Frank’s post yesterday touched on one of the largest problems in bus service planning. Any changes that impact an existing rider, even if they’ll gain the system more new riders, will make that existing rider angry! The potential riders don’t know that they’ll gain something, and it would be absurdly difficult to identify and educate them, so the main voice in the room is the user at risk of loss.
In something like software, you can lose some customers, and then get new ones – which is why I think so many engineers feel like they can improve transit systems easily by coming up with better networks. That’s fun and awesome, but in public infrastructure (at least in the US), the customers have an impact on the decision, and often block changes that would be viewed by an engineer as beneficial.
A prime example is route 42, a bus that used to be a one seat ride from parts of SE Seattle to downtown. When Link opened, it largely duplicated the 42, and it would have been more efficient to move the 42’s funding to a shorter, more frequent, connection to the train. Because riders feared the loss of their one seat ride, though, they lobbied to block the cancellation, and the 42 was retained for years. This makes sense: pissing people off would lose County Council members votes, and potentially cost them future elections.
Most 42 riders switched to Link quickly. Ridership on the route dwindled. Eventually, it served so few riders that it could finally be cancelled without a political hit.
When tax revenue is down, the threat of service cuts can also spur changes that make systems more efficient. But in most of the writing here about bus efficiency, it’s proposed that an agency take an existing route’s funding and shift it to another place where those dollars will get more riders. Improvement plans are written about, discussed at length, and perfected – but very rarely implemented.
It’s great to have a vision of how our bus network could serve more people with the dollars we have, but I believe we’re using the wrong frame when looking at things like David’s excellent frequent network plan. Organizing around the implication that a transit agency is being inefficient tends to draw a conservative group more interested in reducing their taxes than improving transit service. The benefits to existing transit users are small, diffuse, and outweighed by the loss aversion, so there’s no natural support base. Significant organizing work would be necessary to make changes like these, but it doesn’t gain traction.
So how can we implement a better network?
Let’s look back at our example of the 42. When Link opened, we weren’t moving money from one place to another. Sound Transit built a new rail line, with its own funding. Link dramatically improved service quality, so many 42 users switched, joining thousands who had never previously used transit at all.
Building Link took a lot of organizing that did gain traction, because it wasn’t for small, diffuse benefits – it was for a large, focused benefit. Our city got far better: Link improved our mobility, reduced emissions, and improved transportation affordability. In Link’s wake, Metro gained the political cover to improve their efficiency.
Organizing for rail is successful because it offers better, faster, transit that people trust won’t be cancelled or moved in the future. Our goals look very similar to the core of David’s plan, and we’re winning. This approach has more than doubled Seattle transit funding. Nothing else has come close.
We can go farther. The path forward will continue with a plan for rail connecting Ballard to Downtown, and soon Sound Transit will start planning for Downtown – West Seattle and Ballard – UW, as well as more outside the city. Seattle Subway will be organizing to win funding for those lines and to make them as awesome as possible. With your help, we’ll get the frequent network we all want, and with that network comes a proven path to make Metro’s system more efficient.