» 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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).