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Purpose-Driven Public Transport: Creating A Clear Conversation About Public Transport Goals


Public transport exists for a range of purposes, including environmental, economic, and social ones. However, different purposes may imply quite different kinds of service. Public transport providers and funding agencies may try to present themselves as serving all the diverse purposes of public transport, but in fact they must make hard choices between competing goals. This paper presents a language for discussing these hard choices with constituents, one that has proven valuable in consultation and decision making.

Most of the purposes of public transport cluster around two opposing poles:

  • Purposes served by patronage. Most environmental benefits of public transport are related to how many people use the service. Fiscal-conservative goals, such as minimizing subsidy, are affected by fare revenue, which also varies with patronage.
  •  Purposes served by coverage. Social benefits of public transport, such as accessibility for persons who cannot drive, tend to be based on the severity of need among certain population groups, rather than the level of patronage to be gained by meeting this need. Demands for “equity” of public transport service among areas with different patronage potential also can yield low-patronage services that are retained for these non-patronage reasons.

This paper contends that it is possible to create a language in which to discuss those hard choices with the public, so that elected leaders can make informed and quantified decisions about those choices that reflect their constituents’ values. The key idea is to use the consultation process to educate constituents and decision-makers about the patronage-coverage tradeoff, and then elicit a direction in the form of a percentage of service resources to be devoted to each of these purposes. The role of the public transport funding agency and operator, in this scheme, is to document that the service they are providing reflects the particular tradeoff chosen by the public through their elected leaders.

A scheme of this kind was developed by the author in the course of consulting projects for several public transport agencies in North America.1 The agencies in question ranged from larger urban operators (population over 2 million) to agencies covering free-standing small cities (population 50,000-100,000). The techniques have somewhat different application in Australia, where State Governments typically fund public transport and operating companies provide it. However, these techniques can still have application in forming a clearer basis for understandings between governments, private operators, and local constituencies, about how service design follows from value judgments articulated by elected officials on behalf of their constituents.


1. The author acknowledges the contributions of these clients to this line of thinking, notably Salem Keizer Transit, Salem, Oregon; Whatcom Transportation Authority, Bellingham, Washington; and VIA Metropolitan Transit, San Antonio, Texas.