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The Ridership Recipe - VTA's Next Network


PART II: This is part of a series of Headways Blog posts about VTA’s Next Network Project, which will redesign VTA’s bus transit network.

One of the goals of VTA’s Next Network Project is to increase overall transit system ridership. Without the funding available to increase transit service levels, this will need to be achieved through improvements in productivity. Productivity refers to the number of trips, or boardings, that occur on a transit route per hour. 

How can we improve a route’s productivity and why do some transit routes experience higher productivity than others?

There are three main factors that determine a transit route’s productivity: land use, street design and the transit service itself.  Land use creates demand between locations; the street network facilitates that demand and the transit service must operate within those constraints.  Land use and the street network are the responsibility of each of the cities, creating an operating environment largely outside of VTA’s control.  Let’s look at them in more detail.

Land use and Street Design

There are four key components  to good land use and street design: density, linearity (along a straight line), walkability and proximity.  When more of these components exist in one place or along a corridor together, the result is better conditions for high productivity transit service This means the service is useful for many purposes and is focused on places where the geography is favorable for transit to succeed.  ‚Äč

How can we redesign the transit network to attract greater ridership?

From our discussion on land use and street design, we know that linear, destination-rich streets are great locations for transit service because they allow for direct, short trips.  This speaks to the overall trip time which leads many people to relate this to the speed of transit.  However, frequency of transit service is arguably more important than transit travel speeds. 

Jarrett Walker, international transit network design expert we have helping us, explains:
“People who are used to getting around by a private vehicle (car or bike) often underestimate the importance of frequency, because there isn’t an equivalent to it in their experience.  A private vehicle is ready to go when you are, but transit is not going until it comes.  High frequency means transit is coming soon, which means that it approximates the feeling of liberty you have with your private vehicle – that you can go anytime.  Frequency is freedom!
“At the opposite extreme, if you live in a single family house with a driveway and usually get around by car, imagine that there were an automated gate at the end of your driveway that only opened once an hour, on the hour.  When it’s closed, you can’t get your car in or out.  If that were your situation, your biggest transportation problem would not be traffic congestion, or how fast you can go on the freeway; it would be how to get this frigging gate to open more often.  That’s how low frequency feels to a potential transit customer, and why frequency often swamps other factors, like speed, in determining whether transit is actually useful.”

Making the bus travel faster is often not an option but making the bus more frequent is within our control and is a logical strategy to increase ridership. Should VTA redesign its transit network to have more frequent service?  This means adding more buses to routes that serve areas where land uses and street design are favorable. The trade off is that those buses will have to come at the expense of other, less productive routes.  Through this summer, VTA staff and Jarrett Walker will be asking these tough questions at community meetings and workshops to get feedback on how VTA should redesign its transit network.

Stay tuned for our next Headways Blog post which will get into the broader discussion of the tradeoffs of transit network design and the purpose of transit service.  

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