Transit Expansion or Better Transit Operation

Visitor Question: Some people in our metro area are grappling with the question of whether it is better to expand our light rail system's length or spend the money on improving the day-to-day operation of the transit system, which includes some light rail, but mostly bus. There is also an on-demand system available to certain customers.

The light rail is used somewhat more by white customers and the bus system has more minority riders for sure. Some want the bus system expanded to help "those who really need it," which I think is racist in its implications. (Don't we all need and deserve good public transportation?) Further, I think our minority majority neighborhoods deserve light rail just as much as the somewhat affluent neighborhoods.

Another problem is that the bus system is really stressed right now because lack of operators has made service reductions and route eliminations a regular event around here. So my question is how should we think about which approach will be better?

Editors Respond: As you may be aware, much transit funding in the U.S. comes from the federal government. This funding source far outstrips fares.

This is relevant to your question because the federal system seems to reward building new infrastructure more than it prioritizes service improvements.

Our overview answer is that you need to do both, especially if your fixed system (in your case, light rail) is inadequate for the demand and for increasing the utility of the system by serving all or most of the popular destinations and workplaces.

Therefore, we would not discourage you from seeking federal funding for light rail expansion, with one big caveat. Make sure your community actually can afford to operate the system well, using a combination of federal operating subsidies, fares, and any local sources of funding.

If your city builds a light rail expansion that does not generate more ridership, does not go the right places, and is not kept clean, comfortable, and safe, it may not be worth it.

While the Metropolitan Planning Organization structure in the U.S. usually provides system planning with a long time horizon, make sure that the overall game plan for your light rail system makes sense.

But as you seem to sense, high quality in bus operations also is essential in most cities. This is true because people need reliability in terms of the bus staying on schedule and being well maintained. If the system experiences petty crime, high-profile major crimes, dirt, and culturally offensive behaviors, you can have the best engineered timetable and routes imaginable, and still fail. Word of negative events spreads quickly, so it is incredibly important that the bus system be reliable and pleasant.

Racial equity questions are important, even if just under the surface, in the discussion of transit in many cities. Our best advice is to ask, ask, ask, and then listen, listen, listen to all the major racial and ethnic groups. People planning or advocating with the transit system need to spend plenty of time talking to actual transit riders about their concerns. Many of them will not point their phones to the customer service QR codes to give feedback, but if you ask in a kind and receptive way, they have plenty of opinions and experiences to share.

Get an outside group or company to conduct focus groups with operators for their important feedback also. This would be especially true in your situation, since you indicate there is a labor shortage. But regardless of labor issues, these folks have plenty of information and anecdotes that they will share if they are absolutely guaranteed confidentiality in a way that feels secure for them.

Another important issue for you is to use your influence in the community to try to orient your transit agency toward facing reality about ride hailing and ride sharing services. Due to the preference toward privacy in the U.S., the transit system needs to be a whole lot cheaper and better at getting people close to where they need to go than whatever ride hailing companies operate in your community.

We touch on this point in our article about the larger upcoming issue of transit and autonomous vehicles. You may think self-driving cars and even busses are a long way off into the future, but when you are considering the expansion of a fixed route light rail line, you really need to wrestle with what this future may mean. When ride hailing and autonomous vehicles are paired, the result will be powerful. In our article linked above, we urge transit agencies themselves to try to take control of ride hailing to the extent possible. (We say "to the extent possible" because ride hailing has a huge head start in many cities.)

In short, we urge a robust community dialogue about transit needs, the current and projected future health of the transit system, and how future transportation technologies and preferences impact your community's decisions. This just sounds like a silly platitude in many cities, since the transit users often are not the power people. In many cities community leaders don't ever use transit and are unfamiliar with either its efficiency at delivering one to desired destinations or its operational challenges and comfort. This means that before you can have meaningful community dialogue, often a measure of community role playing and education is necessary so that people in charge understand at an emotional level what it means to be transit dependent and what it might mean to be delighted by the public transportation option.

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