Several organizations throughout the world are engaged in benchmarking public transport services. Unfortunately, they have not fulfilled their promise largely because the leadership needed to sustain the projects has fizzled.
Let me first define benchmarking. Put simply, it is observing what similar organizations do and coming up with statistical ways to compare them. The data-oriented measures are typically, but not always, financial.
Public transport officials came up with a variety of benchmarks. For buses they include: mean distance between roadcalls as a reliability measure, number of service hours per bus or passengers per service as examples of productivity measures. For rail properties, mean distance between failures, passengers per employee and passengers per hour per direction are a few benchmarks used.
For both modes, cost per passenger and farebox recovery ratios (the percentage of service cost paid for by fare income) are also used frequently. Some even look at modal splits on particular corridors of certain population densities.
No dearth of benchmarks
As you can see, there are all kinds of measures public transport organizations can use to develop comparisons. Similarly, there are a variety of benchmarking projects already underway or completed on a small scale.
For example, several Transit Cooperative Research Project studies discuss benchmarking in various quality improvement projects. There was also a benchmarking project done by the Texas Transportation Institute and the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Volpe Center in Cambridge, Mass., on staff training.
Two others are worthy of mention. The International Public Transport Union (UITP) is involved with the European Commission’s transport department (DG VII) on customer-oriented benchmarks to develop quality systems measures to help governments with policies on competitive contracting and subsidy levels. You can monitor the progress of this initiative by going to the UITP’s Website www.uitp.com. Meanwhile, the Kowloon-Canton Railway Corp., a multimodal system in Hong Kong, has been soliciting agencies around the world for years for a global urban passenger rail benchmarking initiative it is trying to develop.
The problem with those wonderful initiatives is they have faced tough sledding when it comes to wide-scale adoption and participation. I suspect that it boils down to two reasons.
First, many people correctly point out that trying to come up with such benchmarks, especially performance-oriented outcomes, too often results in comparing apples to oranges. Operating conditions vary widely, depending on national laws and customs, city vs. rural locations, size of the city, population densities and on and on.
Is benchmarking too scary?
There is also a second, perhaps bigger problem: Benchmarking is scary.
By developing comparisons, particularly averages, some people will inherently have to explain why their organizations fall below the norms. Better to let the enthusiasm for benchmarking wane, and it will go away.
Ultimately, such an attitude is a recipe for stagnation and losing relevance as a solution to urban congestion, pollution, socioeconomic opportunity and all the other worthy higher goals of public transport. Benchmarking must be taken seriously and championed. Meaningful standards must be developed. Better to do so rather than have outsiders do it for us, inaccurately and poorly. Which, sooner or later, will lead to more than a lost opportunity for real, quality improvements. It could lead to our industry’s downfall.
And that’s the ultimate scary scenario.