To Exit the Crisis, Rethink our Goals

Jarrett Walker

In the last three months, transit managers have had to reinvent everything they do.  They’ve had to learn quickly, make fast decisions, keep up with fast-changing medical advice, and engineer a massive shift in expectations.  And they’re doing it all while falling off a cliff.  Let us not mince words: these are dark times, but dark times always contain opportunities to emerge from the crisis into a better world.

Many people have asked me for predictions about the recovery.  Like everyone who follows the issues closely, I have no idea.  We are in a “Black Swan” event, a sudden hairpin curve in the flow of history.  No recent events give us a guide to what’s on the other side.  Predicting, with any degree of confidence, is futile.

Yet so much of what we do is justified by predictions.  When I help a city redesign its transit network, I’m expected to predict the resulting ridership.  (Did anyone predict April’s ridership last December?)  More ominously, many projects, especially urban highways, are built on estimates of future peak travel demand.  If many people never return to the office, will all of these projects still make sense?  Many certainties aren’t certain anymore.

But while we don’t know the future, we have something even better:  We have values and goals.  These things come from the community we serve as expressed through their elected leaders, as well as from our own convictions.  In the old world of 2019 and before, predictions were sometimes used to bypass a conversation about values.  Perhaps you’ve heard someone say that “traffic projections indicate that we have to widen the highway.”  That kind of statement skips a crucial step:  What are we trying to achieve for our community, and what important goals might this project undermine?

To tell the transit story in this new world, we will need to think about goals more clearly than ever, and discuss them more openly in our communities and all levels of government.  

Ridership, clearly, is no longer the main measure of our success.  Journalists often ask me about ridership trends as though they measured “how transit agencies are doing.”  But a 70% fall in ridership this year doesn’t mean we are suddenly 70% less competent or successful.  Ridership has always gone up and down for many reasons, and our communities have other goals that ridership doesn’t quite measure. 

In big cities, for example, it will be mathematically impossible to return to pre-crisis ridership until we no longer need physical distancing, and nobody knows how long that will be.  That’s causing some cities to invest dramatically in walking and cycling infrastructure, to make sure there are still good alternatives to the car. 

If more people worked at home permanently, and we needed fewer of these trips, our ridership might go down but our efficiency might go up.  We might be able to offer better all-day, all-week, and even all-night service that’s critical for diverse trips and especially for lower-income people.  All that is speculation, but we do know that ridership doesn’t measure all these possibilities

Meanwhile, the crisis has revealed a strong new argument for transit, one we should deploy at anyone who wants to judge us on ridership.  Transit has kept running through the crisis as an essential service, supporting people who work in hospitals, grocery stores, utilities. These mostly low-income people would typically have been called “transit dependent.”  But it is they who are holding civilization together right now, so we are all “transit dependent” in this sense. 

What’s more, this has always been true.  Transit riders have always been part of the basic functioning of our cities.  Measuring that role solely with ridership would be like measuring the success of the police by how many arrests they make.  The purpose of the police is to provide a base level of security that people can count on.  The purpose of transit is to do the same for urban mobility.  Transit means that people can go places, and thus do things, in a way that isn’t as harmful or expensive as driving. 

The future of funding will require new discussions of goals.  Ridership matters, and many other things matter too, but let’s never lose sight of what this crisis teaches.  Without transit, cities don’t work for anyone.    

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