Ridership versus coverage, that is the question: Whether it is preferable for Pierce Transit to efficiently serve the greatest number of people, or the greatest area of land?
For transit types, this isn’t a new debate. But for the greater public — those who understand the importance of bus service, but are not tuned in to the sacrifices and tradeoffs a transit agency often has to make — the difficult decisions are often underappreciated.
Now, as it turns out, is a timely opportunity to have that discussion.
That’s because Pierce Transit plans to restore 59,000 service hours lost to the Great Recession by the end of next year, and the agency is showing a willingness to shake things up and adapt for the future.
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As News Tribune transportation reporter Adam Lynn recently noted, Pierce Transit has launched an effort to gather feedback on the ways it might revamp its service, including potentially redoing its decades-old route system.
When it comes to expanding services moving forward, both in the short and long term, the input the agency receives will be used to make recommendations to the elected officials on Pierce Transit’s board of commissioners — meaning politics will be in play in the potentially difficult decisions that lie ahead.
The feedback we’ve been getting, which is not unexpected (given the services reduction) … is that our span of services and our frequency just is not working well for our customers.
Pierce Transit Service Planning Manager Peter Stackpole
The changes eventually could be major.
“The feedback we’ve been getting, which is not unexpected (given the services reduction) … is that our span of services and our frequency just is not working well for our customers,” explains Pierce Transit service planning manager Peter Stackpole.
He tells me the current self-examination and outreach effort is about “putting a system in that is what riders want to see.”
But there’s a catch: The system you want to see likely depends on who you are — and where you live.
Adding more frequent and reliable urban routes is cheapest and most efficient. It has the ability to increase ridership quickly and helps create the type of network that thoughtful urban planning relies on.
Local transit advocate and Chairman of Pierce Transit’s advisory board Chris Karnes argues that serving the urban landscape better and reaching the most riders is where the focus should be. He’s also skeptical of what he calls “bad ideas that are not mass transit in a classical sense,” such as “parochial pet projects like trolleys on Ruston Way and community circulators that only transport 2-3 passengers an hour.”
By not having a well-functioning mass-transit system, Karnes contends, Tacoma is missing out on its “ability to attract and retain talent.” Specifically, he highlights millennials, who he says are less likely to own a vehicle and are more likely than other generations to put off getting driver’s licenses.
“To bring new riders into the system, we have to bring our level of service back up,” Karnes says. He’s a proponent of what’s known as a “grid” system, similar to Portland’s or Vancouver, British Columbia’s, where service operates frequently on arterial streets at higher speeds.
“When you get this kind of configuration it expands accessibility to convenient transportation, reduces route duplication, and gives you a larger pool of resources to split fewer ways,” he says.
To bring new riders into the system we have to bring our level of service back up.
Chris Karnes, a local transit advocate and chairman of Pierce Transit’s advisory board
Pierce Transit operates an outdated “hub and spoke” model, built around transit centers throughout the county. Stackpole says moving toward a grid system for Tacoma’s urban core could be a possibility in the future.
But Pierce Transit is also responsible for suburban “lifeline routes,” as Stackpole describes them, which are significantly more expensive to offer and less efficient. But as the “lifeline” description implies, the riders who use these services truly depend on them — think of elderly folks getting to medical appointments, or people without cars who need to get to work.
Striking a balance between the two priorities is where things get tricky.
“It’s hard if you’re looking at transit from an efficiency standpoint not to be an urbanist,” Stackpole says. “But when you go out and you meet people who rely on that service for their livelihood, it certainly puts things into perspective.”
Admittedly, Pierce Transit’s feedback campaign is simplistic, but it’s also helpful, especially in the way it helps highlight the decisions ahead.
Via an online portal, people access Pierce Transit’s “build your own system” tool — which allows users to tinker around with an array of variables, including adding more frequent weekday and weekend service, extending the hours of service, and introducing service to new areas.
With a make-believe $20 budget, the priorities a person selects — rated in cost by one to five dollar signs — all take a bite and no one can have it all. Chosen improvements affect ridership, speed and reliability, and access.
Tough decisions are required, just as in real life.
“I think you can reach a balance,” Stackpole says, “where you can serve that urban core with efficient services and still provide lifeline services to suburban areas that are usable.”
For Pierce Transit, that’s the challenge.