Most transit agencies have been through some version of this scenario: In one part of the city, buses drive around stuffed like sardine tins, while elsewhere they can be all but empty. Car drivers mock the empty buses in low-density parts of the city. Some elected official picks up the banner, demanding that the transit agency stop flagrantly wasting taxpayer money by running these money-losing routes.
Transit consultant and author/blogger Jarrett Walker says transit agencies need to search their own souls to determine the best mix of ridership and coverage. Photo: Aucklander
If you hear echoes of the federal fight over Amtrak, you’re not going crazy — it’s the exact same conversation.
And it merits the exact same answer.
Ridership versus coverage
As transit consultant Jarrett Walker, the mind behind the Human Transit book and blog, sees it, every transit agency needs to make a trade-off between ridership and coverage. The agency can focus on routes with high ridership — which makes the most sense environmentally and financially — but then large swaths of the area will have no service at all. It simply doesn’t make fiscal sense to serve low-density areas, or areas without a complementary pedestrian network, with transit. Not enough people will ride it.
But if you cut that service, you’ve cut off a lifeline to people with disabilities, seniors with no other transportation options, people with low incomes, and others. “Social benefits of public transport, such as accessibility for persons who cannot drive, tend to be based on the severity of need among certain population groups, rather than the level of patronage to be gained by meeting this need,” Walker wrote in a 2008 paper in the Journal of Transport Geography. The people served by a low-ridership route might not be populous enough to make a route through a low-density area particularly profitable, but the service is still valuable. It serves a goal of coverage, not ridership.
Walker encourages transit agencies to have the ridership-versus-coverage conversation publicly and without shame. They should decide upfront, with community input, what percentage of their resources will be spent on routes with high ridership and what percentage will be devoted to broadening the geographical reach of coverage outside those high-ridership zones.
These conversations are becoming more and more essential as tight budgets and limited federal funding are bringing more scrutiny to transportation spending. Although transit agencies are generally serving more riders with less money, they are constantly asked to prove that they’re not wasting taxpayer funds. “One of the ways you can answer that kind of public demand is to have the ridership/coverage conversation,” Walker told Streetsblog, “because to the ordinary suburban voter’s mind, an empty bus driving around their subdivision looks like government waste. They don’t understand that it’s actually the result of conscious policy, namely a coverage policy, and that their own city leaders may have been fighting hard for that policy.”
“There’s a lot of confusion out there, and unfortunately there a lot of economic intellectuals out there who are writing articles that make it sound like because transit systems run empty buses that means they’re failing — just not understanding what transit agencies are actually expected to do,” Walker said. “Those buses are valued for the lifeline access they provide for the isolated senior.”