It's not always all about ridership

The Overhead Wire draws attention to a recent post on the Frontier Group Blog touching on on an issue that’s perplexed me for a while.

Transit planners and advocates are committed, with good reason, to increasing transit ridership. The imperative of doing so is more or less an article of faith, with projected ridership a primary if not overriding criterion for prioritizing transit resources, and actual ridership a key route and system performance indicator.

In reiterating and amplifying a question a recent strategic planning report put to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s board—should MBTA make maintaining or increasing transit market share a goal—analyst and commentator Tony Dutzik isn’t by any means dismissing the objective of increased ridership. His main point is that MBTA’s (or any other transit system’s) performance can’t be judged in isolation from other contextual factors and larger regional transportation and planning goals.

But at least indirectly Dutzik’s post also invites us to reflect on whether the conventional fixation with ridership isn’t somewhat misplaced in a more general way.

Several years ago, Madison Mayor Paul Soglin announced the goal of doubling transit ridership on Madison Metro over the next ten or twenty years. The BRT project he and others are championing serves multiple goals, but its pretty clear that either attracting or accommodating increased transit ridership tops the list. Many would see boosting ridership as a laudable goal, and it probably is.  But why do we think that? And, on closer inspection, is it necessarily the most useful one to focus on?

In most instances, of course, getting more people onto transit is a good thing, at least if one can assume that any trip on transit would otherwise have been taken by private car. In any case, unless the achieving involves excessive costs or imposes untenable stresses on capacity, it’s hard to see any increase in ridership as negative. But does it always outweigh other considerations?

I can imagine circumstances, for example, where adding service to an underserved area would increase access to the transit system for a relatively small but transportation-disadvantaged group of people.  Doing so might increase ridership far less than spending the same amount on adding more service on an already popular route that may be under-performing due to overcrowding. Should more resources in that case automatically go to the route where they can generate the highest return in terms of ridership?

Or consider a case in which the establishment of a new service might not generate a lot of new ridership, or at any rate not immediately, but would reinforce other efforts in a particular corridor to encourage more transit-oriented patterns of development.  It’s possible that the main benefits there take the form of less driving and more biking and walking, rather than any dramatic increase in transit ridership per se.  If having a bus service available for occasional but essential travel enables me to opt out of car ownership, is that not a transit success even if I make relatively infrequent use of the service itself?

Maybe these are outlying, extreme cases.  But it wouldn’t be too hard to come up with a fairly impressive list of competing objectives that may or may not be directly associated with ridership increases. Improvement in transit’s public image. Expansion of the system’s regional reach. Any number of social justice or economic equity concerns. Better workforce connections for key employers. And so on.

Of course planners can and do weigh these kinds of considerations in the overall balance. But it’s also possible that to the extent that many of these may be harder to quantify, they are at a disadvantage even when approached by sympathetic policy-makers.

Meanwhile, the constant emphasis on ridership tends to flatten the whole public discussion about transit, and place too much emphasis on system performance narrowly conceived in ridership terms. That, I think, is Dutzik’s main point.  “A conversation about MBTA market share or ridership,” he argues, “really only makes sense within” the “broader conversation“ the region is, or should be, having about what kind of transit and transportation system it seeks in pursuit of more general community goals.

Or to put it more starkly, increasing transit ridership is, in most cases, a desirable objective. But increasing it merely for its own sake and outside the context of any larger community vision for transportation, is a lousy way to make or discuss transit planning and policy.


The real battle behind (and beyond) BRT

Chris Rickert’s Wisconsin State Journal columns tend to poke at different aspects of an issue without making a clear point or expressing a discernible point of view, and today's was no exception. I can’t tell whether he thinks bus rapid transit (BRT) is a good idea resisted for bad reasons, a bad idea resisted for good reasons, or just an idea resisted for, well, reasons. I guess it depends on which paragraph or sentence you key in on.

Yet almost in spite of itself, the column does hit upon an essential truth not just about the political headwinds this particular project faces here and now, but also about intrinsic forces and biases transit in general faces everywhere. Those who want more and better transit should take heed of some of those insights, however accidental they may be.

The State Journal story Rickert was keying off of was last Thursday's front-pager headlined “City Eyes Bus Rapid Transit.” Actually, the city has been “eyeing” BRT for about five years now. For at least two decades before that (sometimes in collaboration with the county), it was eyeing light rail, commuter rail, and streetcars, roughly in that order. Each was found to be, in its own way, more expensive than the purported benefits seemed to warrant and died at various stages of planning, though not before generating some interesting and informative studies that helped lay the foundation for BRT.

BRT may yet prove to offer just the right balance of costs and benefits. Politically, though, the timing probably couldn’t be more wrong. The State Journal story came out the same day as the Republicans’ “Cut, Cut, Cut” federal tax plan, which scarcely bodes well for big-ticket transit projects dependent on major federal funding. Both the federal and state government are in full austerity mode and controlled by forces hostile to “public” anything, and public transit in particular. Other compelling local priorities are already being pitted against each other in the scramble for crumbs.

But Rickert focuses not just on these immediate circumstances but the uphill political battle a transit project would face at any time. He’s surely right that transit tends to be perceived as a kind of welfare for the economically disadvantaged or transportation-poor, and regarded by the auto-centric world not only as a marginal service for marginal populations, but as an over-subsidized imposition on the many who view driving everywhere for everything as both the norm and a basic right.

Rickert doesn’t interrogate this majority view very closely. But he’s on target in acknowledging it as a political fact, even if in the process he helps reinforce it.  The problem is that far too many transit advocates and champions inadvertently reinforce it as well, which only further contributes to the political problems BRT—and indeed any substantial investment in transit—face.

All too often those pushing for better transit fall into the trap of presenting it as a response to one or more (or, often as not, laundry list of) social, economic, or environmental problems, or as a service to one or another, or—again—litany of transportation-challenged, transit-dependent, or environmentally-conscious constituencies.  The overwhelming message, subliminal if not explicit, is that transit is for “others,” even when the list of categories (dare one say “identities”?) includes many of us.

Projects like BRT often aim quite explicitly to work against that stereotypical framing—to offer a vision of transit, not as a service mainly for those who have no better choice, but as an alternative even those who could drive might actively choose, and choose for its intrinsic mobility benefits rather than for some exogenous environmentally or politically “correct” reason. But as long as the transit issue more generally continues to be framed the way it is, a project like Madison’s BRT proposal runs the risk of tripping over that frame right out of the starting gate. Indeed, that project may be at even greater risk of this because, at the end of the day, however cool and snazzy a bus we may be talking about, it’s still a bus, and, as far as much of the driving and gas-tax-paying public is concerned, buses are for losers.

What’s needed more than anything right now—more, even, than locally exciting new transit mega-projects—is a more general (and generous) recasting of the transit conversation. While any number of important societal objectives will be helped by better transit, it’s a mistake to present transit as centrally a “social justice” issue—or for that matter as an environmental issue, a workforce transportation issue, a senior mobility issue or disability rights issue, to name just a few of transit’s familiar policy rationales. It is all of these, of course—but it is also much more.

Indeed, transit is an urban and regional quality-of-life issue that encompasses all these other concerns and many more without being reducible in any simple way to any one of them, and in a way that is greater than the sum of all of them.  We don’t just need to stop talking about transit as a policy intervention aimed at one or another problem or group.  We need to talk about it less as a policy intervention at all, and more as part of the basic equipment—like schools, parks, roads, and any number of other services and structures—of any functioning and prosperous metropolitan area.  Transit needs, in short, to be considered a community asset, the quality of which affects everyone, regardless of whether or how directly they rely on it.

But as Chris Rickert’s column helps remind us, until transit advocates find a compelling language for conveying this to a larger public, simply preserving decent transit against the cut-cut-cut mentality, to say nothing of winning support for major new transit projects, will remain a Sisyphean task.  That would be true at the best of times. It’s especially true in Walker’s Wisconsin and in the Age of Trump.


New year, fresh start

Of course, that's almost a cliche.  Hope springs eternal.  But if I'm more hopeful than usual about being able to re-start (and sustain) posts to this site, it's because the new year also brings new freedom from some other work obligations and more time to devote to this effort.

It's also because lately there is more to write about after a period of relative quiet on the Madison transportation (or at any rate, transit) scene.  To be sure, the "high speed" rail project killed by the Walker administration is still dead, as is the Regional Transit Authority, likewise done in by the incoming Republican executive and legislative regime several years ago.  And absent an RTA, any serious planning for local/regional high-capacity transit remains largely on hold.

But not entirely dormant.  There are at least some stirrings on the transit front, beginning with the recently completed bus rapid transit corridor study.  Planning for a new downtown intercity bus hub and transit center appears headed into a new phase based on a recommended site. And although Wisconsin's Milwaukee to Madison intercity rail project died aborning, Minnesota's plan to connect the Twin Cities with Chicago could yet put higher speed rail within reach of our fair city.

And then there's the Sustainable Madison Transportation Master Plan process, a roughly 18-month process which got under way at the end of last October and held its first public outreach and visioning session on December 19.  Expect much more on this somewhat low-profile but important process in future posts in the coming weeks.  It has the potential, at least, not only to pull together various strands of greater Madison's transportation conversation of recent years (many left at loose ends by the vagaries of funding and politics), but also to tie them to a more coherent vision of what a sustainable structure of urban mobility and access for Madison might look like.

Something to keep an eye on, certainly, and likely (along with the other processes mentioned above, and others) to provide grist for this transit-mad citizen's particular mill.  One of my resolutions, at least, is to keep my nose to the grindstone and shoulder to the wheel a bit more assiduously this year.

Of course, we all know what fate befalls the vast majority of New Year's resolutions.  But, as I said, hope springs eternal...


The 52% and the 49%

The poll by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (a conservative think tank) finding 52% of resondents opposed to the Milwaukee to Madison high speed rail project has received some play in the area press, dutifully reported by, among others, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and

Those stories didn't dig very deeply, mostly taking the results at face value and not getting into details like the wording of the questions.  But of course in any polling the wording matters mightily.  In this one, respondents were first asked simply "do you support or oppose the Milwaukee to Madison passenger rail project?"  No details about the project, just a lead-in observation that "there has recently been debate about whether the state of Wisconsin should go forward" with the project (whatever "the project" it is--fill in the blanks, I guess, with whatever one might imagine, or heard from politicians or on talk radio). 

If I knew little more about the project than that it is  controversial and that its future is in doubt--the not-so-subliminal message embedded in the question--I think I'd be more likely to "oppose" or at best not venture an opinion one way or another than to say "support."  But I can't help wondering if responses might have been different had the question been been something like: "Last year Wisconsin was awarded $810 million in federal funding to improve the rail line between Milwaukee and Madison and establish a new passenger train service between those two cities.  Do you support or oppose this idea?"

WPRI asked a second question on rail, responses to which it claims show that opposition grows when respondents "learn more" or are presented "more information" about the project.  Except that what that question offers isn't really more "information" but two straw-man arguments that provide a few (to say the least, selective) additional details then ask respondents to choose the argument closest to their point of view.  The only additional facts about the project--that it is being funded by 800 million in federal dollars which, if not used for this project, will be redirected to other states--are presented as something "supporters say," as if they were a matter of opinion.  On the other hand, something that really is a matter of opinion, that the federal funding will not cover the "inevitable cost overruns," is presented as something "opponents say" in a way implies truth value on a par with the factual statements of the supporters. Or perhaps greater truth value, since the way the word "inevitable" is slipped in leaves unclear whether the 'inevitability' of cost overruns is an opinion of opponents or a fact to which opponents are pointing in questioning the adequacy of the federal funding.  In any case, more seems to be going on in the crafting of this question than merely providing "more information."

That polls often have a particular slant isn't news.  It is worth noting that even a poll in which one might suspect an anti-rail slant still only found 52% outright "opposed" to the rail project.  The more interesting news is that only 1% each believe either stopping the train or saving the train should be a top priority for the new state leadership.  So any hopes for a groundswell of public outrage over losing the train (even by a substantial minority) that might prompt the governor-elect to rethink his decision to kill the project appear misplaced. 

The only slight glimmer of hope for rail supporters lies in the other responses to that same question about top state priorities, showing 49% believing improving the economy and protecting jobs should be job one.  That combined with fact that so few see stopping the train as a priority suggests there may be little real advantage to the governor-elect, and possibly a major downside, to getting bogged down in a prolonged fight over the train issue at the outset of his administration, particularly if it starts to seem like a distraction from his economy and jobs agenda. But that assumes supporters of the project can find a way to make a fight of it.

Whatever scant leverage rail supporters might have may hinge on that 49% or some critical subset thereof. Particularly if business leaders who have the governor-elect's ear, or the ear of key Republican legislators, are prepared to make the argument that the basic infrastructure this project would create, in the form of a rail line for fast movement of both passengers and freight between Wisconsin's two major cities (and between both those cities and Chicago), is a potential boon to the state economy--whatever one thinks of "the train" in the sense of a particular passenger rail service with particular service attributes--that might carry some weight.  So, perhaps, would the argument that shutting down the project undercuts the whole "Wisconsin is open for business" message by eliminating a major link between Wisconsin and the business markets in which it is trying to compete.

But that's a long shot.  Clearly, unless and until many in that 49% (many of whom presumably are also among the 52% who oppose the rail project) perceive a real link between their priority economic concerns and the potential benefits of the rail line (or at least the negative effects of killing it), a new leadership that clearly doesn't see that connection holds all the cards, and can claim further vindication in this poll.  The growing percentage of the population may see the connection eventually, just not in time to save the train this time around.  Alas, the next time around may be a long time coming.