This guest post is by Ron Kilcoyne, is the General Manager of Lane Transit District, which serves the Eugene-Springfield area in Oregon. He is formerly the General Manager/CEO of Greater Bridgeport Transit in Bridgeport, Connecticut and of Santa Clarita Transit north of Los Angeles. For many years he was manager of research and planning for AC Transit in Oakland, California. The views expressed are his own and not those of his agency.
In a guest post last March, Alexis Grant responded to a Transport Politic piece by Yonah Freemark which postulated that less affluent regions had less service per capita than higher income regions. Ms. Grant questioned whether federal transit funding should be used to “redistribute wealth” in the allocation of transit service and questioned Mr. Freemark’ s use of the term “vital social service.” More recently Jarrett Walker talked about the tension between maximizing coverage or maximizing ridership. Ms. Grant drew the conclusion that Mr. Freemark's focus on social service is akin to one of the goals of transit- coverage.
Reading this essay made me question the premise I have worked under and impressed upon many people I mentored over the years – no one is transit dependent and transit should be positioned as, and needs to be, an attractive alternative. These views have often been considered elitist and condescending. So let me explain how I got to them, what they really mean, why they still are my guiding philosophy even after soul searching and how to apply in the real world of limitations.
There were two events that greatly influenced me early in my career. When I was a planner at AC Transit in the early 80‘s the District proposed to restrict transfer usage. At the time transfers were free and there was no limitation on how many times they could be used during the time limit on them. A large number of riders were using 3 buses to reach their destination; the proposal was to limit transfer use to the second bus only. There was a large turnout at the public hearing with customers explaining how they needed 3 buses to get to work, school or medical appointments. When talking with my boss the next day – a person not prone to condescension; he stated that “no one was forcing them to take three buses” My reaction was “Huh?” Why would anyone take thee buses if they didn’t have to?
The other event was a few years later when I was reading an interview with a Canadian Transit official. He was asked why per capita transit usage is three times that of the United States when economically and culturally the two countries are very similar. His answer was that in the US transit is positioned as a social service while in Canada transit is positioned as an alternative. This uh huh moment brought me back to what my boss said a few years earlier. While we may not do this intentionally, focusing on the transit dependent creates a mindset that because they are transit dependent they will accept whatever crap we offer.
No one is truly transit dependent. After all transit service is not available 24/7 to all possible destinations and about half the population has no access to transit. Individuals who don’t possess a driver’s license and/or don’t have access to an auto may have limited choices but they have choices. They can obtain a ride with a family member, friend or co-worker; take a cab; walk; bike or stay home. Some of these choices may be poor choices (cabs are expensive and staying home when wants or needs to be somewhere else may not be considered a choice) but if transit service is non-existent or a hassle to use that may be what the person chooses.
The concept of positioning transit as an attractive alternative does two things. It creates a positive image of transit in the minds of the community at large and it generates a positive mindset among transit managers and employees. This mindset is essential to providing high quality service. As transit professionals we need to focus on bringing those who have traditionally been called “choice” or “discretionary” riders on board, though not to the point on spending money on high-end luxuries that could be spent on useful service. By creating an attractive alternative that will be used by individuals who have the full range of transportation choices (a driver’s license and access to an auto) we are also providing better service for all including those with limited choices. After all people with limited choices need to get to work, school, medical appointments and other destinations just the same as those whose choices aren’t limited. This is not condescending to individuals with limited choices - feeling sorry of them is. People with limited choices don’t want to be felt sorry for –they want useful transit service.
Focusing on the social service aspect of transit creates another roadblock – lack of resources. Surveys typically show very high support for transit, but if transit is pitched only as a social service – it is hard to generate support for more resources. People will more likely vote or speak out for more resources if they see a direct benefit to themselves, or to the economy as a whole. This may be an extreme example but it illustrates the point. Alter sequestration took effect legislation quickly passed to make sure it wouldn’t impact airport operations, but nothing has yet to be done about the seniors who lost their Meals on Wheels or preschoolers shut out of Head Start. Seventy to eighty percent of funding measures involving transit may obtain positive votes each year, but collectively they cover only a small portion of the country, are often multi modal funding packages (something for everyone) or do involve new transit infrastructure that is perceived as an attractive alternative.
I am still a firm believer that positioning transit as an attractive alternative is essential for providing the best service, and for optimizing transit’s ability to win battles for resources that will maximize the amount of service provided. However when choosing between maximizing ridership or maximizing coverage this approach seems to come down on maximizing ridership. I have always leaned toward the maximizing ridership camp. Transit offers the community many economic, environmental and social benefits – that is why public support for transit is warranted; therefore the more riders the more benefit. Empty buses or trains don’t improve air quality, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reduce energy consumption, reduce auto trips or the need for parking, or provide access for many individuals. I would argue that the focus on ridership at the expense of coverage will provide service to most individuals with limited travel choices and will provide them far superior service. And most of all the more people who use transit and the more diverse the population group is – the more political support there will be that can translate into more resources for more service.
It isn’t a black and white choice between ridership and coverage. Almost all agencies are somewhere in the middle. At my transit agency -- Lane Transit District in Eugene-Springfield, Oregon – the official policy is 75% productivity, 20 % coverage and 5% Board discretion. I feel we should aim for both. At minimum 30 minute service within walking distance of all areas that have densities to support transit service but also provide the highest frequency that the market can support on each route. We need multi destinational networks – grid or timed transfer depending on service frequency that minimizes out of direction travel. Plus higher capacity transportation systems where the thresholds justify the investment. This may seem quixotic – we will never have the resources for this scenario; maybe, but we will never get there if we don’t try and we will probably not get there if our focus is exclusively on coverage or positioning transit as merely a social service.
Postscript by JW: Opinions in guest posts are not my own, obviously, but to be clear, as a consultant I do not take a position on the ridership-coverage trade-off. This trade-off is a non-technical value judgment, a choice between two things that most people want, and thus a decision that communities should make through their officials. My role is always to help communities form their own view on this question, which I as a consultant can help them implement.