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Transport / Mass transit

Ridership vs coverage: The transport planner’s dilemma

Is your transit agency succeeding? It depends on what it’s trying to do – and most transit agencies haven’t been given clear direction about what they should be trying to do.  Worse, they’re told to do contradictory things.  It’s as if you told your taxi driver to turned left and right at the same time, and then criticised them for turning the wrong direction.

On the one hand, we expect transit agencies to pursue a goal of ridership.  Yet we also demand that provide a little service to everyone, which is called a coverage goal.  The coverage goal requires an agency to run predictably low-ridership services, for non-ridership reasons, so it’s the opposite of a ridership goal

In the fictional town below, the little dots indicate dwellings and commercial buildings and other land uses. The lines indicate roads, and the 18 buses indicate the resources the town has to run transit. Most of the activity in the town is concentrated around a few roads, as in most towns.

A transit agency pursuing only a ridership goal would focus service on the streets where there are large numbers of people – where walking to transit stops is easy, and where the straight routes feel direct and fast to customers. Because service is concentrated into fewer routes, frequency is high and a bus is always coming soon.

This would result in a network like the one below.

All 18 buses are focused on the busiest areas. Waits for service are short but walks to service are longer for people in less populated areas. Frequency and ridership are high, but some places have no service.

Why is this the maximum ridership alternative? It has to do with the non-linear payoff of both high density and high frequency, as explained more fully here.

If the town were pursuing only a coverage goal, on the other hand, the transit agency would spread out services so that every street had a bus route, as in the network at below. Spreading it out sounds great – but it also means spreading it thin.

The 18 buses are spread around so that there is a route on every street. Everyone lives near a stop – but every route is infrequent, even those on main roads, and waits for service are long. Only a few people can bear to wait so long, so ridership is low.

In these two scenarios, the town is using the same number of buses. These two networks cost the same amount to operate, but they deliver very different outcomes.

Ridership-oriented networks serve several popular goals for transit, including:

  • Reducing environmental impact through lower Vehicle Miles Travelled;
  • Achieving low public subsidy per rider, through serving the more riders with the same resources, and through fares collected from more passengers;
  • Supporting continued urban development, at higher densities, without being constrained by traffic congestion;
  • Reducing the cost of for cities to build and maintain road and bridges by replacing automobile trips with transit trips, and by enabling car-free living for some people living near dense, walkable transit corridors.

On the other hand, coverage-oriented networks serve a different set of goals, including:

  • Ensuring that everyone has access to some transit service, no matter where they live;
  • Providing lifeline access to critical services for those who cannot drive;
  • Providing access for people with severe needs;
  • Providing a sense of political equity, by providing service to every municipality or electoral district.

Ridership and coverage goals are both laudable, but they lead us in opposite directions. Within a fixed budget, if a transit agency wants to do more of one, it must do less of the other.

Because of that, cities and transit agencies need to make a clear choice regarding the Ridership-Coverage trade off. In fact, we encourage cities to develop consensus on a Service Allocation Policy, which takes the form of a percentage split of resources between the different goals.


For example, an agency might decide to allocate 60 percent of its service towards the Ridership Goal and 40 percent towards the Coverage Goal.

Major network redesigns often shift this balance, intentionally and consciously.  When we led a redesign of the bus network in Houston, we led a discussion with the elected leaders about their priorities, and they decided to shift the focus of their network from 80 per cent coverage to 5per cent coverage. They knew in advance what the result would be: a more useful network, with the potential to grow more ridership, but also many angry people in areas no longer served.

What about your city? What do you think should be the split between ridership and coverage? The answer will depend on your preferences and values.  For cities, it should be up to elected officials, informed by the public, to decide.

Jarrett Walker is an international consultant in public transit network design and policy, based in Portland, Oregon. Christopher Yuen is an associate at Jarrett Walker+Associates.

Walker is also the author of “Human Transit: How clearer thinking about public transit can enrich our communities and our lives“. This article was originally written for his blog, and is reposted here with permission
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