Frequency versus Coverage. What are the trade-offs?

July 15, 2016

Frequency versus Coverage

Colorado Springs’ Mountain Metro Transit (MMT) and the Transit Coalition keep heralding 15-minute service and route consolidation as a way to attract bus ridership. It is easy to see the attraction. If you know that a bus will be coming withing the next 15-minutes, then there is really no need to consult a schedule. Trips downtown become more convenient, and without the need to find a parking space at your destination. Sounds good, right?

Jarrett Walker wrote a book on the subject. As Jeff Speck is to city planning, Jarrett Walker is to transit planning. He grew up in Portland, Oregon, a city dedicated to alternative modes of transportation. As a transit planner he helped redesign transit in Vancouver and acted as a consultant for many other major cities. I stumbled upon his blog while investigating the benefits of high-frequency, consolidated transit.

Mr. Walker starts his blog comparing transit to a business and bus patrons as customers…

Maximizing ridership is like maximizing the number of customers for any business.  You have to think like a business, and the first thing businesses do is choose which markets they will enter.   Unlike governments, businesses feel no obligation to provide their service in places where they would spend a lot of money to serve very few people.

He then goes on to explain that for public transit high ridership is not necessarily a gauge for success…

Commentators sometimes criticize transit authorities for low ridership, as though transit were a failing business.  But transit authorities are rarely directed to maximize ridership as their primary goal, so they’re not failing if they don’t.  In democracies, whoever makes the decisions for a transit authority is accountable to voters.  These officials listen to their constituents, and sometimes decide that to some degree, low-ridership services are necessary and important.  This is usually because either (a) someone feels entitled to service (“We pay taxes too!”) or (b) someone needs the service really badly (“If you cut this bus, we’ll be trapped.”).  Those can both be valid government purposes, but they lead to the creation of services where ridership is not the objective.  The objective, instead, is to satisfy (a) and/or (b) above.

Services whose purpose is not ridership are called coverage services — or at least I’ve been calling them that for over a decade and the term is catching on. Coverage is an apt term because the result is usually to spread out service over a vast area so that everyone gets a little bit, no matter where they live.

Spreading it out sounds great, but it also means spreading it thin.  Any fixed service budget, divided over such a huge number of routes, yields low frequency, maybe a bus once an hour, and not many people find that useful for reasons we’ll explore below.  So ridership is usually low on these services, exactly as we network designers expect. This can be fine, though, so long as everyone understands that ridership is not the goal.

So you will not begin to make clear transit choices until you are clear, at every moment, about whether you want transit service to have high ridership.  To the extent that you do, you need to tell transit agencies to think like businesses, which means deploying the service not where people feel entitled to it, or where they need it badly, but where the maximum ridership will result.  On the other hand, if you do want to respond to people’s expectations and needs, you need to carve out an exception to your desire for high ridership, because high ridership is not, in fact, what you’re advocating.

Did you just hear me say that we should deploy transit service for maximum ridership?  If so, read the last paragraph again. There is no “should.”  There is only a description of the consequences of choices that you, and your community, are free to make.

It’s not a yes-or-no question, of course.  A more precise question is: “what percentage of our resources should our transit authority spend pursuing maximum ridership?”  When transit authorities  answer that question, then everyone knows what the purpose of the service is.

He goes on give several advantages of high-frequency service to attract ridership and improve transit systems for the masses, but he makes very clear that the choice to run public transit as a business has disadvantages as well, and the decisions should be left to the community. To read the full blog post, click here.

To summarize, we need to decide what is best for our community. Do we want to serve the masses or do we want to serve those that really need buses? Obviously we would want to do both if possible, but in our case there are trade-offs because of limited resources and other factors. For example, UCCS made a choice to split the northern portion of the Nevada corridor between the UCCS campus and the Park-and-Ride across from the University Village Shopping Center in order to better serve the UCCS students who ride the bus. MMT complied by creating routes 9 and 19 respectively. MMT also decided to divert the buses from the Nevada core corridor down Cascade in order to better serve the riders that live in the Filmore/Dabling neighborhood north of Filmore and west of Cascade. In this case the frequency was not reduced, but the distance was increased slightly to better serve those that use the bus in this area.

Frequency versus Coverage = Choice versus Captive

In general, high-frequency transit better serves choice riders; whereas coverage services better serve captive riders. Choice riders are those that choose to ride the bus out of convenience and captive riders are those that depend on the bus for their independence.

In the three (3) public meetings this past week hosted by MMT to solicit feedback on the Fall 2016 bus service changes, I heard a lot of comments from transit advocates (that don’t necessarily ride the bus through our neighborhood) to keep 15-minute service through the Old North End and Patty Jewett neighborhoods. However, riders that actually use the bus in our neighborhood were advocating for buses to return to Wahsatch Avenue, even if it reduces the frequency to 30 minutes (BTW- The route down Wahsatch was previously 60-minute service, so most riders that need to reach the amenities down Wahsatch still see this as an improvement).

I find it ironic that the Independence Center (who started and leads the Transit Coalition) keeps pushing for high-frequency service in our neighborhood in favor of a coverage system preferred by the people they serve. To be fair, they are supporting option 1 in the proposed bus changes (Nevada/Weber) that put the buses closer to the amenities down Wahsatch by one block, while attempting to keep the buses close enough together to still function as 15-minute service, but in essence they are still willing to compromise the convenience of captive riders in favor of choice riders. They are trying to have it all, but I feel that this compromise serves neither group well.

But what I find unfair and disheartening is the press and ADA advocates accusing the Old North End neighborhood of being anti-bus or not caring about the needs of captive riders. They must not be attending the same meetings I am attending. The captive riders that commented at these meetings are overwhelmingly in favor of the ONEN Bus Plan that returns buses to Wahsatch where they are needed, while placing a bus on Cascade for greater coverage and efficiency, both at a quite reasonable 30-minute interval, and maintaining 15-minute service to points north and south of the neighborhood. The ONEN Bus Plan (or option 2 as being proposed by MMT) is as close to a have-it-all scenario as can be reached within the constraints of our neighborhoods.

Safety Trumps All

Even if MMT and the residents of the Old North End and Patty Jewett neighborhoods elected to support choice riders over captive riders in our neighborhood, where would the 15-minute bus service go? MMT would prefer Nevada Avenue. This again seems to be a logical choice. It is nice and straight and is already a busy street. What harm would a few more buses do?

Maybe we should ask the families of the four (4) traffic fatalities on Nevada over the last four years. Or the victims of over half of the accidents that resulted in injuries within the Old North End. This places the 1.4-mile stretch of Nevada through the Old North End as one of the deadliest places to drive (per mile) in the city; and this is a residential street with families and kids and pets. Nevada goes 1/2 block from Steele Elementary where kids cross before and after school, some without the help of a crosswalk because the City does not think Nevada is safe enough to have one. But they cross anyway.

I have also heard the argument that buses can make Nevada safer. I have not been able to find any evidence of this phenomenon. In fact, there has already been a bus-related accident on Nevada in just the 2nd month of service. There have also been several neighbors reporting being in near misses as buses are unable to pull completely out of the right traffic lane at bus stops, causing cars to swerve into the left lane of traffic unexpectedly.

There are only two (2) predominantly residential areas out of the ~56 miles of core corridor as defined by MMT’s 2040 plan. They are 1.4 miles through the Old North End and about 1 mile down Boulder east of Nevada. These core corridors are:

  • Academy Boulevard – A commercial 6-lane road with strip malls.
  • US-24 – A federal highway with some overpasses and commercial areas.
  • Garden of the Gods/Austin Bluffs – A commercial 6-lane road with some overpasses.
  • Colorado Avenue – Mixed commercial and residential, but unfortunately most of the historic residential homes are gone.
  • Boulder/Platte – 6-lane commercial and mixed except for about 1-mile residential on Boulder
  • Nevada Avenue – Commercial and mixed except for 1.4 miles through the Old North End residential and historic districts.

So I ask you these questions:

  • Is it acceptable that a historic residential neighborhood is placed in the same category as these other streets?
  • Is it acceptable to have one (1) fatal car accident per year on a residential street 1/2 block from an elementary school?
  • Is it acceptable for the City to cast a blind eye to obvious safety issues on this stretch of Nevada?
  • Is it acceptable to make conditions worse by adding buses to the mix?

As a parent to a Steele Elementary student that crosses Nevada twice per day. I say no to all of the questions above. I ask the Independence Center and Traffic Coalition to make an exception to their 15-minute service for 1.4 miles (2.5%) of the 56-miles of core corridor in the name of safety in my neighborhood. I ask the Independence Center to listen to the people they are supposed to be serving that want bus service down Wahsatch Avenue. I ask the City to make Nevada Avenue a priority, and improve safety on this most deadly residential street.

Please sign the petition to support the ONEN Bus Plan.

[emailpetition id=”2″ width=”100%”]


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