Passenger Transport May 2020 Vol 78 No 9 - 2
C O M M E N TA R Y
BY JARRETT WALKER
President and Principal Consultant
Jarrett Walker + Associates
The Source for Public Transportation News and Analysis
VOLUME 78, NUMBER 9
Published bi-weekly by the American Public Transportation
Association, 1300 I St., NW, Suite 1200 East, Washington, DC
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COVID-19: A Chance to
Rethink Our Goals
It is the mission of Passenger Transport to communicate
news and information about public transportation and
to serve as the voice of the public transportation industry.
Suddenly, all our goals have turned upside down.
E'VE BEEN TRAINED TO THINK OF RIDERSHIP
as a measure of public transit's success, but
now, with most of our ridership gone, we're
expected to keep running service. We used
to spend our communications and advertising money trying
to attract riders; now, we're spending it to keep them away.
Before, we were criticized for empty buses and trains, but
now we're criticized if we don't offer lots of empty space.
Even if we weren't dealing with so many other aspects of
the crisis, these lurching changes in our reason for existing
would be enough to make us seasick.
As we emerge from the chaos of the sudden onset of
the pandemic and begin planning for the long recovery,
we must seize this opportunity to start a new conversation
about public transit's goals. Because if people don't know
what we're trying to do, they won't know whether we're
Transit agencies' goals have always been contradictory.
There's the old ridership/coverage tradeoff, where leaders
tell us: "We're judging you on ridership, but don't cut that
bus route that only five people use, because those five people really need it." For years, I've helped boards give their
staff non-contradictory direction about that.
But now, a deeper conversation about goals is emerging.
Who is the transit market? For too long, we've been told to
think of our riders as either "dependent" or "choice," based
on whether they had the option of driving for the trip. We
need to stop using these words. They're confusing and
polarizing. They can subconsciously encourage racial and
class stereotypes. Most importantly, they don't tell the real
story of what transit achieves, or how we achieve it.
Obviously, most people are neither totally "dependent"
nor totally "choice." In the last decade, many riders who
would have been classified as dependent bought cars or
found other alternatives. When some decision-makers hear
the word "dependent," they sometimes hear: "Those people
are stuck with us, so we don't need to care about whether
they're happy." We know that's false. People will buy cars if
inadequate service forces them to.
Meanwhile, most of the riders we think of as "choice"
have good reasons not to drive, such as congestion, cost
and stress. In our cities, many people have chosen not to
own a car, even though they could afford one. Are these
people "choice" or "dependent?" At best, these terms
define ends of a spectrum. Most people, most of the time,
are in the middle. When we've succeeded in ridership
terms, it's been among this "middle 80 percent," people
who have some reason not to drive but who also make free
and consequential choices.
This has always been true, but now we have a new story.
As you sit at home, are you grateful that hospitals, grocery
stores and pharmacies are functioning? If so, you have to
thank those low-income essential workers. That means you
need to thank the public transit agency that is heroically
getting those workers to their jobs.
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A deeper conversation about
goals is emerging. Who is the
transit market? For too long,
we've been told to think of our
riders as either "dependent"
or "choice," based on whether
they had the option of driving
for the trip. We need to stop
using these words.
This, too, has always been true, but now it should
be obvious to everyone. Many of the people that we've
thought of as "dependent" are holding our civilization
together. We all depend on them, so if they are "transit
dependent," then so are we all.
We must tell this story, because if we let ourselves be
judged on ridership, or on how well we serve "choice" riders, then we have a losing battle ahead. For a while, many
of our more affluent riders will be working at home, and
when they travel, they'll probably feel safer in their cars. So,
our success will lie mostly in serving the vast and diverse
range of people who do not have a car handy, for whatever
reason. If we are to get support for that, we must tell a new
story about how important these people are.
A while back, a successful transit funding campaign in
Salem, Oregon used the line, "Someone you know needs
the bus." But now we can also say: "People on the bus are
holding your world together. And they've always been doing
We must also talk about ridership more carefully. Journalists like to write alarming stories about ridership loss. Most
of these stories imply that ridership is the only measure of
public transit's success, and also ridership is mostly a result
of something transit agencies are doing.
We all know that ridership isn't just the result of service.
Ridership is about the economy, the public health situation and the prices of alternatives. We must also remind
our municipal partners that ridership is about things they
control: the development pattern, the street design and the
cycling and walking options. There are things agencies can
do about ridership, but ridership will go up and down for all
those other reasons, even as our value to the community
remains the same. That's always been true, but now it's
Public transit is not a business. In cities, especially, we
must think of transit more as a utility, like streets or the
water system. That's reason enough to support it, but only
if we tell the right stories.
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Nuria I. Fernandez, Chair
Jeffrey A. Nelson, Vice Chair
Freddie C. Fuller II, Secretary-Treasurer
David M. Stackrow Sr., Immediate Past Chair
Executive Committee Members
Dorval R. Carter Jr., Chicago Transit Authority
Francis "Buddy" Coleman, Clever Devices Ltd.
Michael Goldman, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority
Huelon A. Harrison, Legacy Resource Group
Kevin J. Holzendorf, Jacksonville Transportation Authority
Board of Directors
Karen H. King, Golden Empire Transit District
Michele Wong Krause, Dallas Area Rapid Transit
Jeanne Krieg, Eastern Contra Costa Transit Authority
Thomas C. Lambert, Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County
Adelee Marie Le Grand, Atlanta-Region Transit Link Authority
Richard J. Leary, Toronto Transit Commission
Henry Li, Sacramento Regional Transit District
Raymond J. Melleady, USSC Group
Brad Miller, Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority
Allan Pollock, Salem-Keizer Transit
Leanne P. Redden, Regional Transportation Authority
Catherine Rinaldi, MTA Metro-North Railroad
Doug Tisdale, Regional Transportation District, Denver
William T. Thomsen, Urban Engineers
Matthew O. Tucker, North County Transit District
Thomas Waldron, HDR
President and CEO
Paul P. Skoutelas
Pamela L. Boswell, Vice President-Workforce Development and
David Carol, Chief Operating Officer
Linda C. Ford, General Counsel
Christina Garneski, Vice President-Meetings and Membership
Arthur Guzzetti, Vice President-Mobility Initiatives
and Public Policy
John S. Henry, Chief Financial Officer
Kym L. Hill, Vice President-Executive Office & Corporate Secretary
Jeff Hiott, Vice President-Technical Services and Innovation
Shelley Taggart Kee, Vice President-Human Resources &
Ward W. McCarragher, Vice President-Government Affairs and
Petra Mollet, Vice President-Strategic and International Programs
Rosemary Sheridan, Vice President-Communications
Passenger Transport May 2020 Vol 78 No 9
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Passenger Transport May 2020 Vol 78 No 9
Passenger Transport May 2020 Vol 78 No 9 - bb1
Passenger Transport May 2020 Vol 78 No 9 - bb2
Passenger Transport May 2020 Vol 78 No 9 - 1
Passenger Transport May 2020 Vol 78 No 9 - 2
Passenger Transport May 2020 Vol 78 No 9 - 3
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Passenger Transport May 2020 Vol 78 No 9 - 5
Passenger Transport May 2020 Vol 78 No 9 - 6
Passenger Transport May 2020 Vol 78 No 9 - 7