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Big goals, big challenges: what we think about when planning the transit network

Big goals, big challenges: what we think about when planning the transit network

The 17 UBC out and about in 2010. (The route is now the 14 UBC, but it's still a great photo of one of our buses out in normal traffic!)

This post is first in a series about Managing the Transit Network: all about how TransLink plans transit service in our region. See all the blog posts in the series here.

By Tina Robinson

Since I started working at TransLink, many of my friends and family have told me what they think is wrong (and right) with our transit system. And I’ve been told all the solutions as well: “You guys should just run a few extra buses on that route.” Or, “All you have to do is run more buses in the morning that way and more buses in the afternoon the other way.” And, of course, “I would take transit more if the bus came more often where I live.”

What I’ve come to realize is that managing a transit network isn’t so simple, especially when resources are limited. There are a lot of factors that go into deciding where transit should go and the level of service to provide. TransLink’s new Managing the Transit Network primer  describes what our planners think about when they design services and what makes a transit network work well. We’re going to break down the primer over the next few weeks in a series of blog posts.

In this post, we’re looking at the objectives we think about when we design and manage the transit network. And, more significantly, the challenge we face in balancing all three.

Objective 1: Maximize Ridership

Maximizing ridership involves meeting existing demand for transit service.

We want people to use our transit network. After all, what would transit be without riders? We not only want people to use transit, we want lots of people to choose transit.

That’s basically what we mean when we say we want to maximize ridership. This is for all the usual reasons. It means more people can get where they need to go on transit and fewer people need to drive cars, with all the related benefits (reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and congestion, for example). Happily, more people using transit also means more fare revenue to pay for it.

Right now, we maximize ridership in many ways. For example, we provide reliable and predictable service (and more or better service when needed), make transit connections better, and put service where we know there are lots of people who use transit.

Objective 2: Encourage Long-term Ridership Growth

Encouraging long-term ridership growth involves building capacity to meet future demand for transit service.

We want lots of people using transit today, but also in the future. We aim to design service that will help many people one day use the transit network – this is why we encourage long-term ridership growth.

A good example of this is building rapid transit infrastructure, such as the Canada Line or Evergreen Line. It can take a lot of time and money to build, and we don’t expect it to pay for itself right away. But we expect ridership to increase over time, as communities develop around stations.

Our frequent transit network is another example. Establishing a network where people know there is frequent and reliable service can support the development of communities where people will be able to make good use of transit.

Objective 3: Provide Access to Transit Service Across the Region

Providing access to transit service across the region involves maximizing the coverage of the transit network and ensuring a basic level of service is available to most people for most kinds of trips.

The first two objectives may seem to be common sense. Of course transit needs riders, now and in the future. It makes sense to put service where there is existing or future demand.

But TransLink also runs service in areas where demand is low, such as low-density areas or places where transit service has to cross big distances to connect places.

The reason we do this? We are a regional transportation authority with a mandate to provide access to transit service across the region.

For that reason, we provide some transit service to most of the communities in our region. In this way, we help keep communities connected and make sure that people all over the region have access to transit.

In this region, just over 90 per cent of homes – which represents more than 2 million people – are within walking distance (400m) of some form of transit.

Balancing these objectives isn’t easy

We sometimes make tradeoffs as we try to balance all three objectives.

In places where there is low demand but where we provide transit access that meets our third objective, we get fewer riders and, therefore, less fare revenue. As a result, these “coverage” services are the most expensive in our system.

And therein lies the challenge. To what extent do we meet our mandate to provide these services, when we know the resources used to provide them could perhaps go further toward growing ridership (objectives one and two)?

This is where we get different opinions. I think your perspective on balancing these objectives depends a bit on what you think public transit should be. Some people believe that better transit access across the region outweighs the costs (because it’s expensive, remember!). Others think a hard-nosed business model is the way to go – that transit should pay for itself and therefore we should maximize ridership even if it’s at the expense of access for all.

These are things our planners think about, and they help explain some of our transit planning decisions. We don’t scale back or increase service willy nilly. We think carefully about – and get public input on – the impact of our decisions on the other parts of our system – and the inevitable tradeoffs.

Key challenges

Keep in mind too that the cost of providing transit service is high, higher than most people realize.

And, with respect to cost, not all transit service is created equal. Cost also depends on the physical characteristics of a route (length, shape, etc) and how many people use a particular service.

This, in turn, depends on the land use, density and level of activity where a service runs. (More on this in future posts.)

A key thing to take away here is that if you want great transit service, where you choose to live, work and play makes a big difference.

For example, while you might have some service in a low-density area, you can expect better service in a higher-density community or somewhere located near a transit hub or along a frequent transit corridor.

It’s just a reality we face, given the costs of providing transit service.

Note: this is a summary of pages 3-7 in the Managing the Transit Network primer. Read the primer for more detail.

Put your planning hat on: questions for discussion

Senior planner Peter Klitz has put together a few discussion questions based on this section of the primer. We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

1. If you were in charge of TransLink, what proportion of transit resources would you dedicate to each of the three objectives described above (maximizing ridership, making proactive investments to support future growth, or providing coverage services)?  Why?

2. What would the transit network look like if TransLink spent the majority of its funding on one of the three objectives at the expense of the others? What would be the impact on different parts of the region and the productivity of the transit system?

3. We know that the cost of transit and land use impact the type and level of transit service we can provide. What are other challenges you see in the design of transit service in this region?  How would you address these challenges, and what are some of the impacts and tradeoffs you would have to consider?

Looking forward to hearing what you think!