In the days before masks and hand sanitizer in gallon jugs, nearly 600 transit enthusiasts gathered in a NYC hotel ballroom to listen to an impassioned conversation.
In this October of 2019 session, the panel moderator simply asked, "Is ridership the metric of success for transit agencies?"
One panelist repeatedly said, "Ridership is all that matters. We are judged based on how many people we move."
A second panelist said, "Ridership is A metric of success, but it is not THE metric of success. Serving lousy coffee to more people isn't a victory — maybe they just desperately needed coffee, and were stuck drinking yours."
A short six months later, as transit ridership fell by 79% due to the wide-reaching implications of the government's management of COVID-19, if you followed the logic of the first panel member from above — transit agencies have had a terrible year. But Congress didn't see it that way. On three separate occasions, Congress has spent tens of billions dollars on the value transit agencies have brought to communities. If ridership were the only metric of success, why would Congress have taken this action?
The answer is simple. Because ridership isn't the only metric of success. But it is the only metric that the transit industry has nationalized. Move more people, and everyone celebrates transit's relevance. Move fewer people, and somehow the industry failed. Neither of which is true. Gas prices go up and down. Unemployment is fluid. Businesses open and close. Young people make different choices than previous generations.
There are questions of quality: Do people enjoy the coffee you serve? Is customer satisfaction up or down as an industry?
There are questions of productivity: During COVID, we asked transit agencies to be inefficient. How do we nationalize the effectiveness by which transit utilizes the resources the industry is provided?
There are questions of community value: What is it worth to get a shift of nurses to the hospital to care for COVID patients? To provide vaccinations? Or, in a non-pandemic environment, be a catalyst for housing development, education opportunities and job creation?
Of course volume matters. We wouldn't have a coffee shop if people didn't walk in to buy a cup of coffee. What also matters is quality, efficiency and value. As the nation prepares to exit COVID, after the significant recognition that Congress had to see the value of transit beyond plummeting ridership, the industry would be well served to actually measure and articulate that value in a consistent and constant manner — as we have reported volume for decades.