Thursday, April 21, 2011

Transportation myopia for commuter rail

Jeff "Pantograph Trolleypole" Wood has a post questioning the value of building new commuter rail lines, as contrasted with light rail or streetcars. He points to several new lines where ridership is well below expectations, and argues that such tiny numbers do little to further our goals.

It has always been acknowledged that these new commuter rail lines are oriented towards relatively affluent park-and-ride commuters, so they won't increase access for underserved communities. The claim was that they would get people out of their cars for at least a portion of the trip, leading to greater efficiency and less pollution and carnage. In addition, some people claimed (or at least hoped) that they would attract relatively well-connected passengers, who in turn would have an interest in lobbying for the maintenance and expansion of the transit system. Jeff argues that such small numbers do very little to help us reach any of those goals.

Everyone seems to agree that these commuter lines are a miserable failure, but there is disagreement over why exactly they failed, and how to avoid failures like this in the future. Jeff takes a technical approach, saying that the problem is that the lines tend to be located in old freight rights-of-way far from residential, job and shopping centers and served by large park-and-ride lots. Significantly, these lines all tend to be relatively low frequency, sometimes only a few trains a day. He recommends that agencies pursue light rail through urban areas instead, and contrasts the ridership numbers on these commuter rail lines with numbers from new light rail lines.

Yonah Freemark expands on Jeff's post, but argues instead that the problem is a political failure, due to a futile attempt to distribute funding across metropolitan regions, hamstrung by bad zoning.

I think they're both confusing correlation with causation. Both of their explanations are probably true to some degree, but in fact only one could, or none; we don't know. There's another factor at work that I think plays a role. I don't have any proof, only a similar causation, but that is enough to require more support for Jeff and Yonah's claims. Both bloggers are suffering from transportation myopia, because for every one of the commuter rail lines that Jeff lists, there was a major road project that improved car travel and took riders away from the commuter rail lines.

Northstar commuter rail I-94 third lane
Capital Metro US 183 toll road
RailRunner Big I reconstruction
Music City StarI-40 widening
Utah FrontRunner I-15 Ogden-Weber Expansion
Portland WES Oregon 217 Modernization
Oceanside Sprinter CA Route 78 HOV Improvements (planned)

Now I know some of the readers are going to jump in and say, "but that highway project outside of Portland is only one lane in one direction for a few blocks!" Yes, but there are numerous other highway expansion projects going on in the area. You can quibble with the details, but I think you'll agree that the overall picture is sound.

If you regularly commute from Maple Grove to downtown Minneapolis and keep getting stuck in traffic jams on I-94, you might consider switching to the Northstar trains. But then if MnDOT adds a lane to I-94 and traffic moves smoother, you might stay in your car. This is partly a failure of commuter rail, partly a failure of regionalism, but mostly a failure of transit advocates to realize how much of a threat competing road projects can be to the train lines they so desperately want to see.


Pantograph Trolleypole said...

I'd like to clarify that my stance isn't against commuter rail per say as it has its place among the transit hierarchy. Rather I'm against building commuter rail as a first line in a regional system. The Utah line for example also connects up with an already established light rail system which was wildly successful and allowed for the campaign to build a commuter line and plan for 4 more LRT lines and an extension of the commuter rail south to make a real system.

I see what you're saying about the competing road projects. North of Austin there are plenty of road expansion projects and employment growth that takes away political momentum as well. But you have to start somewhere.

I'm also not sure it gets at my point that politically for a system to gain traction and change people's minds, it needs to be publicly visible to the people who voted for it. Commuter rail itself is like the road projects you mention, another big sucking sound for downtown and first suburb tax base to be spent somewhere other than the places that it was generated. Where there is support, we should build a blockbuster line. From that single line, we can generate more momentum to quell these single lane expansions that might take away from future commuter rail success.

On the other hand, maybe I'm missing your point completely.

Jonathan said...

Trolleypole, I think CT's argument is much more compelling. You talk about "starting somewhere" as if transportation planning was some kind of untended garden, that you could start fixing up in one corner and slowly move across the landscape.

The transportation system we have now has been quite deliberately designed to fulfill its intended purpose, which is to move people in private automobiles. If you want to "gain traction," "start somewhere," and "change people's minds," you would do well to create a situation where driving a private automobile is infeasible because of congestion, operating costs, tolls, or regulation.

Matt Miller said...

It's insanity - UTA built FrontRunner at the same time UDOT expanded I-15. The resulting ridership has been embarrassingly low. And yet they are doing it again, for FrontRunner South!

Cap'n Transit said...

Jeff, I agree with you that these commuter rail projects are poorly planned and that transit advocates need to take into account ridership potential. But I don't think you can generalize from that to all forms of commuter rail.

As has been pointed out on other blogs, on "commuter rail" lines in places like Montclair you get subway-like stop spacing, and could potentially run subway-like frequencies.

Cap'n Transit said...

My main point is that there are several factors involved in the success of a given transit line (however you define success). The specific mode is only one of those factors, and not always the most important.

George K said...

In Staten Island, they planned to widen the Staten Island Expressway and reconfigure the on/off-ramps to speed traffic. I wrote to my congressman saying the disadvantages of the expansion (puts people back in their cars, removes ridership from express buses to Manhattan, etc)

He wrote a response saying how important the project is to handle increased congestion (personally, I think the traffic moves fine under the current configuration). But I think that, for $75 million, you could get more value by expanding transit service: The bus lane on the SIE could be extended to Richmond Avenue, or a bus can be routed to start somewhere on Staten Island, use the SIE Bus Lane, and then use the Belt Parkway and its service roads to better connect Staten Island and Southern Brooklyn.

Alon Levy said...

Cap'n, the political forces that widen those highways are the same as those that build suburban park-and-rides. In both cases, the idea is to make the city more accessible to suburban drivers.

Even without the road expansions, those lines wouldn't be very successful. If you want an example, think of Caltrain from Gilroy to San Jose: ridership went down by a factor of four when 101 was widened and never recovered, but even before the widening, the ridership numbers were pitiful even by the standards of the main SF-SJ Caltrain, let alone by those of regional lines around the world.

Cap'n Transit said...

You're right, Alon, but I do think Jeff has a point that the commuter rail programs often have the support of transit advocates in addition to the Very Serious People who normally support road widenings.

My point is that not all commuter rail lines are like that - as you said, the Caltrain main line has higher ridership. This is not some inherent weakness of commuter rail, it's a weakness of this particular auto-oriented way of designing commuter rail.

George K said...

@Alon Levy: The reason why they failed was probably because there was nothing of interest near the stations: Even with a park-and-ride the potential riders of the commuter rail line were probably too scattered to provide a ridership base for the line. At least lines like the LIRR don't have a ridership base that is that spread out.

And I realized what I posted the previous comment for: One of the ideas I suggested was to use the money to build a rail line in the median of the Staten Island Expressway, rather than expand the width.

maxutility said...

Especially with park-n-ride based transit lines, you have to consider the road as part of the same transit system as the rail line. From the rider's perspective, there's an "express train" (get in the car and drive to work) and there's an indirect route that requires a transfer (park and switch to train). Worse yet, the non-express probably has a higher (or at least higher apparent) incremental cost.

As with most transit systems, a rider will only choose a path that requires a transfer if there is large, obvious benefit to avoiding the "direct" path.