Should TriMet be running routes like this?

Before I begin my weekend rant, I’d like to point all Portland Transport readers to a rather interesting and useful resource, hosted by our good friends over at Portland Afoot: the 2011 TriMet bus rankings page. This page summarizes performance data released by TriMet (data which is available upon request, though not hosted online by the agency) for all of the agency’s bus routes, and includes information on ridership, reliability, crowding, bus age, WalkScore of service area, and fare evasion. It’s included in nice tabular form, sortable by any criteria. Rail service isn’t included–but service data for MAX and WES is easy enough to get directly from TriMet’s website.

That diversion aside, it’s now time for the meat of the post. It is useful, when speaking of transit planning, to divide different services into “ridership” and “coverage” routes. Ridership routes are those which are well-used, which serve dense, walkable neighborhoods, and have excellent patronage for most of the day. Coverage routes are those which have little ridership, and are instead provided for equity reasons–to serve a specific population along the line. Coverage routes cannot, and are not, expected to ever “run full”–they typically venture into low-density areas to provide lifeline service.

But there are several routes on TriMet’s roster which are hard to justify on either ridership or equity grounds.

One example of this is the 55. This route, a peak-only service (with three inbound runs in the morning, and three outbound runs in the evening), starts near Jesuit High School, loops around the neighborhood, then takes Beaverton/Hillsdale to Raleigh Hills. It then heads north on Scholls Ferry, east on SW Hamilton, to Dosch and Sunset roads until it reaches Hillsdale. It then follows Capitol Highway and Barbur Boulevard downtown (in express mode) ending in Goose Hollow.

I only cite the 55 as an example; there are quite a few other routes for which this argument also applies. (Apologies if any 55 riders are reading this; and try not to throw too many tomatoes).

Looking at the rankings data, one sees the following bits of information on the 55:

  • 500 boarding rides/week. (With 30 runs per week, six each weekday, that comes to an average of 16.7 boarding rides per run)
  • 81% on-time performance
  • 43% crowding (its busiest runs are on average, 43% full–not sure if that refers to seated capacity, design capacity, crushload capacity)
  • On the plus side, fare evasion is essentially zero.
  • Frequency is approximately hourly.

Clearly, the 55 is not a ridership service. How does it function as a coverage service?

  • Many of the neighborhoods it serves are upper-class or upper-middle-class neighborhoods.
  • Its service span is consistent with commuter service, not lifeline service (the latter is generally bidirectional, and provides midday service at minimum).
  • Much of its run is duplicated with other lines–the only parts of the line that aren’t duplicated by (or within walking distance to) other service are the stretch along Hamilton/Dosch/Sunset. And the service it is closest to, the 54/56 is a frequent service line.
  • The neighborhoods it serves are for the most part low-density, residential-only, single-family neighborhoods–this is particularly true for the Hamilton/Dosch/Sunset stretch.

I don’t know how the 55 is interlined with other busses; were we to assume that a single bus makes all the runs (deadheading back to Raleigh Hills in the morning, and back downtown in the evening, within the realm of possibility)–each shift of the service would only provide 90 minutes of revenue service, and 2 1/2 hours of deadheading (either back to the starting point, or to/from the garage, or extra time the driver gets paid to fill out a 4-hour shift).

Thus the question: Is this a type of service that TriMet needs to be providing? It doesn’t serve any unique transit-useful corridors, it doesn’t serve any economic equity purposes, its ridership is poor, and it spends a lot of time in non-revenue operation.

Of course, the dichotomy posed above is a false one. This is neither a “ridership” nor a “coverage” route, as traditionally considered–it’s a commuter route. It’s designed to get downtown workers to their Monday-Friday jobs and back again, and that’s it. I’ve never been a tremendous fan of commuter routes–simply because they are expensive to provide–but many of the outer commuter lines do earn their keep or provide a unique service. The 55 only serves 50 about unique riders per day; whereas the 99, 96, and 94, on the other hand, serve thousands of unique riders per day.

TriMet has announced plans to take the saw to the 55 (and many similar routes) as part of the upcoming service reductions, eliminating one run in the morning (the early one) and one in the evening (the late one). Many other lines are being cut in a similar fashion. How much reduction in service hours (including deadheading) will be bought by these reductions in revenue hours, I cannot say. I can say that elimination (in particular) of the evening trip may make the service unusable by professionals who may have to stay at work later on certain days. You can never eliminate the last trip of the day, as then the penultimate trip becomes the last one, and riders often avoid planning to use the last trip, because if they miss it, they become stranded.

That said–how much benefit do these routes bring to TriMet? They aren’t justified on ridership grounds, or on grounds of social equity. By keeping peak-hour commuters off of the highways, these routes arguably help to reduce congestion, and demand for downtown parking–but the 50 riders/day (100 trips/day divided by 2) served by the 55 is probably a drop in the bucket. The 55, which lies mostly within the Portland city limits, is not required to preserve any part of TriMet’s taxing district. It is possible that TriMet derives political benefit from the route (i.e. its patrons would raise a big stink if the line were cancelled, and have sufficient clout to adversely affect the agency), but there’s no way to determine that from the data. :)

So what to do? One obvious strategey would be to simply cancel these sorts of routes, and redeploy the service hours elsewhere. Another, though, would be to find ways of turning these routes into more useful corridors. Dead-end routes generally suffer from low ridership, but routes which connect two useful places–which have good anchors on both ends–are much more beneficial. As has been pointed out, service cuts provide opportunity to restructure a transit network in beneficial ways, by providing political cover for changes that would be otherwise unpopular. Could the 55 be meaningfully combined with the 51 or the 53 (for example), to provide a new east-west corridor route? Could a bus be run between Council Crest and OHSU to provide through service?

Or is sending three busses per day through the West Hills really a good use of our transit dollars?

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