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The Purpose of Public Transit


PART III: This is part of a series of Headways Blog posts about VTA’s Next Network Project, which will redesign VTA’s bus transit network.

The question at the heart of VTA’s Next Network is “what is the primary purpose of public transit?” Is it to increase public transportation use overall or is it to provide service to as many areas as possible? 

Each purpose takes us in different directions in the way we design our transit network and how we measure whether our transit service is successful. The two purposes—ridership and coverage—are also inherently contradictory. Putting more resources into the ridership goal means decreasing the resources put into the coverage goal and vice versa. What then are the tradeoffs?

The Ridership Goal

If the goal is to achieve ridership, we would design a bus transit network that places frequent service in corridors that are likely to generate additional riders such as those that have transit-supportive urban design and densities (see our Ridership Recipe blog post). Frequent service would come at the expense of service in parts of the county that generate lower ridership. This goal seeks to maximize patronage and cost-effectiveness, much like how airlines choose to fly to cities that have many passengers and feel less compelled to serve cities with few passengers. A more ridership-oriented network design would have fewer, but more frequent routes than VTA’s current network and would leave some parts of the county without access to bus transit.

The Coverage Goal

If the goal is to achieve coverage, we would design a transit network with many routes that places some transit service within walking distance of as many residents and jobs as possible. Since this approach would spread service out more thinly and evenly, it would mean more routes than exist today, but fewer that offer frequent service.

The Ridership/Coverage Balance

Transit agencies all over the country must find a way to balance these two goals and this is done through the decision of how much of their operating budget to spend on each goal.  Currently, VTA spends about 70 percent of its operating budget on the ridership goal and about 30 percent on the coverage goal. 

Is 70-30 the right balance or should VTA consider other balances?  There is no right or wrong answer to this question, but the ridership/coverage balance will affect how many riders we are able to reach and attract, and how cost-effectively we will be able to do so.

To understand more about these tradeoffs and the intricate balance of ridership and coverage, read blog post “The Transit Ridership Recipe” by Jarrett Walker of Jarrett Walker and Associates who has been hired by VTA to help design our Next Network.

Our next Headways Blog post will show what different ridership-coverage balances mean for the design of the network.

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