Public Transit Provision: A Problem in Organized Complexity

The Walter Gordon Symposium is an annual conference co-hosted by the School of Public Policy and Governance and Massey College. In the lead up to the 2015 Walter Gordon Symposium, students, speakers, faculty, and community members are invited to share their reflections on the theme of ‘Confronting Complexity’ in Canadian society. ​This year’s conference will take place on March 25 and 26, 2015.

Kevin Chan

In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, author Jane Jacobs defines cities as “problems in organized complexity.” On the surface, public transit looks pretty easy: run a vehicle down a roadway, stop every once in a while, pick up the smiling customers, and then drop them off somewhere else. But follow the recent Toronto municipal election, read any one of the city’s daily newspapers, or have a conversation with almost anyone who relies on the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) and the impression you will get is of a transportation system in crisis.

Dissatisfaction with your local transit agency is hardly unusual. Indeed, in a recent interview, a former transportation minister from British Columbia claimed:

“There has never been a transportation authority anywhere [where] people say, […] this is just the greatest thing we have ever had!”

But why is it the case that such deep dissatisfaction exists?

25 years ago, the TTC was lauded as a transit system worthy of the “City that Works.” And it remains one of the busiest transit agencies in North America, providing over 514 million rides in 2012 – all in a political and economic context of minimal operating funding from the provincial government, which is often an important source of revenue for public transit systems in other cities.

In another example, Vancouver also tends to perform very well, especially when compared to other mid-sized North American cities. However, similar to the TTC, Translink, the regional transportation authority, is often characterized as incompetent and inefficient. Anger with Translink has come to be central in an ongoing debate surrounding an upcoming plebiscite to create a new regional sales tax that would fund future transit expansions.

The point here is not to defend transit agencies, but to start thinking about how transit both contributes to and is affected by other policies in a city. As citizens, we often pin a lot of our hopes and dreams on transit, and yet the agencies themselves are easy to disparage. When resources are limited, trade-offs must be made – and that means that while the situation for some will be improved, others will inevitably be worse off.

To get a sense of why public transit provision is “thankless”, consider just a few examples of the various (and sometimes contradictory) goals that transit is often asked to achieve:

  • solve congestion
  • support numerous environmental objectives
  • provide frequent all day service across a large geographic area
  • provide additional capacity at peak hours for commuters
  • keep fares as low as possible
  • break even or at least minimize subsidies
  • encourage higher density development and stimulate the economy

These are all laudable goals. But consider that, in defining these goals, we are essentially asking for transit to be a social service provider, economic development engine, and an environmental program all through the process of providing mobility.

There is also a spatial reality that is important to consider. Denser, well-connected neighbourhoods are easier to serve by transit, resulting in higher fare revenue and greater ridership. Transit services can also contribute to changing land-use patterns, creating the possibility of a virtuous circle as more housing and jobs locate closer to transit, further increasing ridership, and so on.

In his book Human Transit, Jarrett Walker lays out a key trade-off that must be made between what he calls ‘coverage’ goals and ‘ridership’ goals. An agency might have a mandate to provide services across the entire urban/suburban landscape, and a decision must be made on where to allocate resources. Should efforts be made to provide a minimal level of service everywhere (coverage goal)? Or should resources be allocated to where there is the greatest potential for the highest number of passengers (ridership goal), and therefore the highest fare box revenue?

The reality is that you should not simply provide one or the other, but instead need to balance the two. The balance is a values decision that needs to be made, and is as much a political decision as it is a technical one. Coverage services are provided to ensure basic access, while concentrating services on busier corridors will serve a much greater number of people. Either way, there is potential for one group or another to feel (perhaps rightly) that they are not receiving an equitable portion of the services.

Obviously, this is all a great simplification in order to demonstrate a small piece of what makes transit planning interesting, and considerably complex. For a very accessible look into transit ‘geometries’ and trade-offs consider Human Transit: how clearer thinking about public transit can enrich our communities and our lives by Jarrett Walker.


Kevin Chan is a Masters of Science in Planning student at the University of Toronto. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Human Geography from the University of British Columbia. Kevin’s interest is in transport policy, specifically, the health and sustainability implications of public and active transportation.

[Image: Wikimedia Commons, Skeezix1000]

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