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Thoughts on Transit | Ecolane Blog

How Certain Transit Performance Indicators Can Be Misleading

Posted by Ecolane on Fri, Feb 19, '16

transportation software

The public often uses certain performance indicators to judge transit agencies on their effectiveness, efficiency, and so on. Often, these indicators are used to compile lists of the “Top 10” or “Bottom 10” cities for transit, but these rankings are often misleading because of the indicators used to make these determinations.

Let’s take a deeper look into the types of performance indicators that are often used, and why they could be misleading.


Most transit agencies value ridership numbers as a good indicator of performance. And in general, this would make sense, since each rider counts towards revenue for the agency. However, once you actually look at the way that ridership is measured, you can see that there are some discrepancies in the way that it is recorded, leading to skewed results. For example, in the U.S., ridership is measured by the number of unlinked passenger trips. According to the APTA, an unlinked passenger trip is the number of times that “a passenger boards public transportation vehicles. Passengers are counted each time they board vehicles no matter how many vehicles they use to travel from their origin to their destination and regardless of whether they pay a fare, use a pass or transfer, ride for free, or pay in some other way.”

So, you can see the issue with using this as a performance indicator. Since it counts someone every time they board a vehicle, the same person can be counted numerous times depending on how many times they transfer to different buses or trains throughout a trip to work, for example. For transit agencies that have a lot of people transferring between lines, this increases ridership results drastically. Taking location and corresponding population into consideration, as well as the number of local agencies serving the area, can also affect these figures. Just because one area is smaller than another, and thus has less ridership, doesn’t mean they are any worse than a larger, more densely populated area.

Number of Bus Stops

Some reviews take into consideration areas that have the highest percentage of residents living within a certain distance from a bus stop. This is a poor indicator because even if an area has easy access and residents live in close proximity to a bus stop, that doesn’t mean that the bus service itself is actually superior or usable.


Transit systems, as a whole, are relatively safe. So, using this as an indicator seems suspect. However, based on the criteria, transit systems located in low density suburban areas would do much better than larger metropolitan areas since ridership and accidents are taken into consideration. In lower density suburban areas, lower ridership with less crowded conditions are more effective at avoiding issues like pick-pocketing and the areas that are traveled are less likely to be congested with less chances for vehicular accidents.

As you can see, these indicators are not always as they seem. Though it may seem intuitive to use factors like ridership, number of bus stops, and safety as indicators of a transit agency’s effectiveness in comparison to others, other important factors are not taken into consideration such as differences in areas, rider behavior, and population. Therefore, most of the time, it’s like comparing apples to oranges, and doesn’t usually give the full picture of what is going on in the industry. With accurate and detailed reporting, which is available with some of the top transportation software available, this criteria can be more effectively evaluated to see real trends and indicators of transit performance.

Ecolane Web Intelligence

Topics: Transit Trends, Communications

About the Ecolane Blog


Ecolane's blog is geared towards readers who are interested in perspective, opinion and strategy on the transit industry, scheduling and dispatch software technologies and related topics. 

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