What’s wrong if transit support exceeds transit ridership?


In today's CityLab, Eric Jaffe expresses concern about the fact that support for public transit in many American cities is far exceeding its ridership.  

Every transit advocate knows this timeless Onion headline: "98 Percent Of U.S. Commuters Favor Public Transportation For Others." But the underlying truth that makes this line so funny also makes it a little concerning: enthusiasm for public transportation far, far outweighs the actual use of it. Last week, for instance, the American Public Transportation Association reported that 74 percent of people support more mass transit spending. But only 5 percent of commuters travel by mass transit. This support, in other words, is largely for others.

This is entirely a good thing, given the state of transit in America today.  If transit were only supported by its existing riders it would be in a death spiral, because most American transit isn't currently useful enough to penetrate a large part of the travel market.

The "support-usage gap," as Jaffe calls it, does not mean that Americans support transit just in hopes that others will use it.  We don't need that psychological speculation because the real explanation is factual:  For most Americans, in the context of their lives and locations and situations and priorities, the transit that exists today is not a rational choice.  Many Americans who support transit but don't use it may be saying that they want transit to be an option, but that it currently isn't.

This is exactly what we should expect in a country with such low quantitites of transit per capita, and where the public consciousness about the need for transit is way ahead of the political process of funding and designing it.  Canada, for example, has more than twice the transit service per capita, therefore more than twice the ridership per capita, therefore more of the population on transit.  But the support for transit in urban populations is high in both countries.  Support and usage are, and should be, unrelated.  That's because people are thinking about what they want, not what they have.

In my experience as a consultant, the real problem with the support-usage gap is one of education.  Working in Canada, I always notice that the public and stakeholder conversation about transit  is just a little more informed than it is in the US.  The common confusions (see Chapter 3 of my book) don't have as much impact on the discussion.  That difference arises from the fact that a bigger share of the Canadian population has personal experience with transit.  If you use transit regularly, there are some things about it that you'll just naturally understand better.  If nothing else you won't fall into common motorists' errors like overvaluing speed and undervaluing frequency, or assuming that technology choice is more important than where a service goes, and how soon you'll get there.

But do you support transit but don't find it useful?  That's great!  Help us make it better!  Welcome aboard!


18 Responses to What’s wrong if transit support exceeds transit ridership?

  1. Semaj_d October 3, 2014 at 6:53 pm #

    “If nothing else you won’t fall into common motorists’ errors like […] assuming that technology choice is more important than where a service goes”
    Funny then how in Ottawa, the city whose founding rapid transit designers were recently converted highway engineers with an obsession for BRT, and which has one of the highest levels of transit ridership on the continent*, is now comprehensively clearing out its decrepit BRT Transitway system. There is now fairly widespread agreement that further busway extensions are to be avoided for the most part.
    That’s probably because Ottawans have put up with noisy, banging, clattering rides when the buses are moving and 3 km long downtown busjams every time 10 cm of snow falls.
    It’s also worth noting that technology choice has in fact to a large extent determined where the service goes. Since no one in their right mind wants a busway anywhere near them, it has tended to get put in major road corridors and, perversely, in uninhabited riverine corridors. As a consequence, many of Ottawa’s transit stations are quite isolated. But that was supposedly just fine since the express routes were supposed to make the location of the transit facility itself largely irrelevant. Doesn’t quite work that way.
    Unfortunately, Ottawa’s experience with BRT has to some extent “poisoned the well” when it comes to having rational discussions on rapid transit. Where Calgary and Edmonton are free to run light rail generally on the surface, in Ottawa light rail so far is getting treated as if it were BRT – grade separated at enormous expense with consequences relating to things such as coverage, system efficiency, urban design and location of stations.
    Technology choice does matter, and it matters a lot.
    *No thanks to the Transitway: absolute and per capita transit ridership in Ottawa began a dozen year fall starting with the Transitway’s construction. Absolute ridership didn’t recover for another 8 years, at which point the system promptly jammed up due to the proliferation of express bus routes. Per capita ridership has never recovered.

  2. Jarrett October 3, 2014 at 9:25 pm #

    The most crucial segment of Ottawa’s BRT network was never completed, so the technology was really never tried. Anyway, that’s water under the bridge.

  3. Anne October 4, 2014 at 7:48 am #

    Perfect word. It’s a pleasure (or at least not a pain in the a**) to ride useful transit. It doesn’t detract from your life. Sometimes it even adds to your life – starts and ends your day off just that little bit better. Largely, when done right, it remains in the background, just another tool in the toolbox that you can use to do things in your life.
    Too much of the transit we build is – perhaps not useless – but of little value: from the perspective of riders, AND from other commuters (car, bicycle, pedestrian) that that transit negatively impacts. Too often it’s perceived to be of negative value.
    “Usefulness” is such a simple, basic concept, and yet whenever I hear various jurisdictions discussing proposed transit plans, it’s the one consideration which rarely gets put on the table – and when it does it’s peripheral. And yet, one could argue, it should be the single most important measurement criteria to gauge the success of any transit initiative. If we’re not building it to be useful, for the net benefit of its commuters, what on earth are we building it for? (Stakeholders who get contracts building useless infrastructure projects perhaps?)
    I believe that politicians running for office shouldn’t have ‘transit plans’ (not even if they were transit planners in a previous career): they should have transit objectives (clear, definable and measurable) that could be voted on by citizens, and translated into transit plans that meet those objectives by actual transit planners, who would be required to meet various professional standards.
    Someone I met in a seminar said that in a city our size (Toronto) everyone should live within a 15 minute ride to a rapid transit line (rapid as defined by average speed, not by technology). Meaning that there should be a backbone/network of rapid transit throughout the city, fed by local transit. I happen to think that that’s a brilliant transit objective, that would transform our public transit to make it useful to a much larger segment of our population. It’s a design that would give people maximum flexibility, and make it easy for them to leave their cars at home. “Rapid” could be express bus, or subway, or even LRT, as long as it was high speed and covered longer distances quickly and reliably.
    I always go back to your early posts defining the types of transit (local vs. express vs. rapid as defined by stop spacing – although I would suggest grade separation needs to be there too). I think we too often forget the purpose of transit (and therefore make it less useful): local transit is for local trips with many possible stops, rapid &/or express transit is for speedy trips over longer distances. That’s an important ‘useful’ basic distinction that seems to wind up buried in the details far too often.

  4. Anne October 4, 2014 at 7:50 am #

    BTW, Jarrett, what was the crucial missing piece of the BRT?

  5. Jarrett October 4, 2014 at 8:44 am #

    Anne. The BRT tunnel under downtown was never built. https://www.humantransit.org/2009/05/brisbane-a-short-tour-of-the-south-east-busway.html
    The crazy thing about Ottawa is that most complaints about its BRT are about the downtown segment where BRT doesn’t exist! All claims for how rail will be faster than BRT in Ottawa will be absurd, because the comparison is between an existing rail tunnel (now being built) and a NON-existing bus tunnel. Existence is not a detail!

  6. Alexandre October 4, 2014 at 12:25 pm #

    One good reason to support transit while not using it very much is that it makes a great backup plan. I may drive my car in place of using transit the vast majority of the time, but sometimes my car will be in the shop. Sometimes I will be making a trip to places (downtown, or the airport) where the cost of parking far outweighs the inconvenience of transit. The utility of transit to me is greater than the raw proportion of the time that I use it, because the times when I do use it are when it is absolutely vital.

  7. Tom West October 4, 2014 at 2:50 pm #

    Lets substitute other public services for the word “transit” in this blog’s title:
    “What’s wrong if education support exceeds education usage?”
    “What’s wrong if healthcare support exceeds healthcare usage?”
    “What’s wrong if fire service exceeds fire crew usage?”
    Shockingly, it seems people are willing to support something that benefits the general population, even if they don’t use it themselves.

  8. Simon October 7, 2014 at 10:59 pm #

    Semaj_d, do you have a source for the comment “*No thanks to the Transitway: absolute and per capita transit ridership in Ottawa began a dozen year fall starting with the Transitway’s construction. Absolute ridership didn’t recover for another 8 years, at which point the system promptly jammed up due to the proliferation of express bus routes. Per capita ridership has never recovered.”
    I’ve read the exact opposite.

  9. Dexter Wong October 8, 2014 at 12:51 am #

    The title suggests something that everyone thinks is good but most are glad they don’t have to depend on it. Which is not good as a whole because it is a form of lip service by those who have cars. “Oh, the bus service is good around here, I must try it some time. (But I pity those who must use it.)” Frankly if you think it is good for everyone, try it and don’t say pretty words just to be nice!

  10. Huw October 10, 2014 at 2:43 am #

    Any business case will demonstrate non-users contribute a substantial portion of the benefits of a transit scheme.
    As an extreme example, I recently came across an announcement for a proposed airport rail link that touted the benefits to airfreight associated with reducing road congestion around the airport. Obviously fast airfreight loses its advantage if land-side transfers are slow and unreliable, and mass transit for CBD bound passengers is probably the easiest targetted market to shift off the roads around the airport.
    I’d support my taxes going to encourage PT regardless if I walked, cycled or drove everywhere – because there is a good chance it would get some of the annoying motorists driving the cars i percieve as congestion (eg. the ones i’m not in) out of my life.

  11. Transit Riding Transit Planner October 15, 2014 at 10:28 am #

    I had a number of problems with the article as well. My first thought was that you would probably always want support for transit to exceed ridership. If support was lower than ridership, that means some people who ride transit do not support continuing to fund/improve the system. That seems like a pretty dismal situation.
    Secondly, I wonder how you would define a “non-rider of transit.” Typical measures are based on the work commute, but that is limited. Consider the following people:
    – A rides transit to and from work every day.
    – B rides a bike to work, but often catches the bus in inclement weather, when the bike has a flat, etc.
    – C lives in a suburb and commutes by car to a suburban office, but takes the train downtown once a week for a meeting at the corporate headquarters.
    – D drives to work, but uses the light rail to get downtown on weekends or evenings.
    – E drives almost everywhere, but uses the transit system a few times per year to get to a sports stadium or the airport.
    – F drives everywhere, but his early teenage kids use the bus to get around town, saving him several chauffeur trips per week.
    Clearly it is a continuum. Furthermore once we have defined someone as a “non-user” and find they support transit, there could be any number of reasons:
    – They feel sympathy for the poor and support transit out of a sense of charity.
    – They want the transit system to improve to the point that it would be useful to them.
    – They want the other cars off the road.
    – They recognize that transit is a better public investment than road expansion, even if it doesn’t serve their particular needs.
    – etc. etc.

  12. Semaj_d October 19, 2014 at 5:27 pm #

    “The most crucial segment of Ottawa’s BRT network was never completed, so the technology was really never tried.”
    Where does this fiction come from? There seems to be some idea that just because downtown Ottawa has traffic lights that this somehow “proves” that the lack of a bus tunnel is the problem. This is classic correlation-not-causation thinking – something that you usually go to great pains to discourage others from engaging in. If you take the time – as I have – to observe what actually takes place with an open mind you come to a very different conclusion. Heck, I once thought it was the traffic lights too – but frequent observation of buses stopped at green lights (for what turned out to be varied reasons) caused me to rethink this hypothesis.
    Besides, it’s not just downtown BRT fails in Ottawa either; it fails at Tunney’s Pasture westbound in the afternoon, at Campus at all hours in both directions and at Hurdman in all directions in the afternoon. Baseline too is prone to periodic failures when there is bad weather and high volumes of students. I have taken video of the failures at Tunney’s Pasture and others have taken video of the failure at Hurdman.
    Here’s an example of the latter – from 5 years ago:
    Time and time again on this video you can see buses waiting at the stop line not for cross traffic but for the platform behind the videographer to clear – just like buses stopped at green lights in downtown Ottawa. And this is at a station where a large number of the buses aren’t going to stop anyway – which would not be the case in a downtown tunnel.
    All that a bus tunnel would have accomplished is burying a bus jam.
    The fundamental problem with BRT that its advocates keep refusing to acknowledge is that at the volumes we see in Ottawa average dwell time exceeds average headway. Indeed all it takes are a few lengthy dwells and it can cascade for an hour. A bus tunnel would not have fixed that. To solve that problem you either have to shorten the dwell time or increase the headway. Use of light rail vehicles accomplishes both.
    Yes, as it happens I do:
    I created this graph a few years ago from Ottawa transit use data. The years since 1996 are direct from OC Transpo’s website (including via the Internet Wayback machine), and up to 2000 from a separate source that also had Calgary transit data (the overlap allowed me to ensure the two series jived). In this graph I’ve marked where Transitway construction began in 1984 and when the initial network was complete by 1996; indeed much of the bulk of it was in place by 1990 – only the SE Twy was being constructed out to 1996 and it opened in sections during that period.
    The idea that the Transitway has increased ridership in Ottawa is a modern transit myth peddled by a few BRT fanatics who got started in Ottawa and many other unthinking BRT advocates since. Well I should be careful: they simply presented Ottawa’s high transit ridership stats next to images of the Transitway and allowed the human brain to make a conclusion based on association rather than any actual evidence of causation.
    There is simply no basis whatsoever to the myth that the Transitway is responsible for Ottawa’s high transit ridership. Its ridership was already high, pre-Transitway.

  13. Semaj_d October 19, 2014 at 5:51 pm #

    “All claims for how rail will be faster than BRT in Ottawa will be absurd, because the comparison is between an existing rail tunnel (now being built) and a NON-existing bus tunnel. Existence is not a detail!”
    With respect to this, there’s the Calgary comparison: Calgary’s 7th Ave light rail transit mall does not clog up like Ottawa’s downtown bus lanes do, and they face the same issue of traffic lights. Its capacity is at least as great as Ottawa’s BRT.
    Furthermore, the very failure of BRT on the surface is arguably one of the strong drivers for a rail tunnel: the false belief in this “traffic light hypothesis” caused many to argue for a tunnel, bus or rail. People didn’t want to take the chance of rail failing as well, despite evidence from places like Calgary. Indeed, at a transit forum organized by the City of Ottawa a senior Calgary transit planner (originally from Ottawa) argued in favour of a surface LRT line instead of a tunnel and to use the savings to extend LRT further out along the transitways.
    So your claim has a grain of truth to it and unfortunately we’ll never get to test it due to BRT having “poisoned the well” when it comes to surface rapid transit.
    Had Ottawa not made the disastrous mistake of choosing BRT over LRT thirty years ago, today we would be enjoying swift and efficient LRT on the surface downtown just like Calgary enjoys, and instead of expending vast sums on conversion and a needless tunnel, plus the attendant bus diversions and disruption, we’d be extending the system further afield.
    The unfortunate truth is that the Transitway and BRT have set back Ottawa’s transit system by at least two decades.

  14. Simon October 20, 2014 at 1:30 am #

    Interesting Semaj_d, although I think it’s fair to say that the 80s saw reductions in PT use almost worldwide in per capita terms.
    Doesn’t your own data show that once the main bit was finished there was an increase in PT mode share? In Sydney, we may have recently arrested the decline in PT mode share, or maybe not.

  15. Semaj_d October 20, 2014 at 7:13 am #

    Well as I wrote the “main bit” of the Transitway network was in fact finished by about 1990 (for those familiar with Ottawa, that would be the West Transitway “trench”, the Southwest Transitway to Baseline and Algonquin College, the Central Transitway along the Rideau Canal and the East Transitway along the Queensway). The final piece of the initial network, the Southeast Transitway, built in stages in the early 1990s, was and still is far less used than the others since it heads generally south whereas the principal travel axis in Ottawa is east-west.
    It’s also worth noting that in accordance with BRT theory, the segments were brought into use as they were completed, whether they connected to other segments or not. That means that if ridership is linked to transitway construction, we should see a gradual ramping up during all but the very beginning of the construction period – which we don’t. We don’t even see it holding steady.
    Ridership didn’t begin increasing again until 1999: 1996 is artificially depressed due to a transit strike. When you take that into consideration, ridership basically bottomed out from 1995 to 1998.
    We could get into a long discussion into what drives and drove ridership in Ottawa, but it should be pretty clear that the Transitway is not, in and of itself, responsible for Ottawa’s high ridership. A fair case could actually be made that high ridership was responsible for the decision to construct the Transitway, rather than the opposite.
    But the key point is that even while Ottawa was losing ridership, it was still high relative to everywhere else. It’s that high ridership that has long been used to “sell” the Transitway concept to other places and people, but the sales point has no foundation in reality.

  16. Semaj_d October 20, 2014 at 7:33 am #

    For what it’s worth, I have to confess to having “bought” the same story of the Transitway and high ridership. Indeed, I even put into my own Master’s thesis. I had concluded BRT to be a success in Ottawa (albeit one that had run its course, something which Jarrett still refuses to accept). Yes, you read that right.
    I can tell you it was more than a little galling to discover a few months later that this was all a myth and that I had been guilty of perpetuating it. But of course I was using the same sources as everyone else. My professor’s professor (Robert Cervero) used them for instance in his book The Transit Metropolis. Once I finally got my hands on the time series data, I realized the truth (and frankly I was more than a little shocked at just how empty the myth really was). The limited ridership stats that everyone else were using were never false (although the 10,000 pphpd number is kind of suspect for c.1990) – they were just presented in isolation, without reference to the past before the Transitway.

  17. Simon October 20, 2014 at 5:19 pm #

    Alright, even if that’s so I find it too simplistic to just look at ridership vs infrastructure.
    And wrt that youtube vid. Isn’t that a bit like getting a picture from Mumbai and saying that trains are overcrowded?
    I can accept that BRT may not have been right for Ottawa not having been there, but having used the Brisbane system I don’t accept that LRT would have been better in that case.

  18. Bryan Faragher October 24, 2014 at 3:42 pm #

    While I think you have the right message, it is important to note that the support / usage gap is really quite meaningless when transit ridership continues to grow by double digits per quarter and recent transit investments in cities from LA to Austin to Washington DC are quite popular:
    The rate of US Public Transportation use is as high as it was in 1956, which means that the love affair with the car is over and while Congress is crippled by conservatives who will double the military budget but cut transportation funds, even for the highways and bridges they once loved so much, local cities are going alone and the investments are paying off.
    There is nothing wrong with a support / usage gap but I think your narrative is misleading. It is the same mentality they had here in LA’s San Fernando Valley when they created the Orange Line. The City Council and MTA are all rich people and their friends would never ride public transportation, yet because most of the city is made up of working class people, ridership hit 2020 levels in 2010 and is now overcrowded with passengers.
    This elitist pro-car mentality stems from the same kind of research you are citing, that nobody “important” rides public transportation, yet the lines are all packed and most cities can’t expand them fast enough. Even LA’s Red Line is now under fire for not having enough parking for passengers.
    Freeways cost dramatically more, are a huge drain on the Federal budget and nobody complains that they don’t make money. That’s because it transformed America. A huge public transportation is the next step not to compete with highways, but to relieve them from the massive traffic jams that are clogging the cities arteries like job-killing cholesterol.
    So I agree with you in spirit, but I think your narrative seems to feed into the conservative narrative which is a fantasy. Just ask the mayors in red states like Oklahoma and Texas. Public transportation is the future and even those places are willing to raise taxes to do it.