Matthew Yglesias thinks more carefully about transit than any other US pundit I’ve encountered at his level of celebrity, so his takes are often useful. Today, he has a very broad one, called “American transit agencies should prioritize ridership over other goals.” He begins:
Why does the United States struggle to create cost-effective rail infrastructure? Why do non-NYC American cities have such a hard time attracting mass transit ridership?
On one level, these are deep and complicated questions. But one thing I want to say to the growing community of people who are interested in them is that American agencies don’t deliver on these goals because this country’s high-level governance constructs don’t say they should deliver on them. Of course you won’t find a grant guideline that specifically says “don’t focus on delivering high ridership at an effective cost.” But wasting money is really, really easy when nobody is specifically telling you not to.
His piece spans a huge range of issues, from rail construction methods to bus service planning. I agree with him about rail: We can do it cheaper by making stations more functional and less palatial, as long as we plan enough capacity. On service planning, though, I think he oversimplifies in a way that lots of well-intentioned urban policy wonks oversimplify, so it’s worth unpacking a little. There are two issues with saying “just prioritize ridership.”
- Ridership is not very predictable. That’s why, in our work, we prioritize access to opportunity instead. Actual ridership is affected by lots of unpredictable external events (pandemics, economic conditions, etc), but access to opportunity is the constant thing that transit provides that is the foundation of ridership. Access is also important for a bunch of other policy reasons.
- Low-ridership service is sometimes justified by policy goals that matter to people, including, in some cases, racial and social equity.
Yglesias cites my work on the ridership-coverage tradeoff: In service planning, a ridership-maximizing network doesn’t go everywhere and serve everyone, because it goes where the most riders are and runs fast and direct enough to be useful to them. So a ridership goal is in conflict with goals variously described as “leave nobody behind” or “meet the needs of low income people (wherever they are)” or “we pay taxes too so we should get some service.” All those impulses lead to predictably low-ridership service, which I call coverage service. I explain why this conflict is unavoidable here.
You will never hear me say, as Yglesias does, that ridership should be the only goal of a transit service, and not just because I’m a consultant who facilitates conversations on the topic. I won’t say that because the decision is genuinely hard, and there are some good policy reasons for coverage services.
The suburbanization of poverty in many cities has increased the number of low-income people and people of color living in suburban land use patterns that are just inimical to public transit. Those areas have fast roads that are unsafe to cross, no sidewalks, disconnected street patterns that obstruct walks to the stop, road patterns that require buses to make crazy loops, etc. A strictly ridership-based approach would not go to a lot of those places, but will put lots of service in dense inner cities that happen to be increasingly gentrified. The result can be something that is measurably inequitable by both race and income. In other words, sometimes, in some common geographies, there’s a ridership vs equity tradeoff. (We have some unpublished work on this for a major US transit agency that we hope to release soon.)
So when Yglesias says …
Now again, I’m happy to concede that across the entire possibility space, you could imagine a situation in which one route maximizes ridership but a slightly different version maximizes economic development goals or equity goals or environmental goals. But those divergences would in practice be either pretty rare or pretty small.
No, this is not an imaginary situation, and the divergences aren’t always small. In our recent work for Portland’s TriMet, the agency articulated twin goals of ridership and equity, which led to a network that provides low-ridership coverage, but only only in low-income and minority areas. Obviously, low-income and minority people generate ridership all over the network, so ridership and equity goals overlap more than they differ, but they still do differ significantly.
There’s a long-term, high-altitude view where Yglesias is right. High-ridership services tend to create positive feedback loops with urban development that encourage even more ridership. Smarter development could also reduce the need for coverage services over time.
But that’s not the altitude and timescale where most transit decision-making gets done, especially in service planning. Those decisions are made by local elected officials or their appointees. The problem is not just that people are yelling at them to defend their bus stop, although they are. It’s that on a policy level, it’s just not always true that the high ridership network is the high-equity network. That means that hard decisions have to happen. I’m there to help boards reach those decisions, not give them the answer.