This morning, Andrew Sullivan, whom I usually find intellectually engaging, featured a confused article about transit productivity from Eric Morris on the Freakonomics blog. It's the old line about how because buses are often empty, they're not a very efficient transit mode. I first rebutted it three years ago and the rebuttal hasn't changed at all.
I quickly wrote the letter below. But the big announcement is after the letter!
Eric Morris on the Freakonomics blog has fallen into the familiar trap ...
To put my remarks in context: I’ve been a transit network design consultant for 20 years, and am also the author of the blog HumanTransit.org and the book Human Transit (Island Press, 2011) which rebuts many of the false assumptions in this article.
Morris's argument rests on the false assumption is that transit agencies are all trying to maximize ridership as their overriding objective.
In 20 years as a transit network design consultant working across North America, Australia, and New Zealand, I’ve never encountered a transit agency that pursues a ridership goal as its overriding purpose. Transit agencies are always required to provide large amounts of service despite predictably low ridership, for reasons including basic access for seniors and the disabled and the perception that service should be delivered “equitably.” While equitable is a slippery word that means different things to different people, its effect is to justify service spread all over an urban region, even into areas where ridership is inevitably low (usually due to a combination of low density and street networks that discourage walking).
In my own work, I refer to these predictably low-ridership servics as coverage services because they are tied to a coverage goal that conflicts with a goal of maximum ridership. Typically the coverage goal is stated in the form “__% of residents and jobs shall be within ___ feet (or meters) of transit.” This goal requires service to be spread out over areas where prospects for ridership are poor. I then encourage transit agency boards (or Ministers) to think consciously about what how their service resources should be divided between ridership goals and coverage goals.
If this method ever becomes common, it will be possible assess bus services that are trying to achieve high ridership. Only that universe of services is relevant to discussions about whether bus services provide ridership effectively.
A more extensive geometry-based discussion of exactly this issue, and how it needs to be managed in policy thinking is in Chapter 10 of my book Human Transit.
The big announcement: I'm not going to do this much anymore. Here is my response, but hey, regular readers, any of you could have written this, right? After all, the rebuttal has been on this site for three years! Could everyone please bookmark that, or bookmark this, and just send a link whenever you see this same argument? Would save us all much time. Thanks!