Finding the Choice Riders

This post is a response to some comments on the open suggestions thread that run along the lines of “why are we shafting bus riders by putting all our resources into rail?”

While I’m an enthusiastic supporter of continuing to expand the rail system (because it helps drive the long-term land use pattern that I believe the region needs to achieve for sustainability), I think there is more than a kernel of truth to the complaint.

In fact, there was considerable discussion of this point in a presentation at PSU earlier this year (presentation slides, PDF, 748K).

In a lot of cities, the transit system is for people who for one reason or another, can’t travel by private car. By contrast, in our region, we pride ourselves on the number of ‘choice riders’, people who COULD drive, but choose to use transit. As the presentation suggests (slide 90), if your strategy is to use transit to drive congestion relief (or at least alternatives) and environmental benefits, you want to aggressively go after more choice riders.

And the same presentation also shows that rail passengers have demographic characteristics (race, income) that are a lot more like car drivers than bus riders (slides 75-82).

So it’s a question of goals. If TriMet is being held to objectives that are related to urban form and the overall function of the transportation system, the current set of choices are quite reasonable. If you think TriMet should have more of a social equity mission, then indeed, bus riders could almost certainly be better served.

So where should someone (like me) who thinks TriMet should be serving BOTH missions come out? Well, I’d like to see the operating resources increased, so that we can BOTH exploit the federal capital construction funds that are available AND keep expanding and improving bus service. So I don’t want to stop building rail, but I WOULD like to see buses get more attention.

One policy change that I would like to see immediately would be for TriMet to stop bonding operating income to help provide local match for capital dollars. I think the operating income is much too valuable to use in that way. This is an issue that seldom gets talked about.

So in short, I think we should keep trying to get those choice riders onto transit, but only by growing the pie, not by taking resources away from the riders with few or no choices.

Someone will almost certainly ask how such a policy relates to Streetcar and I will happily admit that Streetcar is almost entirely about choice riders and about congestion and urban form goals, not about social equity (although we have a chance to address the latter as the Streetcar system plan proposes lines outside of the central city). But I would also point out that in general Streetcar has brought resources to the table (Urban Renewal, parking revenues) that are not available for buses, and are incremental to existing transit revenues. Streetcar does consume some TriMet operating revenues, but not at a level that exceeds what would be spent on equivalent bus service in the same areas. Indeed TriMet is being pretty careful to make sure that their funding of Streetcar does not detract from their Light Rail and frequent bus plans.

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