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System reimagining is hard work

Jarrett Walker, who consulted with Metro on bus system reimagining, wants you to know that it was harder than it looked.

These no-new-resources restructurings always involve cutting some low-ridership services to add higher-ridership ones, and these can be incredibly painful decisions for boards, civic leaders, and transit managements. Civic officials can come out looking better at the ends of these processes, because the result is a transit system that spends resources efficiently in a way that reflects the community’s values. But during the process they have every reason to be horrified at the hostility and negative media they face.

If you’re on a transit board, here’s what these transformations mean: Beautiful, sympathetic, earnest people — and large crowds of their friends and associates — are going to stand before you in public meetings and tell you that you are destroying their lives. Some of them will be exaggerating, but some of them will be right. So do you retain low-ridership services in response to their stories, and if so, where does that stop? I’m glad I only have to ask these questions in my work, not answer them.

For a decade now I’ve been helping transit agencies think through how much of their service they want to devote to the goal of ridership and how much they want to devote to a competing goal that I call coverage. Ridership service should be judged on its ridership, but coverage service exists to be available. Coverage service is justified partly by the political need for everyone (every council district, member city or whatever) to have a little service, because “they pay taxes too,” even if their ridership is poor. But it’s also justified as a lifeline, by the severity with which small numbers of people need it.

In the early stages of the Reimagining project, I facilitated a series of METRO Board and stakeholder conversations about the question: How much of your operating budget do you want to spend pursuing ridership? I estimated that only about 55-60% of existing service was where it would be if ridership were the only goal, so it wasn’t surprising that the agency’s ridership was stagnant. I explained that the way you increase ridership is to increase the percentage of your budget that’s aimed at that goal. And if you’re not expanding the total budget, that means cutting coverage service — low ridership service, but service that’s absolutely essential to some people’s lives.

In response to a series of scenarios, the Board told us to design a scenario where 80% of the budget would be devoted to ridership. That meant, of course, that in a plan with no new resources, we’d have to cut low-ridership coverage service by around 50%. Mostly we did that not by abandoning people but certainly by inconveniencing some of them. But there was no getting around the fact that some areas — areas that are just geometrically unsuited to high-ridership transit — were going to be losers.

We didn’t sugarcoat that. I always emphasize, from the start of each project, how politically painful coverage cuts will be. The stakeholder committee for the project actually had to do an exercise that quantified the shift of resources from low-ridership areas to high-ridership ones — which was also a matter of shifting from depopulating neighborhoods to growing ones. They and the Board could see on the map exactly where the impacted people were.

And exactly as everyone predicted, when the plan went public, those people were furious. Beyond furious. There really isn’t a word for some of the feelings that came out.

This was written in response to a story in Vox that praised Metro for getting this done at no monetary cost (not totally true, as it turns out, but close enough). Walker’s point is that not all cost is fiscal, and that kind of cost is painful and not easy to deal with. Overall I think Metro did about as good a job with that part of the task as they could have, but the process isn’t really over yet. There will be more refinements as they get feedback from riders on the new system. With that, perhaps these costs can be minimized further.

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