Which riders matter?

G train

» Given the need to prioritize transportation investments, whose mobility needs are most important?

In an article earlier this month, I described the Seattle region’s draft proposal to spend $50 billion over the next twenty-five years on a massive transit expansion program. In that article, I compared the cost of building and operating new transit projects with the expected number of riders each proposed line would carry, concluding that the region was choosing projects that were relatively ineffective from the perspective of maximizing their benefit-cost ratios.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]There is no formula that can definitively tell us whether a project is a good or bad one, or how it stacks up against other potential investments[/pullquote]

What I didn’t delve into was the fact that that metric—like any metric—was founded on an assumption that not only biased my conclusions, but also which was impossible to avoid, even if altered to reflect a different premise.

What I assumed was that every potential rider for a transit line has equal worth. In the Seattle case, for example, I noted that the cost per expected rider of a light rail line from the Ballard neighborhood to downtown was far less than that of a light rail extension to Tacoma, so I concluded that the former project should be built first.

At face value, the idea that we should treat each transit rider equivalently in a comparative analysis may not seem particularly controversial. Doesn’t it make intuitive sense to prioritize transit projects that serve the most people for the lowest cost?

In truth, though, riders are different. Some are taking long trips, some short ones. Some are wealthy, some are poor. Some have no choice but to ride transit, others are picking it instead of driving.

If the Ballard light rail project I noted above was filled with people already using buses to get to work and who would save just a few minutes traveling by train versus bus, while the Tacoma project was to be used by people who otherwise would be driving and who would be saving a lot of time, can we still be confident that the Ballard project is the better one? What if the Ballard project was serving all wealthy people, while the Tacoma one was designed for the poor?

How do we differentiate between riders? Who matters most? These are essential questions that we must answer when we’re picking investments. After all, given the fact that resources are limited, we must have some way to determine how to use them—whether that is through a process of reviewing quantitative statistics or through political debate.

When it comes to urban transit systems in the U.S., determining what riders matter most has a direct impact on what types of services are provided. Many large regions, for instance, have chosen to subsidize commuter rail at a higher rate per rider than other modes of transportation. Essentially that means that suburban, longer-distance travelers are being prioritized over urban travelers.

There are many reasons to think that’s okay: Subsidizing suburban commuters may be necessary to maintain political support for transit; their trips are longer and therefore putting them on transit may do more to reduce congestion and pollution; and urban riders often have better access to a variety of ways of getting around, such as walking and biking. But we can’t avoid the fact that the decision to preference the suburban rider is a choice, not a random outcome.

Another way to look at the way we think about which riders matter is through federal policy. Some years ago, the U.S. Federal Transit Administration required transit agencies building new lines and seeking support from the government to demonstrate the cost effectiveness of their projects by using a formula that divided overall operating and capital costs by the number of hours of rider time savings in the end year of the project.

This system had the consequence of prioritizing projects that saved as much time as possible for riders, rather than focusing on other issues, such as better serving existing transit users, potential transit-oriented development, social equity, or overall mode share. As a result, the government encouraged the extension of lines far out into the suburbs, which scored better than inner-city lines. The downside was that, in general, potential riders who were wealthier and had longer commutes were prioritized over people who lived in poorer urban neighborhoods.

Facing resistance from cities around the country, the FTA altered this rule and significantly reduced its weighting in the determination of which projects to build. In the process, it has redirected its attention toward projects that are questionable from the opposite perspective: They too often emphasize slow, central city travel over fast regional needs.

The reality is that there is no formula that can definitively tell us whether a project is a good or bad one, or how it stacks up against other potential investments. The most we can ask is for a lot of information about not only how many riders a project might serve, but also who those riders would be and how they would be expected to use the system.

Residents, political officials, and policy makers deciding how transportation spending should be distributed need to focus on the question of which riders are most important to them, because in doing so, they will come to a better understanding of what projects to invest in and which services to provide.

Here are three questions that every region should ask about transit riders, not only in reference to new projects, but also about how transit service is being provided today.

  1. Do we want to serve people who are already riding transit, or do we want to attract new people onto transit? If the goal of transit investments is to (1) attract new riders onto the system, new investments should probably focus on areas of the region where transit service is currently poor but adequate demand exists for people to get on trains and buses. On the other hand, if the goal is to (2) improve the quality of life for existing transit riders—who can be depended on to actually take transit when the project is completed—new investments should probably emphasize areas of the region where existing lines are well-used but slow and unreliable. One example of a project that fulfills the latter goal is the Second Avenue Subway in New York City, which will attract relatively few new transit riders (most people in the area already use transit) but dramatically reduce commute times for them by replacing packed and slow buses. It is worth noting that even if more new people ride transit under the first scenario, the second scenario could actually produce more new trips as better transit in dense urban areas is more likely to produce off-peak, weekend, and non-commute trips. It’s also important to emphasize that if a goal of transit is to expand social equity, a focus on existing transit riders, rather than “choice” riders, is essential, since their needs are the greatest.
  1. Do we want to replace longer trips or encourage more trips? If the goal of transit is to (1) reduce overall vehicle miles traveled on the roadways, projects like commuter rail systems can often be very effective because they replace the trips of people who drive long distances. A commuter from the suburbs who drives 50 miles roundtrip each day is causing far more pollution and congestion than a commuter in town who drives 5 miles roundtrip each day. Alternatively, if the goal is to (2) encourage more overall transit trips, urban rail systems serving dense neighborhoods are likely to result in more boardings. In addition, prioritizing longer trips may have the negative effect of encouraging more outward sprawl by making it easier to take longer transit trips to and from jobs; in the long term, this could actually reduce transit use.
  1. Do we want to focus on commuter trips or transit in communities where all-day transit use is possible? If the goal of transit investment is to (1) significantly reduce or provide an alternative to congestion, resources should be concentrated on peak-hour services that parallel a region’s most-travelled corridors, typically expressways. Fast commuter lines can offer a real alternative to congested highways. On the other hand, if the goal is to (2) develop communities where people do not have to rely on their cars for most of their daily needs, projects and services that focus on urban neighborhoods designed around walking are far more relevant. In many cases, investments in these places may have no relationship to relieving congestion but may have far more relevance to issues like transit-oriented development.

No investment decision can be a pure response to any of these questions, but understanding what types of riders we care about can help us identify how we make choices about how to spend public money on transportation.

Image at top: G Train, from Flickr user Jed Sullivan (cc).

18 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • How very egalitarian to think it is just a choice between one rider and another.

    What I see is these choices are often, perhaps even usually, not a choice about the rider at all.

    For example, I think a big reason commuter rail costs are so high is that the choice being made is for the union workers, not the riders. Much of the cost is not intrinsic to the mode.

    Nor is it entirely wrong to make choices that favor those who work for us. A well run organization is one that makes an effort to provide for it’s employees and give them happy working conditions. Unions often encourage this. And often don’t.

    Transit projects are often built as economic development projects. In this case the *potential* rider from induced demand counts more than the existing travelers.

    Economic development projects aren’t wrong either and by favoring smart-growth they can perhaps do more to benefit the environment and build transit than other efforts. We just have to keep an eye out about who’s pocket is being lined.

    And let’s be real – different regions have differing political power and that is a big factor in some riders counting for more than others.

    This too can be good: it can keep regions from being left out, keep minorities of all descriptions from being ignored and it can be a proxy for a depth of passion for certain riders for whom public transit matters more. Or it can be simply unfair.

    If this weren’t enough, there is a choice that is simply the expression of historical momentum. So many big city transit agencies are still running very much the same routes that long ago ran as trolley lines.

    In this case the good is that well established service is likely to have built a higher market share, like you were saying about existing riders being more certain.

    • Tom West

      “a big reason commuter rail costs are so high is that the choice being made is for the union workers, not the riders”
      Why would Unions favour a mode that often does a few runs in the morning and evening day instead of one like LRT that provides frequent all-day service?? As a job-creation project (unionised or otherwise), commuter rail is the worst transit project possible.

      • Eric

        “Why would Unions favour a mode that often does a few runs in the morning and evening”

        Because workers can claim a full 8-hour shift even if they’re sitting around doing nothing for most of it.

        • Eric, your comment does not make sense. Commuter Rail employs far less people than HRT, LRT and BRT. It sounds like you’re jest union-hating.

    • Andreas L.

      Union issues might be in play; however the main driver of commuter rail high costs is the fact the whole infrastructure remains idle for most of daytime hours and virtually whole night. Designing a system only useful on peak travel with heavy capital investments needed with no secondary uses will yield an expensive system compared to other with more balanced loads.

  • ajedrez

    It means fewer workers hired to work in the union, but those who are hired get either easier work (a lot of deadheading and long breaks) or more pay (here in NYC, a lot of bus operators get paid at half their hourly rate for the midday period).

  • Jeff Wegerson

    At the moment I focus on the divide between ridership service and coverage service, which your questions did not seem to address directly. I like that such a divide can be put before the public in such ways as to assign percentages of available monies to go to each kind of service.

    Perhaps then your questions could come into play to determine how various projects might further one or the other type of service.

    The other viewpoint you do not address directly are the questions that address the quality of the transit network. In the areas deemed ridership areas, is there a dense gridded network that is frequent? If not then that would become a priority for spending. If there is such a network but it doesn’t cover all the potential ridership areas then expansion of the ridership network would gain priority. In such approachs one only indirectly considers the increase of riders. It is the increase of the network into quality areas that is of greater consideration.

    So perhaps what is driving your desire to quantify where to put money (for ridership service), is the situation that arises where two quality areas for ridership service must be prioritized over each other, one first the other second kind of question.

    But in my humble opinion your thinking here either needs further work or is going in a fruitless direction.

  • d.p.

    The philosophizing is valuable and welcome, and this pithy reply is not in any way intended to undermine your chief point that value-driven trade-offs exist, and must be acknowledged.

    However, when a proposed transit project serves the “places” it purports to “reach” so poorly that its usage will remain forever paltry for any purpose — as the forecasts unambiguously show, even if you accept their presumption of exurban “economic development” (read: quasi-urbanist edifices over garages) that is likely never to get beyond the easel stage — then it is hard to see the value in selecting for those priorities.

    This is true of nearly the entire ST3 project list that has inspired your post. Few Everettonians will ever find themselves commuting along a precise enough vector to enjoy this supposed “alternative to congestion”, much less to catalyze a shift in land use patterns in the sprawling hells through which they pass. No Federal Wayans will ever find themselves taking the train spontaneously or for a variety of purposes. And no one will ever reverse commute to Issaquah.

    Sometimes, misscaled and malformed transit is too badly formed to even help the people you claim to be prioritizing. Tens of billions spent in pursuit of such forms is simply money tossed on the pyre.

    • Nathanael

      What d.p. said. The design of the ST3 projects is, with a few exceptions, appallingly bad — they are terrible even for the people they are supposed to serve.

      Unfortunately Seattle has a record of this. The First Hill Streetcar was a good *concept*, but the implementation was an unmitigated disaster, with a giant loopy detour, stations located precisely so as to prevent any sort of connections with Link or buses, lane design calculated to delay the streetcars… genuinely awful design.

  • Denis Agar

    Very thought provoking article. If I had to expand its scope a little bit, I would discuss the tradeoffs between present and future residents of a region. Devoting transit resources to a low-density suburb may gain some riders in the short term and reduce VMTs. But that community’s density will likely remain fixed over the long term, and many trips in that community will still depend on cars. If those same resources were devoted to areas that are likely to support higher densities in the future, the VMT-reducing impact of a bus route may be multiplied by increasing the viability of future high-density development.

    So instead of having a network of routes that chase riders where they are now, it’s important to think about whether those routes will also support long term VMT reduction. If you value future VMT reduction as well as current VMT reduction, you might operationalize that by over-investing in a grid of frequent routes, while under-investing in existing low-density neighbourhoods that are not expected to densify.

    • Tim


      Commuter rail only works long-term and most effectively in areas where rail infrastructure has been in place for a decent amount of time (such as the Northeast), and/or when it’s wisely executed (in other words, put in places where more people will use it). Places like the Toronto-Mississauga-Hamilton area, or the DC-Baltimore area may find that bi-directional, hourly or even half-hourly service provides benefits to both cities and may even serve as a way for someone who works in, let’s say Hamilton, who has a midday meeting in Toronto, to get between them at any time of day. But in mostly stand-alone cities, commuter rail may not work for areas not far enough out, as super far-out areas are less likely for dense redevelopment as inner suburbs are. Denver may be an exception, though. Even though its commuter rail stations serve inner areas, that could still work, as sometimes a more frequently-running commuter rail service with shorter trains may provide more options for commuters than less-frequent service with longer trains. Since this method may encourage more ridership, the implementation of longer trains can wait until the ridership numbers get high enough for longer trains at the same frequency. Correct me if I’m wrong, but my conscience is telling me this method is how Japanese cities have such high commuter rail ridership (it may just be the dense development far outside the core that causes this).

  • Jerome

    A new light rail project was unveiled in Montreal last Friday (http://www.cdpqinfra.com/). 40 miles, 24 stations, 20 hours a day service. Nice, but…

    While it is designed to bring wealthy suburb workers to downtown, no stations are to be built in the lower income areas near downtown. One way design: you can live out of town and work downtown, but if you live near downtown, forget about working out of town.

    Once again, citizens who need transit most won’t have access to it.

  • Ervin

    Check out my new urban development blog

  • “Why would Unions favour a mode that often does a few runs in the morning and evening”
    Because workers can claim a full 8-hour shift even if they’re sitting around doing nothing for most of it.

  • Transit projects are often built as economic development projects. In this case the *potential* rider from induced demand counts more than the existing travelers.

  • […] Here’s the thing about public transportation : it’s either for those who use it or aspir…. […]

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