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.