Monday, September 14, 2009

The magic of Metro-North

In my last post I gave the Magic Formula for Transit Ridership:

1. Give transit its own right-of-way and good terminals
2. Make it hard to use cars
3. Make it expensive to use cars
4. Profit!

In response, Alon Levy writes:
You don't need steps 2 and 3. Transit already has a high modal share on the market it serves well, namely suburb-to-CBD commutes. Even Metro-North, which competes with numerous free bridges and parkways, achieves an 80% market share for commutes into Manhattan.

Alon is more or less right, in that Metro-North has a tremendous advantage over cars in terms of rush-hour trips to Manhattan. However, I would argue that Steps 2 and 3 are partially being followed. It's not like it's smooth sailing and completely free to drive from Scarsdale to Midtown. Either you pay the toll on the Henry Hudson or the Triboro, or you sit in traffic at the "free" Fifth Avenue Bridge. Either you pay a tremendous amount of money for parking every month, or you've got a "free" parking placard. Any of these scenarios, you probably spend at least half an hour stuck in traffic somewhere. It's not ideal, the way it would be if we had true cordon pricing or market-rate parking with no placards. But it is a deterrent to driving, and probably accounts for that high mode share.

So Metro-North has an 80% mode share, but it only has 59% farebox recovery. This is actually the best ratio of any commuter railroad in the country; the next highest are the MBTA with 54.1, New Jersey Transit tied with the South Shore Line in Chicago with 51.5 each, SEPTA with 50.9, LA's Metrolink with 50.3, and the LIRR with 46.3. Why are they all so low? Well, Metro-North's ridership (passenger miles per revenue mile) is only 37.4. This may seem high compared to the buses, but remember that Metro-North's M7 train cars have 101 or 110 seats, depending on whether they have the bathroom or not.

I know what you're thinking: it's that fucking middle seat! Nobody wants to sit in it. But you'd be wrong. If the trains had 64 people per car, they would make a profit and no one would ever have to sit in the middle seat.

One of the shortcomings of the Magic Formula is that it only applies to a particular origin/destination pair, and it succeeds for trips to Manhattan. In the rush hour, the trains are pretty much full. If there are some middle seats free, there are probably more people standing. In other words, those trips are making a profit. It's the system as a whole that's not making a profit, and that must mean that the off-peak trips aren't making a profit. Certainly if you ride Metro-North at night or on weekends, you'll see plenty of cars that are less than 64% full. Although there are plenty of carfree households in Westchester, there are plenty of people who use the train for their commute and a car for shopping and socializing.

On one level, of course, it's a good thing that the trains run all day, seven days a week. Metro-North could probably make a profit by only running trains during rush hour, like VRE. But then Westchester would look even more like Northern Virginia than it already does. As Jarrett wrote, "A profit-oriented operator will tend to skimp on late-evening service, for example, but you need really good late-evening service, even if unprofitable, to make lower car ownership viable on a large scale."

So if we wanted Metro-North to be profitable, we'd have to make evening and late-night service profitable. One way of doing that is to save money on fare collection. The conductors are quaint and helpful, and I don't want to see anyone get laid off, but we seriously don't need four or five people on every train. A proof-of-payment system would probably save a ton of money and make it possible to break even with forty or fifty people per train. Maybe Jay Walder will do that.

We could also apply the Magic Formula to the most popular night and weekend routes. What if we restored the parkways (Bronx River, Saw Mill, Hutch, Taconic and Cross County) to parkway design standards - four lanes with green space on the sides and a multi-use trail? What if we ran trolleys down the middle of Routes 1, 9, 22 and 100, in dedicated rights-of-way appropriated from cars where possible? What if we tolled the major crossings of the Croton Reservoir and River system?

Of course, if we made the whole Metro-North system profitable, those profits would probably be used to cross-subsidize the other MTA services. So any profitability boosting strategies should be applied across the board.


Alon Levy said...

You're wrong about off-peak traffic. If Metro-North only ran trains during rush hour, its costs would decrease, but not linearly: it would still need to maintain the trains, tracks, and stations; pay the crews for split shifts; and pay the same administrative overhead. Conversely, ridership would decrease more than linearly, since it would encourage establishing a competing service, which would encroach on rush-hour service.

The snarkier response to this issue is, "If frequent off-peak service is good enough for JR-East then it should be good enough for the MTA."

Christopher Parker said...

You say the problem is Metro-North's ridership (passenger miles per revenue mile) is only 37.4. (That seems quite low to me.)

But here's the other thing: a train can leave New York with hundreds and hundreds of people and be pretty much empty by the time it rolls into New Haven. So the average ridership per mile can still be low on a fully loaded departure.

This is one reason intercity service is more profitable: Most routes have big traffic generators at each end and in the middle. Those that don't show similar low cost recovery.

arcady said...

I don't think that cutting off peak service is necessarily a way to profitability. How many people do you think would take Metro North if the last northbound train left GCT at 5:50 pm? Or even 7:30 pm or 9:30 pm. I think that with Metro North at least, they can get much higher cost recovery if they were really given free rein to try. As one example, they could start charging market rate for parking rather than whatever systems they use to distribute permits now. They could offer steeper discounts to keep off peak trains filled, and charge more on particularly overcrowded peak trains. Maybe they'll even get more ridership with more reliable and less overcrowded service, and maybe they can reduce their costs if they, say, could replace on-board assistant conductors with faregates in stations.

Alon Levy said...

Arcady: the union representing MNRR's redundant conductors, the Teamsters, is about the most militant union in America. It threatens strikes against anyone who even suggests that efficiency is a good thing.

Cap'n Transit said...

Good points, all. Christopher, that figure is calculated from the National Transit Database (PDF): 2,127,147,585 / 56,695,107 = 37.5. (It's actually a little higher than the figure I gave in the post because I mistakenly included some low-ridership auxiliary bus and ferry services). I'm assuming it means passengers per car, not per train.

You're right that the number of passengers drops the further you get from Grand Central, especially on non-rush-hour service, but the answer to that is the same as what I wrote in my post: make it easier to use the train for local, off-peak trips - and harder to use a private car.

Alon Levy said...

Cap'n, if you can find a way to make it easier to ride rail from suburb to suburb rather than to drive, I'm sure JR East will be interested. Its modal share in prefectures other than Tokyo is sub-50%.

Not all trips can be served by hub-and-spoke transit; some require point-to-point cars.

Cap'n Transit said...

Alon, some trips may "require" cars to be worthwhile, but I would argue that any city where a reasonable person can't plan a convenient alternative to such a trip is an unsustainable city.

Alon Levy said...

It depends on what "convenient" and "sustainable" mean. You could in principle get from Chiba to Narita on rail, but you could more easily get there by car. That doesn't make Tokyo unsustainable - it just makes it not Hong Kong.

Cap'n Transit said...

Well, I don't know Tokyo. I know Narita is the main airport, but I don't know what Chiba is, or why someone would want to go there from Narita.

Alon Levy said...

Chiba is a major secondary downtown, the one closest to Narita (which is more than just the airport). In general, in the Tokyo suburbs transit has a sub-50% modal share, and that includes people who work in Tokyo, for whom rail modal share probably approaches 100%.

Cap'n Transit said...

Well, that doesn't sound very sustainable to me. Maybe the Tokyo region as a whole is sustainable, but that part of it is not.

Alon Levy said...

You're defining yourself to be right. Car use is an input; you want to care about output, i.e. pollution and CO2 emissions.

Cap'n Transit said...

I can see why you might think that, but no. The output is not just lower pollution, but greater energy efficiency, better health, a more cohesive society and especially a reduction in the carnage and terror that pervade our streets and highways.

I can't really imagine a car-based solution that would accomplish all that. I wouldn't rule out the possibility, but I'm not holding my breath. And in the meantime, I look to transit, walking and sometimes cycling.