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How important are new riders to transit, and how hard should the region work to attract them?

A discussion of the importance of new ridership to TriMet, and how hard the region should work to woo them.

At the center of many of the debates concerning TriMet’s future plans, and how transit dollars (both capital and operating) ought to be spent, are a fundamental pair of questions:

  • How important is attracting new riders to the system–both in general, and in the specific case of wooing motorists out of automobiles?
  • How much should this factor play in the region’s planning?

The agency–and many of its partners and funding sources–consider new ridership to be a fundamental concern, for myriad reasons, and the quest to attract them affects lots of things the agency does. But a longstanding complaint of many existing riders is that the desire for new riders frequently results in the dilution of existing services–and may be counterproductive.
The Fabled New Rider

Throughout the transportation planning industry, and especially in transit, the ability of a new or enhanced service to attract new riders is considered a key performance metric. Many federal funding schemes, such as New Starts, apply cost-effectiveness criteria in selecting projects for funding, and a key parameter used in evaluating cost-effectiveness is new ridership. On the surface, this seems reasonable: one of the key reasons for capital improvement in transit systems is improved service, and the ultimate purpose of transit is to move people. Given that for many potential users, transit demand is elastic (a better ride will attract more riders), ranking projects based on additional ridership is a reasonable way to approximate service improvement. There are other reasons for spending money on capital projects that aren’t directly related to ridership, such as operational efficiency, but many of the technical criteria by which transit can be evaluated (throughput, capacity, reliability) correlate rather directly with perceived service quality–and thus should be reflected in ridership totals.

Ridership (and new ridership) is also used in ex-post-facto evaluations and analyses of transit projects and modes. A recent post here at Portland Transport, Can We Intersect the Politics of Bikes and the Politics of Thrift, contained the following factoid:

Regional spending per new commuter, 1995-2010: bike/ped $5,538, auto $18,072, transit $84,790. Yes, read that again. http://bit.ly/fvszwa

Here, the cost-effectiveness of different modes are compared, with the metric of cost per new user being used. (And yes, the transit number needs to improve).

New ridership is important for other reasons as well. When the new riders are shifting from automobiles, resulting in cars being left in garages, there are numerous benefits–less congestion, less greenhouse gases emitted, less energy consumed. Regional policy considers environmental outcomes to be important, and actively seeks to encourage commuters to leave the keys at home and use transit (or human-powered transportation instead)–capital projects thus consider environmental outcomes in their analysis criteria and rate them highly.

Another reason for a transit agency to desire additional riders is to broaden its base of political support. Many transit agencies around the country operate on a subsistence basis, and are caught in a vicious cycle that works like this:

  • Transit is underfunded.
  • Transit agency can only afford to provide bare-bones service that is slow, infrequent, and unreliable. (And often crowded due to a low capacity resulting from a lack of frequency).
  • Transit is only used by the desperate or dedicated–service quality is so poor that anyone with the ability to use something else, will.
  • Transit is therefore widely viewed as a signifier of poverty, and something which stigmatizes its users. It also may be viewed as a form of “welfare”, or become associated with crime or other social pathologies that go along with poverty–causing the whole enterprise to be viewed with contempt.
  • Transit garners little political support
  • Transit is underfunded.

Transit which attracts so-called “choice riders”, on the other hand, is able to avoid this cycle. To the extent that transit is viewed as a public good, rather than a social service, it can attract broader political support, be better-funded, be able to offer more attractive service, draw more riders, and further upgrade its standing. Roads, despite their numerous drawbacks, benefit from a presumption of public good–nobody complains when the roads are empty at 2AM, or blames highways for causing crime when ruffians use them to get around. Even in the Portland metro area, a significant number of residents view transit as a needless expense rather than an essential service.

And the last reason I’ll give is probably the most obvious: More riders mean more farebox revenue. The marginal cost of an additional rider on a bus or train with empty seats is almost nil. Things get a bit more dicey when transit approaches crush loads, as an excessive number of passengers can severely impact dwell times at stops, and if you add enough passengers you may need to add additional capacity–but in general, each empty vehicle starts out well in the red, and each fare-paying passenger on board pushes it closer to the black.

Given all of that, it’s not hard to see why increasing the ridership basis–which means attracting additional riders to the system–is considered a goal of paramount importance.

Easier said than done

Given that, how does a transit agency attract new riders? We’ll focus on parameters that are within the purview of transit agencies in this article–actions to make driving more inconvenient or expensive will also shift people to transit, but we’ll not consider those. Many of these items are more fleshed-out here, but here’s a brief summary of how transit can be made more attractive.

Among the possibilities:

  • Expand where transit goes. There are many neighborhoods in the Portland metro area in which the only realistic way to reach transit is to drive to a park-and-ride–a tolerable solution for the daily commute, but not for many other types of trips.
  • Expand service hours. Likewise, TriMet has far too many services which only run five or six days a week–ruling out the service for many types of trips. Weekday schedules, in particular, are incompatible with many retail jobs, and retail workers earning low wages are more likely to be transit users.
  • Improve performance and reliability. Transit riders don’t ride transit because they like the bus or train; they do so because they have a desire to get somewhere else–so the lesser amount of time spent riding or waiting, the better. And in many cases, riders have schedules of their own to keep, so reliability is important as well.
  • Reduce cost. The higher the fares, the lower the demand for the service. Basic economics. And it’s important to note that auto ownership is dominated by fixed costs–many costs associated with driving (insurance, license fees, and for consumer autos, depreciation) don’t vary with distance driven. For someone who has an auto waiting in the garage, the car is often cheaper than the bus, especially for short trips.
  • Ensure sufficient capacity. It is annoying, and discouraging, to be waiting for a bus and see one drive by, so loaded to the gills that the driver won’t stop unless someone rings the bell to get off. It’s equally annoying to get to a park and ride or other multimodal transfer point and find no place to park; or no room to take your bike on board. Being unable to complete a journey due to insufficient capacity–especially if the journey is partially started–is frustrating, and if it happens regularly, will cause people to abandon the system.
  • Make it easier to ride. Transit use, especially for casual users, has many barriers. Ticketing is often confusing; route maps and timetables difficult to understand. Ticket machines malfunction. Platforms are hard to reach or are too far to walk (this is an important concern for limited-mobility passengers). Removing obstacles to transit use will attract riders.
  • Improve safety and security. People are less likely to use transit (or engage in other endeavors) if they think that doing so increases their chances of being mugged, harassed, or injured in an accident. Transit gets a lot of bad press here, much (though not all) of it undeserved–and many perceptions of (perceived) security spring from cultural prejudice, unfortunately. But a system which is viewed as unsafe will not attract riders.
  • Make it pleasant to rideWhen transit offers an unpleasant experience, this too discourages riders. Causes of unpleasantness include poor climate control, a rough ride (especially if you need to stand), excessive noise or fumes, uncomfortable seating, and overcrowding. Likewise, certain amenities may improve the rider experience. Transit offers one significant advantage over driving–you can use the time for other things besides operating a vehicle. But this advantage can be easily negated if you’re packed like a sardine on a crushloaded train.
  • Make it “cool” to ride. Here, “cool” is shorthand for a whole lot of personal foibles or itches that need scratching. It could refer to self-actualization (thinking transit is cool because of environmental outcomes), social status (avoiding the bus because you believe it signifies poverty), and numerous other things which are highly personal. Some of the conditions for “coolness” (or as NY transit blogger Cap’n Transit calls it, glamour) are things that its bad public policy to encourage–but regardless, someone who thinks that a given transit service is “uncool” is unlikely to ride, no matter its technical qualities.

The big difficulty, of course, is that advancing on all of these fronts is difficult with a fixed budget. There are only so many vehicle-hours available in a given service week. If TriMet spreads them out over a wider geographic area and/or expands service hours–then frequencies need to go down. Increase frequency here, cut frequency there. Providing service which is both optimal and equitable is hard.

So what’s the problem?

Given all of that, one might think that transit riders and activists would be eager to support initiatives to attract new users to the system. And indeed, TriMet is engaged in many programs which attempt to do just that (or at least purport to). But in some circles, there seems to be a backlash.

TriMet has several initiatives to advance the perceived quality of service, including bus replacement programs, support for TransitTracker and similar applications, and an increased security presence at trouble spots on the system. Recent budget cuts have had an opposite effect, with reduced service hours, canceled lines, and significant reductions in fare inspection.

But the biggest and most visible part of the region’s attempts to improve transit service is via development and construction of rapid transit. Quite a few riders are unhappy about this. And there are many good reasons why.

Rapid transit technologies, including (though certainly not limited to) light rail, offer significant advantages to their users over mixed-traffic bus service, including faster travel times and more reliable schedules. Rail has comfort advantages over bus–trains are bigger inside, don’t have to deal with potholes or rutted streets and the bouncy suspensions required to safely navigate public roads, or pull over to curbside stops and “kneel” to reach curbs. Likewise, electric traction has advantages over combustion-powered engines–no fumes, no jerky transmissions, quieter motors. And rapid transit technologies, especially rail, support far higher passenger capacities than can local bus (or streetcar) service. Many users consider rail to be a premium service over similarly-configured bus lines. As noted in a prior post ridership estimates for the Milwaukie MAX project were 33% higher for light rail than they were for a BRT solution of similar quality, and it was a major reason for the selection of light rail.

Yet a vocal portion of TriMet’s ridership opposes MAX expansion, and many other proposed capital projects. While many objections are given (some of which, such as concerns over transit workers’ jobs and allegations of pork-barrel projects, won’t be further discussed in this article), a common theme seems to be that TriMet is spending most of its money trying to attract new riders, when it should be improving the lot of existing ones. Many existing riders would rather see money spent on improving existing services in the system core, or providing basic service to areas where none presently exists, rather than building expensive rail lines out to suburban park-and-rides. In some ways, TriMet acts like telecom companies offering teaser rates to new subscribers, while insisting that loyal customers pay full price (unfortunately, rewarding loyal customers with higher prices is a time-honored tradition in business). TriMet is hardly unique–transit agencies over the world have the bad habit of segmenting their ridership into “choice” and “dependent” riders, and then focusing energy on the former while taking the latter for granted.

Objections along this line include:

  • New light-rail lines are alleged to dilute existing service. While TriMet doesn’t go about reducing service hours on non-redundant bus lines to provide operating revenue for MAX–the new services nonetheless need to be funded. And when revenue goes down, such as during a recession, all services are affected somewhat–it’s not hard to juxtapose the two events and conclude that TriMet is reducing bus service to pay for MAX. The opening of the Green Line, which occurred right in the middle of the Great Recession, provides an example–many users of the system were calling for TriMet to delay the Green Line’s opening and divert its funding to preserve existing services.
  • Existing bus riders resent the idea that one justification for the expense of rail is to attract riders who won’t use a bus. This is a tricky one to deal with–but there is a certain portion of the public who consider busses low class or otherwise undesirable–and thus won’t ride them, no matter how good the service–but who are willing to ride trains. And at least part of the allure of light rail is that it attracts these riders to the system. Many existing users, especially bus riders, find this an objectionable endorsement of unenlightened social attitudes; that the region should have no part of–especially when in many cases, bus technology (including bus rapid transit) can do a similar job for less money. To further this argument–if peak oil is really coming, expensive gasoline is likely to “cure” these retrograde attitudes in all but the wealthy, so why spend the extra money for rail?
  • Concerns about transit oriented development and “placemaking” agendas. To planners concerned with long-range environmental and land use goals, TOD can be a powerful tool, in that it adds to the supply of transit-convenient housing stock, permitting a higher quality of service to more residents. To existing riders who don’t live in the TODs (or nearby) and don’t want to move (or are unable to do so), the notion of building transit lines to serve new development (whether as part of the transit project, or lines running through greenfields or brownfields) rather than to existing neighborhoods, is viewed as particularly obnoxious. It’s one thing to try and attract new customers where they live; its another to supply transit to places where nobody lives (yet). This is especially a concern in a glutted housing market, with lots of vacant real estate. (TOD makes more sense if there is a true need for additional housing; better to have it transit-friendly than otherwise).

Other technical objections to rail (or rail as implemented in Portland) also arise:

  • A belief that rail should be reserved for capacity issues. One of the most important technical advantages rail has over bus is capacity–train cars are bigger than busses, and trains can consist of multiple cars. When you need to move large volumes of people along a corridor (with stops along the way), rail does the job more effectively. (One can get high levels of throughput with the “freeway of busses”, but that model breaks down when you have to stop somewhere). But dedicated rail lines which only see trains on fifteen minute headways, even at peak hours (and TriMet has several of these), are seen by many to be a waste of money–it is often argued that rail shouldn’t be built until the number of busses needed to serve a corridor reaches a tipping point.
  • Skepticism to mid-tier services. Mid-tier (or “class B”) services–where transit is moved out of mixed traffic, but still integrated with the urban environment rather than grade-separated, are a big part of Portland’s reputation in North American planning circles. Prior to the opening of MAX, most US transit agencies with rail systems ran mixed traffic (“class C”) bus service, coupled with fully grade-separated (“class A”) rail. Portland famously defied that conventional wisdom and ran surface rail lines through the middle of downtown, and down the medians of urban boulevards, providing service that is faster and more reliable than the bus, but nowhere near as speedy as traditional subway systems. Some users consider this a mistake, and believe that if we’re going to spend money on rapid transit it should be “done right” and be grade-separated and fast.
  • Concerns about service re-organization. This is another tricky one to deal with. Rapid transit invariably involves service reorganizations. Busses may be converted from downtown service to feeder service. Local-stop service parallel to the rapid line may decrease in frequency or vanish altogether. Express bus service in the corridor is generally canceled. A bus stop in front of someone’s apartment may be replaced by a train station half a mile away. And if the frequency/speed of the new transit service isn’t significantly better than the old local service, the net quality of service may well be worse than before. This is especially true for riders who use the system in off-peak hours, when local bus service isn’t as slow due to fewer boardings/disembarkings and less traffic.

On the other hand…
In defense of TriMet, there are several things forcing its hand.

  • Many sources of federal funding are only available for capital projects. The US government has, for more than a decade had a policy against funding operations–reportedly out of concern that operational subsidies would be used to give pay-raises to transit workers, not to expand or improve service. (For some reason, the same concern doesn’t seem to exist about construction wages…) Given that, its no wonder that TriMet has a focus on capital projects–like Dillinger’s justification for robbing banks, that’s where the money is. That said, it would be nice IMHO if there were a greater focus on spending capital dollars to improve the efficiency of operations, as opposed to using operating revenue to back bonds to pay for capital projects.
  • Suburban political pressure. TriMet gets quite a bit of its funding from suburban communities–particularly in jobs-rich Washington County, and many of these communities want better transit service. (Some, such as Tualatin and Sherwood, presently have lousy service). Many of the region’s poor, who need transit, live in the suburbs. And unfortunately, land use patterns in the suburbs are not transit friendly (and many who live there like it this way). Several suburban areas which haven’t gotten what they want have left TriMet over the years, or are threatening to. And its these communities where a disproportionate number of the won’t-ride-the-bus crowd lives. Given that–a mixture of light rail lines to the suburbs, coupled with upzoning/TOD along the lines and a few park-and-rides, is a useful solution–especially where there’s a well-traveled bus corridor. And the existing suburban MAX lines have been quite successful at getting suburbanites to use transit.
  • Mandatory goals. Getting back to the lead; many of the regions environmental goals have force of law–TriMet, Metro, and the other agencies involved in planning, are required to act in furtherance of things like increased transit mode share, decreased pollution, and such–like it or not, TriMet is more than just a transit agency. And these goals, like TriMet’s funding, are regional in scope–the region can’t depend on the city of Portland being green in every way it can, if other parts of the region continue to promote auto use. So getting people out of their cars is a fundamental concern, and transit is a big part of that. Given that the stick is politically difficult to wield, the region is left with carrots.

Thoughts? Is the region’s transit planning too fixated on attracting new riders to the system, and ignoring the needs of existing users? What mixture of improving existing service for established users vs trying to attract the hard-to-get ones is appropriate?