    The most extreme view of the social service approach to transit that I’ve seen was that espoused by the Bus Riders’ Union in Los Angeles. Their main argument against rail service, as I understood it, was that since minorities are a vast majority of bus riders, and a somewhat less overwhelming majority of rail riders, that rail expansion is racist and serving wealthy whites at the expense of poor minorities. The problem with that argument is that it’s not really a zero-sum game like that. The reason that bus riders were overwhelmingly poor and minorities was because anyone who could afford anything else would use that, because the bus took three times longer. Rail service, especially subway service, is much more time-competitive in LA, and thus there are choice riders in addition to the baseline of the transit-dependent. And the transit-dependent poor people get to have faster transit too!
    Though I should note that the key to this actually working in practice is having a city that’s not completely segregated, so that people from different socioeconomic strata can all benefit from a given service improvement.

  7. patfromigh August 24, 2013 at 8:11 pm #

    Something which I find puzzling about this conservation is, that for most US metropolitan areas, the disadvantaged tend to live in the inner city and/ or in denser neighborhoods. So as this discussion of ridership against coverage continues, the narrative sounds instead like the following. – It seems as though the poor, the disabled and the disadvantaged have been forced to live beyond the pale and now, by the abundant charity of the transit agency, these undeserving souls will be allowed to be transported back to civilization. The problem is this unmerited grace costs too much money, so just forget about them.
    The true reality of most American cities is that higher income citizens live in outer-ring suburban communities which are arranged in low density cul-de-sacs. No matter how inefficient such a setup is for any mode of transportation, a significant sum of tax money is spent on sending school busses to the far reaches of such places. Meanwhile, an hourly cut-away bus to an apartment complex or mobile-home park is out of the question, because that somehow perpetuates the poverty cycle. Heavy rail and LRT lines go through poor neighborhoods, but won’t have stops there so as not to disturb choice riders.

  8. EngineerScotty August 24, 2013 at 9:36 pm #

    While I have little love for BRU, part of their complaint was that the Red and Purple lines serve downtown and Hollywood–wealthy parts of the city–and that funds to operate these was taken from bus service elsewhere.
    Unfortunately, some of the BRU’s argument was cultural in nature–and yes they do continue to embrace quasi-Marxist notions of the bus being the mode of transport of the proletariat, and rail being for the bourgeois. (There may also be a labor-solidarity issue, with rail perceived as a means of throwing transit workers off the job).
    Nowadays, many LA rail lines serve poor and minority areas, particularly the Green Line and the southern half of the Gold Line.

  9. Robert Wightman August 25, 2013 at 11:17 am #

    patfromigh says:
    “The true reality of most American cities is that higher income citizens live in outer-ring suburban communities which are arranged in low density cul-de-sacs. No matter how inefficient such a setup is for any mode of transportation, a significant sum of tax money is spent on sending school busses to the far reaches of such places.”
    Perhaps it is time to let the full consequences of the cost for serving such areas be borne by the residents and not by the general tax base.
    In some major Canadian cities, especially Toronto, the inner city is becoming the area of choice and the outer parts are for the economically less fortunate, a reversal of what happened in the 50s and 60s.
    Canada has always lagged behind the U.S. and perhaps it was fortunate as we did not devastate our city centres and green spaces with freeways. Whenever I visit U.S. cities and towns I am continually amazed by the space devoted to the automobile.

  10. Sluggo August 26, 2013 at 11:46 am #

    The distribution of the poor in American cities has gotten more complex. In the 1950s and 60s white flight and a “country living” ideal drove the middle classes to the suburbs. Federal mortgage subsidies also played a pivotal role: only greenfield development and “good” neighborhoods were eligible for 30-year fixed-rate, low-down-payment mortgages. Inner-city neighborhoods with more than a quarter minority population were redlined and thus ineligible for these mortgages. The full migration took thirty years, so the 1970s and 80s were the height of middle-class suburbs and working-class cities, and city populations reached their lowest. This led to the ironic conclusion that the poorest lived in the most walkable areas with the most frequent transit. But the areas were neglected so the infrastructure was left to stagnate and deteriorate.
    Then in the 90s the trend started reversing, as the middle class started rediscovering cities and loving the shorter commutes and better transit, and established high-tech startups in urban areas. At first it was only a few cities, but now it has spread to many cities to a greater or lesser extent. This is driving up rents and housing costs in the areas that are most walkable and have the best transit, and is pushing the poor into the inner-ring suburbs in the “unfavored quarter” of the metropolitan area (the former industrial quarter). These suburbs were naturally built with low density and little transit and walkability, so they’re an inconvenient place to be transit-dependent in.

  11. Wanderer August 26, 2013 at 4:23 pm #

    If we had billions more for transit, we should spend it wisely. We should not spend on looping, circuitous social service style routes that fulfill some (non-riding) politician’s vision of “serving everyplace (which therefore serves no place).
    We should spend it on things like making service that’s currently every 15 or 20 minutes run every 10 minutes, what’s currently every 10 run every 5. We should spend it to establish and strengthen transit networks in the inner suburbs, and to connect them to the often job-rich outer suburbs. We should spend it on capital projects that make sense, like a subway down the multi-ethnic Wilshire corridor in Los Angeles. We should spend it building BRTs. There’s an enormous amount of unfunded transit need, both in capital and operating cost.

  12. Mike August 26, 2013 at 4:50 pm #

    I find this guest pote interesting, especially since the author is from the USA. American systems for the most part, except for a few, really have no coverage goals like their Canadian counterparts.
    I have a problem with the idea of putting transit where it is thought to perform well, at the expense of coverage.
    Cities like Toronto do not have high transit usage because transit is only provided on major high density routes. Transit is successful because one can get to virtually anywhere in the metropolitan area, including some pretty rural areas on regular seven day a week public transit services.
    If transit does not allow me to travel to all parts of the urbanized area, then it also limits ridership on those coveted high ridership routes. Because people on those routes may also have to go to the so called underperforming areas sometimes.
    I understand the whole idea of allocating a certain percentage to coverage, and others to ridership goals.
    But I think it should be done on a service basis, and not percentage basis.
    Ensure that something like 90% of residents have access to a basic bus service that operates seven days a week until late at night, and comes say every 30 minutes. Then you work up from there, and put higher frequency service in where it is needed, and where you can attract riders.
    And on the note of where to put transit. We as planners have to stop thinking that transit will only work in high density areas with the perfect street layout. As Toronto so greatly shows, we have buses running every 10 minutes in complete sprawly subdivisions, that most planners would say should have a bus once an hour.
    If you don’t provide an attractive service, then how do you expect people to ride?
    So my advice to the American transit professionals. You have got to get a lot more transit out there, and have a basic service reaching all parts of the metropolitan region. Because as it stands now, you can hardly get around in most American metropolitan areas, once outside the core city. And life does not end at the city limits

  13. Ron Kilcoyne August 27, 2013 at 11:21 am #

    It is always interesting reading the comment when a post is published. To Will Douglas – this is not merely an argument to cut off the poor so that more middle class and wealthy people ride transit. Re-read the post particularly the 6th paragraph. My point is that only when transit serves a broad population is there the chance to have the resources needed to provide great service to the community. The poor are short changed when resources are constrained. I specifically point out that providing premium service for high income groups must not be done at the expense of useful service to broader population groups.
    Regarding David Vartanoff’s comment on AC Transit’s transfer charges – it was a dark day when this happened. I was Planning Manager when this occurred and argued vehemently that this was a mistake (as did my boss the Deputy GM for Service Development and Marketing). We failed and even though I thought it would be repealed when it didn’t generate the expected revenue and some of my successors tried to repeal it somehow it managed to live on. I believe that transit fares should be based on time or distance and never the number of vehicles or modes that are needed to complete a trip. Check out the Greater Bridgeport Transit website ( for the fare structure that I developed that fulfills this premise
    Regarding Will Douglas’ second paragraph and the posts of wanderer and Mike – I agree. As I stated in the last paragraph of my post I really want to get to the day in which we don’t have to make a choice between coverage or ridership. I think big as do many of my colleagues but thinking big is not enough – it takes strategy coupled with patience and perseverance. The point of my post was to point out a mindset that I feel has held transit back and has pushed us into the position where we have to ration service. Changing the mindset, like thinking big, won’t suddenly result in transit utopia; if that is all it takes LTD would be providing at least a third more service – but they are essential ingredients.

  14. Alyourpalster September 2, 2013 at 8:44 am #

    First of all, I don’t believe there are many ‘choice’ riders, if any.
    Everybody takes transit because ‘they have to’.
    In the case of the so called ‘choice riders’ they don’t really want to take transit but either its too expensive to drive or the traffic is horrible, or there is no place to park where they are going.
    So the idea that there is a population of people who just can’t wait to take transit is false, at least in the good ole USA its false IMO.
    Second of all American style transit is so horrible because its never been taken seriously. Very few cities have ‘real’ frequent service, who wants to stand around waiting for a bus or train to show up.
    Amerika is a country where cash is king and competition is worshiped. Transit requires a ‘cooperation and equalization’ of citizens. And when that occurs you hear cries of ‘SOCIALISM’ and people start running for the hills.
    This country is so far away from decent transit the current transit model would have to be completely destroyed and a new model will have to be put in place.
    The truth is Amerikan transit is here to enrich the people that work in it, the riders virtually don’t count.
    My 2 cents

  15. Nathanael October 12, 2013 at 2:43 pm #

    The suburbanization of poverty and the suburbanization of employment — in different suburbs — means we are seeing a lot more of the worst possible scenario: poor people walking for many miles to get to work.
    Unfortunately, I expect to see more of this. The suburbanization of employment is reversing, but the suburbanization of poverty is, if anything, accelerating.