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Thoughts on Transit

Running a Successful Transit Operation: Midsize City

by Ecolane / October 26, 2015

Continuing Ecolane’s blog series on running successful transit operations, we’re now going to take a look at the requirements and potential problems faced in midsize cities. (The first article in the series focuses on large metropolitan areas). What does it take for a transit agency to be successful in an area the size of Boise, ID?

Unlike a large metropolis, midsize cities are often overlooked by those in the transit industry because they are too small to be among the top tier, yet too big to qualify as a small town. A midsize city is usually defined by using a population range of around 50,000 to 300,000, and are also known as a “Center City”, a “Satellite City”, or a “Partner City”.


A major obstacle for midsize cities is a lack of resources and less capacity to deal with challenges, compared to a large metropolis. For public transportation, this means limited public resources to pay for the service and moderate residential densities (put another way, fewer riders). Since transit systems are usually more effective in high-density areas, mid-size city systems suffer under a population which tends to be more spread out. Other factors and obstacles can differ greatly from this kind of city to other ones of the same size. Unlike a large metropolis, where obstacles and patterns tend to be consistent, some midsize cities can see population reductions while others see population growth. This makes things difficult for transit agencies, since they will have to spend more time evaluating what trends and obstacles their specific areas face and then adapt their operations to address those needs. Transit agencies in mid-size areas need to take these obstacles into consideration and find ways to overcome them in order to be successful.

Factors for Success

  1. Technology

    Technology has become a key factor of success for transit agencies operating in areas of all sizes. In a mid-size city, the right transit software can be highly effective for an agency in overcoming some of their most common obstacles. With the increased efficiency that all-in-one transit software offers, a mid-sized transit agency can be successful because they won’t have to utilize as many resources to run their operations and it can raise their capacity to deal with challenges. Looking at a transit agency in Boise, ID like Valley Regional Transit, they have utilized technology to streamline their recording and reporting processes and make their services more accessible to the general public. 
  2. Fleet

    In a midsize city, buses are the backbone of transit service. Midsize cities need a well-designed system that connects more suburban areas and local neighborhoods to major destinations like business districts, universities, hospitals, and entertainment areas. For Valley Regional Transit, buses and paratransit vehicles make up the majority of their fleet. Additionally, these fleet vehicles utilize compressed natural gas (84% of buses, 69% of paratransit vehicles) in order to save the agency money on fuel and lower their emissions, allowing the agency to combat the lack of resources a midsize city like Boise can sometimes offer.
  3. Asset Management

    Because of the lack of resources and limited funding typical of a midsize city, Valley Regional Transit has created an asset management program that is used to prioritize whether a fleet vehicle (or other asset) will be replaced or undergo maintenance to extend its life. Unfortunately, transit agencies in midsize cities don’t often have the luxury of continually replacing assets when they have reached the end of their lives. It is necessary for a transit agency in a midsize city to determine ways to allocate costs efficiently in order to continue running operations successfully. Assets that need to be monitored are fleet vehicles such as buses, paratransit vehicles, shuttles, vans, support vehicles, and other assets like shelters, transit centers, Park & Ride lots, and other equipment.
  4. Planning & Zoning

    In a midsize city, it is necessary to make planning & zoning changes that promote and support the transit investment most efficiently. Midsize city transit agencies need to plan their routes around areas that provide a range of housing options for various incomes and provide a range of community uses and amenities, among other factors. This means an agency needs to work closely with land use when planning their infrastructure in order to increase ridership. Valley Regional Transit in Boise has recently added routes that provide service between a local neighborhood, Boise State University and downtown Boise. They also added a route on Saturdays between various high-demand destinations.

Providing public transit in a midsize city offers unique challenges that agencies operating in other regions don’t face in quite the same way. Looking at Valley Regional Transit in Boise, which serves as a good example of a typical midsize city in the United States, it becomes clear that there are several factors to consider when running a successful operation.   Agencies must adopt the proper technology, use the right type of vehicles for the area, manage their assets effectively by properly allocating resources, and adapt their planning and zoning to their specific areas.

The final article in this series will take a look at what it takes for a transit agency to be successful in a small/rural area and what specific problems they face.

Tags: Transit Operations

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