Main | The real battle behind (and beyond) BRT »

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.

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