Sunday, January 31st, 2010

Framework: Transit Ridership

You might have a hard time believing I’ve spent most of my career in consulting due to the lack of Power Point presentations on my blog. While I’ll admit to not being partial to the tool, I can create frameworks. Going forward, I’ll occasionally share some that are relevant to cities, starting today with public transit.

Last year I won first prize in a global transit competition sponsored by the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce. The goal was to devise a strategy for boosting regional transit ridership to one billion rides annually. If you’d like, you can read my winning entry, which won out over 125 others from around the world.

My plan includes over 50 potential actions that could be undertaken. You could think of them as being organized around the following framework.

In short, to boost ridership you need to create ridership demand, which you accomplish by increasing the number of transit addressable trips, then making transit the mode of choice for them. You then have to supply the capacity and pay for it, as well as creating an appropriate governance and operating model structure.

Generating transit addressable trips comes primarily by boosting CBD employment and land use policy changes. Making transit the mode of choice involves creating a transit service with the right mix of price, end-to-end journey time, and quality of experience versus other modes. Capacity is provided by more efficiently utilizing what you have and building new where appropriate. Financing – which includes capital and operating – typically comes from a mixture of federal assistance, sales taxes, and fares. I would favor a greater reliance on transit value capture, however.

To give some further perspective on this, I’ll share some considerations around various aspects of the framework.

Generating Transit Addressable Trips

Transit addressable trips are those that can reasonably be served by public transit. For example, a trip to Wal-Mart anchored shopping center or a suburban office park is generally fairly difficult to service by transit, at least for choice riders. We need to generate demand for more of the trips that are.

For work trips, the place to start is the Central Business District. CBD’s are generally fairly dense, constitute the largest single employment base in the region, were historically served by transit and thus are walkable, and are generally the focus of the transit that exists today, at least in the United States. The more jobs in the CBD, the better for transit.

Unfortunately, this is a challenging matter. Jobs have been decentralizing from downtowns for decades. Most cities have a fairly low percentage of their regional jobs in the CBD. This isn’t per se a problem as long as the CBD holds a significant job base, as it does in places like New York and Chicago.

The problem is that outside of the tier one cities, CBD employment has been experiencing absolute declines. Last year a Toledo Blade series documented how all of Ohio’s top seven downtowns were losing jobs. Even a great performing city like Columbus lost over 12,000 private sector downtown jobs between 2000 and 2005. This is not to pick on Ohio since I’d speculate most other places would show the same.

I have done a lot of thinking on this topic, but we’ll have to save that for another day. Suffice it to say that this will be a challenge outside of tier one cities. But as the key to the central city’s tax base, it’s an important matter to tackle even without the transit considerations.

Beyond that, land use policy is something I’m sure my readers already get. You need some level of density and walkability along transit lines and near rail stations.

Making Transit the Mode of Choice

Apart from a small hard core, I fundamentally do not believe people will choose to ride transit to save the planet or otherwise because it is the right thing to do. Rather, they are going to make the mode choice that seems best to them based on a combination of price, end-to-end journey time, and quality of experience.

Price again is where the CBD is poised to shine since that typically features expensive parking. This is the easy lever to win. Outside of CBD commuting though, the price equation can change dramatically. When you can park for free near a restaurant, for example, the price of round trip bus fare for two ($9 in Chicago) is a material amount of money. Heck, you can sometimes valet park for less than that. This off peak, non-commute price disincentive is one reason suggested that small cities should have fareless transit.

Price is also a consideration for automobile. Pricing roadway travel, especially congestion pricing to help ease peak of the peak travel, could potentially help transit even more. Also parking prices and taxes.

End to end journey time will almost always favor the automobile. It’s tough to address that. Most of the periods that feature express runs are during peak periods, targeting CBD commuters only, which is a group that already has reasons to take transit. Again, this is going to be tough for transit, but not necessarily a killer.

Quality of experience is an interesting one. Generally I think many people would prefer the private interior of their own car to a bus or train with other people. However, there’s a lot that can be done to make the experience better, as anyone who has used a first class overseas transit system can attest. And of course commuting in bad traffic is like a form of torture at times.

Also, the rise of wireless devices means transit time can be productive time. This might even favor longer commutes by transit since you can get some uninterrupted work time. Many people I know get lots of work done on Metra trains, for example.


It’s obvious that we need to build the capacity to serve the market we want, but I’d like to highlight the idea of optimization of existing capacity. Public transit is to some extent like an airline. Once you decide how many vehicles and runs to put on the street, it is more or less a fixed cost business to operate. So you want to make sure that none of those seats go empty.

As with many things, adding capacity at the peak of the peak period is costly. For example, the CTA spent $550 million to lengthen platforms to enable eight car Ravenswood L trains that are only needed during rush periods. The rest of the time that capacity is useless.

To avoid having to add this type of very expensive but limited use capacity, we should look at how we can shift peak demand to shoulder periods or off peak. Variable pricing is one way to do this. I already wrote about this in my post “Transit Pricing Reconsidered.”

Of course, this is a nice problem to have. Many smaller cities would dearly love to have fully occupied buses.


How do we pay for this? Typically capital comes from a mixture of federal grants and bonds backed by sales taxes. Operating subsidies also come from things like sales and real estate transfer taxes. One problem with this is that it implies funding a more or less fixed cost system with variable/cyclical revenues. Without healthy reserves, this will lead to periodic “doomsdays”.

My preferred method of financing is transit value capture, where transit is funded through increases in the land values created by transit. I wrote about this previously as well.

Governance and Operating Models

This is not the sexy part of transit, but needs to be carefully considered. Often the current structures are more or less the result of legacy choices and aren’t appropriate to the current or desired environment. Changing them can be politically difficult, however. Part of this is recognizing that no system of government investment will be made purely on an ROI basis. Thus we need to find a way to strike the right balance among civic objectives in a way that enables real benefits to be delivered.

Obviously this only touches the surface of these items. I just wanted highlight some of the matters that must be considered when planning transit systems inside of an overall high-level framework for doing so.

Topics: Strategic Planning, Transportation

21 Responses to “Framework: Transit Ridership”

  1. Alon Levy says:

    A few of the methods used in France, the German-speaking world, and East Asia, include:

    – Proof of payment fare collection on buses and commuter trains. On commuter trains, it means fewer employees per train, reducing labor costs. On buses, it means the bus can move while people are paying, increasing speed. On very high-volume lines, POP should be replaced by subway-style faregates. Under no circumstances should customers have to pay the driver at the door or pay a conductor.

    – Integrated fares, with a high discount encouraging the use of unlimited monthly cards. This reduces the need for ticket vending machines at train stations, reducing costs, and allows people to board buses without payment, reducing dwells.

    – Off-board fare collection on buses.

    – Rail transit expansion plans geared toward complete neighborhood-to-neighborhood networks, not just service to downtown.

    – Direct development of station footprints with high-rise office and retail complexes, rather than selling said development to the private sector. However, congested station concourses should maximize passenger circulation space even at the expense of concession rent.

    – Emphasis on schedule adherence rather than speed, at least for lines that aren’t very frequent. In fact a survey of Metra riders shows they care about reliability more than anything else.

    – Signal priority throughout the bus system.

  2. Wad says:

    Aaron, I also talked about this on MetroRiderLA last year.

    Admittedly, it’s a slogan that will inspire no one. Yet it’s a way for transit to get where it needs to be.

    The title is self-explanatory: Aspiring to mediocrity.

    The problem is, most transit agencies don’t even provide a service that would be the definition of mediocre, which is a half-way point.

    Aaron, Indianapolis is a perfect example of a region that needs to get to mediocrity first.

    Indianapolis is the 11th largest city in the U.S. Out of the 100 largest transit agency, IndyGo is … No. 100. It has a total of 156 buses.

    Your peer agency, Lane Transit District (Eugene/Springfield, Ore.), has the same number of buses but it has invested in a bus rapid transit service.

    The thing is, though, no area can just say it wants \mass transit.\ You don’t want to take money, which has a numerical amount, and try to buy a result with a nebulous term. The service output must also be a quantity.

    My own definition of how much service a transit system needs to provide in order to become mediocre:
    Frequency: The service floor must be 30 minutes, regardless of line productivity.
    Coverage: Services must have a maximum of one mile bidirectional space between routes. (I emphasize bidirectional because a lot of small bus systems maximize coverage area by running one-way loops.)
    Span: The entire network must run at least 16 hours a day. There is no excuse for a system that shuts down at dusk.

    If a system cannot provide this level of service, it shouldn’t think about putting in even a BRT line. Don’t even think about putting in any kind of rail.

    Once this base is established and there’s enough ridership to warrant expanded service, it’s time to start adding \quality\ services in the mix. Quality means a service output, not a capital input.

    A quality service component would be to set a standard for competitive bus services. That would mean:
    Frequency: Having a service that runs at least every 15 minutes off-peak.
    Coverage: Offering a high-frequency service grid with a maximum space of 2 miles, and offering transfer connections with at least 50% of all the routes in the transit system.
    Span: The high-frequency services must run as much off-peak service as possible.

    If the frequent service takes hold, then it’s time to start thinking about major investment studies.

  3. cdc guy says:

    Amen, Wad. A bus-transit “grid” seems to be what you’re describing, and I fully agree that’s what is needed in Indy.

  4. Wad says:

    CDC guy, it sounds like you live in Indianapolis. This might be the right track, no pun intended, for Indy to develop its transit culture.

    Aaron wrote about why rail transit is a bad idea in Indianapolis. I agree with him, but I drew my conclusions when I thumbed through some IndyGo bus schedules.

    Darn near every line runs hourly! In the 11th largest city in the U.S.!

    The only people who can settle for hourly service are elderly shut-ins. If you have a destination that revolves around someone else’s schedule — a worker or student, namely — a bus that comes around once an hour is useless.

    Before you can run a marathon, you must learn how to run. Before you can run, you must learn how to walk.

    Indy’s a place that must learn to walk. Any sort of MIS-level service (BRT or rail) will be a misallocation of resources. That’s because a transit system functions as a network; a system is only good as its routes and connections.

    If Indy wants to “run the marathon,” it certainly can, but it takes some money and a lot of time.

    Phoenix had the right idea. Yes, Phoenix of all places.

    Cities who belonged to the Valley Metro district had a chance to vote on a sales tax increase to invest substantially in mass transit. Shockingly, it passed.

    Yes, it might have had a lot to do with the light rail line at the heart of the proposition. The way the ballot measure was presented, though, was that light rail would be the dessert — not the main course.

    The first order of business was to add Sunday bus service, which Phoenix did not have until 2000! About two years later, Valley Metro selected a half dozen corridors for 15 minute weekday service and elevate most mainline routes to 30 minute service every day. And each year after that, it was adding incremental improvements such as night service or bumping more half-hourly routes to 15 minute service. Along the way, Valley Metro added its interpretation of bus rapid transit — a peak-hour suburb-to-downtown park & ride freeway express bus service.

    Light rail did not come until the very end. Also, the starter line chosen ran through three cities and replaced what was then Phoenix’s busiest bus route, the Red Line.

    All eyes were on the train. Most of Phoenix doubted that anyone would want to take it, because a single route “doesn’t go everywhere.” No, but light rail goes to the places in Phoenix that matter: a shopping mall at the north end, downtown Phoenix, near the airport, and Arizona State University and its college district.

    The bus line followed the same route, but an end-to-end trip took 2.5 hours. Light rail makes the same trip in about an hour and 10 minutes. It now carries 30,000 boardings a day, the single busiest service in Phoenix by far.

    This is a timeline of 10-20 years, but it provided the building blocks for a strong system. Start by adding buses, form a ridership base, then add improvements to get to the point where a major investment is worthwhile.

  5. cdc guy says:

    Elsewhere on Aaron’s blog there have been extensive debates on HSR in the Midwest, and my answer to the HSR advocates has always been exactly your points: it’s pointless unless we build a transit culture…which means “spend the money on IndyGo first”.

    I generally agree also with Aaron’s argument against a “build rail now” sentiment, unless it is used as a way to help with a bus-grid system. The Indy rail concept is almost entirely driven by the notion of serving inbound suburban commuters and I have some problems with that.

  6. Wad says:

    CDC guy, you can’t “build” a transit culture. You don’t want to spend money on an ethereal concept.

    You have to run service attractive enough that people would want to use the service. That means high frequencies, a long service span, and a network that covers its origins and destinations well.

    That’s not a cultural shift, that’s just sound business.

    I disagree with the premise that HSR lives or dies by the quality of public transit at the station. They are complementary, but they aren’t a deal-breaker.

    The time-frame is much different. Expanding IndyGo follows a timeline of 3 to 10 years. That’s how slow transit is: Three years is considered immediate! (That’s because it will take time for the subsidy pot to fill, and a bus order takes two years to fill. Another year would cover the acquisition of land for bus garages and a few months to train drivers, maintenance crews and supervisors.)

    High-speed rail would be another 10-25 years. So yeah, a head-start is not unreasonable.

    Say Indianapolis won’t get HSR for decades. Does that give Indy an excuse to starve transit? Hardly. IndyGo still has employers, learning facilities, medical centers and sports venues to serve. IndyGo must meet the needs of Indianapolis riders first.

    What if Indianapolis is supportive of high-speed rail but not IndyGo expansion? Will HSR fail because riders would be stranded at the station? Likely, no. If IndyGo doesn’t step up, the void would be filled by car rental agencies, airport vans or private buses run by hotels. If you have these resources serving airport traffic, these businesses would want a part of the HSR action.

  7. Alon Levy says:

    CDC Guy: if rail is built according to American suburban mores, then yes, it will only serve the suburbs and will fail. That’s why it’s useful to learn from other countries’ experiences. Calgary built urban light rail, reconfigured the buses to feed it, stopped ripping up downtown for cars, and got high transit ridership. Phoenix seems to be heading in the high ridership direction as well.

  8. cdc guy says:

    Wad and Alon, I agree with you both and have often said that very thing: fix IndyGo (more frequency; web the system instead of using an outmoded hub and spoke; attract discretionary riders) and don’t overlay a suburban rail system on a failed bus system until the bus system is fixed.

  9. David Parvo says:

    Web the system instead of using an outmoded hub and spoke model…Indeed. I couldn’t agree with you more. Our transit agency here in Austin has recently proposed building a centralized bus transfer facility downtown.

    I was asked to put together some talking points about this and reached the conclusion that “Filtering people through a hub or a series of hubs is wasteful and inefficient compared to the direct point-to-point model, which can reduce transport emissions and operational costs. Their proposal only serves to burnish its tarnished image, not with improved service but with symbolism.”

  10. Very nice graphic. I need to upgrade my ability to generate graphics. Anyway, I agree with the need to build and communicate about robust frameworks. The little blogging I do now is mostly about frameworks.

    Anyway, while my approach to transpo planning framework generation is more from the 20,000 feet in the air standpoint, your graphic communicates well the issues at the intersection of transportation planning generally and transit service and operations.

    wrt the comments, clearly people need better frameworks.

    e.g., hub and spoke works on certain spatial scales and optimizes trips, especially when there are fairly high trip generating activity centers. When they are dispersed, it doesn’t work. Yes, point to point is better, but you need tight links between population and activity centers and high density. Outside of the few places where transit can work pretty well, especially NYC, Boston, DC, SF, and to some extent Chicago, you don’t have many examples of such in the U.S.

    That’s where you need my concepts/framework to optimize transportation planning:

    – (inter)national transit network
    – metropolitan transit network
    – LOS. LOQ, and network robustness for the region vs. LOS for the transit service operation
    – transit shed planning
    – mobility shed planning
    – TDM planning at the mobility shed
    – and then operationalizing transit service and operations.

    All of this presupposes linking transportation and land use policy and practice. Otherwise, mass transit can’t be very effective because you have no mass.

  11. Alon Levy says:

    On the contrary: hub and spoke works worst in small cities, whose employment pattern isn’t hub and spoke. If you look at what Calgary did, yes, its light rail system funnels into one downtown corridor, but it makes sure to put the outlying station near retail and encourages reverse commuting.

    By global standards, New York’s rail transit system is marginal. It gets fewer riders per person than small cities in France and Germany. Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco’s transit is horrific.

  12. Richard, glad you liked it. A

  13. I don’t deal with small cities, but large ones. But yes, linking transit stations to activity centers is the way to make things work better, in any size place actually, but especially in smaller places, because without intensity and focus you can’t make transit work.

    WRT the NYC to small cities in Europe comparison, what matters really is the dispersion of population on a metropolitan basis. As long as you have that in North America and especially in the U.S., and not in “small cities” in France and Germany, not to mention super high fees to (1) become licensed to drive; (2) for car registrations; (3) excise taxes on car purchases; and (4) high gasoline excise taxes in Europe and not in the U.S., you are never going to have as high rates of transit ridership.

    Frankly, considering all the incentives and policies that promote automobility in the U.S., that some cities hold their own in terms of transit use is really quite remarkable.

    As far as DC proper goes, it’s because of the overlaying of a subway system on a relatively dense street grid and employment center at the core that mass transit works. On a metropolitan basis even so, the car is king. But for people who make decisions that leverage the spatial conditions and transit access, it works out quite well.

  14. Alon Levy says:

    New York doesn’t have high gas taxes, but it has expensive parking. And the current gas prices in the US are about the same as German gas prices were until the late 1990s, when the government hiked gas taxes as a precondition for the Greens to join the governing coalition.

    The population in New York isn’t very dispersed, either. Its weighted population density is much higher than this of most of its European peer cities; there are few European cities with any quarter as dense as the average census tract in Greater New York. The overall urban area population density is low because on the urban fringes people live on mansions, but if you weight density by population and not area, New York suddenly doesn’t look so dispersed.

    Washington’s problem is different. It doesn’t even play at the level of second-tier European cities. Its transit mode share is lower than this of low-density Sunbelt-style cities in Canada and Australia, where gas taxes are barely higher than in the US.

  15. Wad says:

    Hub-and-spoke networks are implemented for the needs of transit agencies, not riders.

    The rule of transfers is that they work the best with the fewest interchanges possible. Small cities have hub-and-spoke networks with a central transfer point because there are either no places to transfer elsewhere or, more likely, it’s hard to coordinate a stop at every intersection.

    The few cities with high-frequency services (New York, L.A., Chicago, San Francisco) can allow for transfers anywhere on the grid because the services run so often that the transfer penalties are minimal and it becomes harder to time-transfer frequent services.

    In the case of Indianapolis or David Parvo’s Austin, IndyGo and Capital Metro provide low-frequency services, so central transfer points are necessary. Grid transfers when they can’t be coordinated are particularly unpleasant for services that don’t run often.

    Central does not necessarily mean the main stop downtown. Central means buses meeting at a central stop anywhere in the city. If the transit agencies can run a sustainable “crosstown” line (one that avoids downtown), then they should implement them by all means.

  16. Wad says:

    Aaron and cdc guy, you might want to investigate this plan to upgrade transit in Indianapolis. The Transport Politic has a write-up:

  17. cdc guy says:

    Wad, it’s all over the news here.

    Its essential features are: upgrade bus LOS by increasing frequency to 10-20 minutes; strengthen crosstown routes away from the downtown core; add suburban express routes; add light rail and commuter rail elements; pay for it all with a 0.35-0.5% sales tax as well as reallocation of some highway dollars.

    While rail is the sexy element, the real keys to success are funding and better bus service.

    I think we’ve all read it here first. :) Glad to know that the national experts agree with thinking Hoosiers.

  18. Alon Levy says:

    The commuter line is kind of meh, but the light rail line is actually a good idea.

  19. cdc guy says:

    I agree, Alon. (Disclaimer: I live within a 5-7 minute walk from the line and would be able to use it to go grocery shopping, mall shopping, and attend downtown events and museums, as well as to catch a bus to work from downtown.)

    That line would serve an already-dense area that was laid out with streetcar service, and which attracts people interested in urban living…people like me who avoid the bus because the service is so bad.

  20. Wad says:

    I’m with Alon about the commuter rail component, and I have my reservations about light rail in Indy.

    CDC guy, as you’ve said, the key is to get better bus service out of the deal. More importantly, it needs to be the first and most visible improvement. That’s what I liked about Phoenix’s investment in transit. It let the buses find their ridership legs, then added in light rail once that base was established.

    Commuter rail may be a cheap way to get rail, but you’ll get what you pay for. And you’ll pay for it.

    Read Houston transit advocate Christof Speiler’s excellent piece, “8 Habits of Highly Successful Commuter Rail Lines.”

    Indianapolis doesn’t really need commuter rail as it’s envisioned on the map. IndyConnect can accomplish the same things with an express bus network.

    Otherwise, Indiana should think of intercity rail suitable for commuters. Build an all-day service, but take it beyond the commuting sphere to the university towns of Lafaeyette and Muncie.

    It’s not a far-fetched idea. Utah has one commuter rail line between Salt Lake City and Ogden, but it runs 30 minutes bidirectionally weekdays, and for 20 hours!

  21. Wad says:

    And now, another mass transit plan with more quixotic ambitions. The Transport Politic reports on fast-growing Nashville’s $6.5 billion effort to build a network of light rail lines.

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