Concerns About End-Point Connectivity are Overreaching

» It would be nice to imagine effective mass transit connections at high-speed terminals, but they are not necessary to build ridership. Rather, we should focus on concentrating high-intensity development in station-area zones.

As the debate over spending on high-speed rail evolves into a full-fledged argument, opponents have focused in on the matter of connectivity to dispute the notion that U.S. railways would attract enough riders. American cities suffer from inadequate transit, and the thinking goes that people would as a result continue to choose auto and air travel even if high-speed trains provided excellent intercity service. The conclusion of this line of reasoning is that the government should invest in urban transit before it moves on to high-speed rail, though it should be noted that many of the same people fighting rail on these grounds have previously stated their opposition to spending on public transportation.

I discussed the basic fallacy in this argument last week — namely, that intercity and urban travel markets are different and that we have a responsibility to invest in both; we cannot simply abandon efforts to improve the ability of people to move between cities. But the point raised by rail opponents deserves to be adequately addressed. Will rail find riders even if no transit is available in the environs of stations? Should we invest in a travel mode that has been successful in densely developed regions in Europe or Asia when the U.S. is so sprawled out?

National Public Radio broadcast a sob story from a woman who traveled on Amtrak from Greensboro to Raleigh, North Carolina, only to find what she claimed was “no” bus service at the arrival station, requiring her to walk “along broken pavement on a street without a sidewalk” and then wait 15 minutes for public transportation. She stated that this process was so difficult that she would probably drive the next time she took the trip because of the difficulty of the end of the commute. The story’s conclusion was that the woman’s situation exemplified the state of transit in many cities and that future rail ridership might be hampered by these problems.

Leave behind for a moment the fact that the bus she took stopped literally one block away from the station, that it runs every 10 to 15 minutes throughout the day, that is it free, and that it serves Downtown Raleigh’s major museums the poor lady was hoping to visit with her nephew. The bus would qualify as good transit service in most American cities, so the woman’s experience may be more a reflection of the city’s bad signage and her limited experience in riding the bus than some systematic problem in transit provision.

Let’s ignore as well the fact that many of the urban areas being considered for high-speed rail, including Chicago, Los Angeles, San Diego, the Bay Area, Seattle, Portland, Dallas, Houston, and most cities along the Northeast Corridor — in other words, the country’s major population centers — already have or are quickly developing their inner-city rail transit networks. In general, American transit lacks the comprehensiveness of its counterparts elsewhere in the world, but to argue that commuters will arrive at train stations and be stranded comes close to denying the fact that more than 10 billion annual rides are taken on U.S. public transit systems, most of them focused at downtown hubs near future high-speed rail stations.

Do commuters need good transit at stations to be attracted to riding intercity trains? Few U.S. airports have efficient transit connections, and even those that do typically see few of their customers arriving by train or bus. Yet people who want to fly make it to the airport by car. Though it would certainly be preferable for transit to provide local connections for most intercity train riders, in cities without good service, people would be able to get to stations by car, just as they do for flights today. High-speed rail’s principal market is journeys of 200 and 600 miles between major cities, and a large percentage of voyagers currently making such connections are doing so by air today — and generally without the aid of mass transit to get to the airport.

For those switching from automobiles to trains — such as the woman profiled in the NPR story — the presence of local transit could indeed make an important difference in arriving and departing, especially for tourists or businesspeople without a friend or family member ready to drop off or pick up. In addition to the resulting cost savings, people choose driving over flying because they get a door-to-door connection with their cars. High-speed rail will not be much better than air travel in many cases, though as previously noted, most cities do have public transportation emanating from their downtowns. As a result, even without any improvements at all, more people would be able to switch to a bus or local train from virtually every city’s center-city rail station than from its airport.

This is an important reason why Florida’s high-speed rail proposal is miserable. The state plans new train stations in the suburbs of Orlando and Lakeland, rather than in those cities’ urban cores, defeating some of the inherent advantages of downtown-oriented rail plans.

More important, though, is the fact that many high-speed rail users, especially businesspeople, will be aiming their travel towards a destination within walking distance or a short taxi ride of the station. Unlike airports, which are by definition completely inaccessible by pedestrians, train stations can be positioned underneath major cities and provide direct access to the job centers. Unlike automobilists, who encounter congestion and high parking fees downtown, train users get reliable, non-stop connections into the focal points of major cities.

Rail opponents frequently like to point out that sprawl has reshaped the American landscape to such an extent that they argue it would be ineffective to focus the benefits of train travel at the certain of town. But they usually neglect to mention the fact that in almost all metropolitan areas, the single largest employment zone remains downtown — and it is usually the only walkable one. Similarly, for better or worse, U.S. cities from coast to coast have invested massively in new convention centers, sports arenas, museums, parks, and entertainment corridors over the past three decades — and the vast majority of that spending has been downtown, near centrally positioned train stations. For businesspeople and tourists, there will be a significant incentive to choose rail over air or automobile travel for convenience’s sake.

These advantages will be self-reinforcing. Just as airports often incite the creation of specialized office areas nearby, it seems obvious to expect similar densification of neighborhoods surrounding train stations on a successful high-speed line. In cities with poorly developed downtowns, the arrival of fast trains could provide an important spur in encouraging new office, retail, and residential building construction. People using these developments will be within easy access of the station, and they will not be reliant on transit to get to a train.

None of this is to suggest that cities do not need further urban transit investment — in almost every case they do. But there is a strong case to be made that the success of high-speed rail will have little to do with the quality of transit available for commuters to and from fast trains. We cannot let rail opponents rely on this fallacious argument to impede the development of better intercity transportation in the U.S.

24 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Yeah, I never got the argument of “what will people do when they arrive at the train station and there’s no mass transit?”

    Are airports any better? Provide some real train service and you’ll have plenty of taxis, rental cars, hotels, services, etc. at the train station, just like you do at an airport – but with the added bonus that you could actually walk someplace.

  • Yes … traffic at outer-suburban stations will tend to be dominated by departures and returns, and inner urban stations tend to be the dominant destinations.

    Where HSR offers the strongest leverage to local transport is in the outer suburbs, where marginal corridors struggle to with abysmal load factors because they have so few patronage anchors that are not employment centers. And in the outer suburbs, it is the HSR station that stands on its own, and the local transport corridor(s) that are the beneficiaries.

  • Rockfish

    The issue is that airports are located outside city centers and are provided with massive road infrastructures, their own off ramps, multi-lane dedicated access roads, etc. This makes it really easy for people to drive there, though as you note it makes it a pain for business people to get from city center to city center for meetings.
    To have to drive to or from a city center train station would be a deal breaker for most casual travelers, though a benefit to business travelers.
    This might help explain Florida’s perverse rationale. They are designing a system which mimics the airport system, and which optimizes the access for vacation and casual travellers. I still don’t think it’s a good idea, but I can see how they got there.
    The best compromise would be to have a downtown AND suburban stop, such as MetroPark in NJ or Rt 128 in Boston on the NE Corridor lines are today. That way business people could go center-to-center, and casual travelers could drive to the suburban station and park. This would only add a few minutes to the trips.

  • Jembe

    Like Rockfish pointed out how about the CDG model from France? HSR lines that connect to the airport and city make a more robust transportation network. Ideally, we don’t have to choose. In the Bay Area, they will seek to do just this at SFO. It’s already the case in Newark. Chicago is also a great candidate and LAX a decent one.

  • Gordy

    Yonah’s arguments don’t make much sense.

    1. People and jobs are shifting away from city centers. In all or virtually all major metropolitan areas the share of jobs and residencies in the central city is declining and the share in the suburbs is increasing. This trend favors air and car travel over rail travel.

    2. Congestion is worse and parking is more expensive in city centers than in suburbs. This also favors air travel over rail travel.

    3. Only a few cities have transit systems sophisticated enough to provide a realistic alternative to cars for access to downtown rail stations for most of their residents.

  • Woody

    Kiss and Ride —

    I’ve been amazed to see the traffic volumes that some suburban kiss-and-ride passenger drop-offs can accommodate.

    in city centers, taxis can handle substantial numbers of passengers. Watch outside the Garden when a Knicks game is over!

    Then if we get some more rail transit lines with stops at the train stations — and that could be a great fear for members of the Ayn Rand cult — then transit can carry even more passengers than now. You don’t need to serve every neighborhood with transit to make it useful for passenger rains. The First Stage of the infamous Second Avenue Subway will soon enough provide a good link from some of the richest and most dense zip codes in the nation, with the city’s most-likely-to-travel residents to Penn Station. The other upper income zip codes already have good links.

    Yes, it would be difficult to put a parking garage on top of Penn Station in New York, like the one atop Union station in D.C. But I guess it would remain the busiest train station in American nonetheless.

    And rental cars? No open lots sprawled around the terminal building, not at Penn Station in NYC. You would have to use shuttle buses to move the renters to the waiting cars some blocks away — hey, just like at the airport!

    If there’s too much congestion in the cities, just raise the price of parking. When drivers have to pay what it costs, instead of slurping up the subsidized parking they get now, congestion will disappear.

    Or do nothing. When the price of oil rises as it must, driving will not be cheap, and center cities will thrive again, whether we have the rail in place for that time or not.

  • Many American cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Houston, and Atlanta, have rapid transit and commuter rail systems that offer good connections from most areas to the central train station. They’re not so good at providing comprehensive regional rail or at serving even multiple center-city destinations, but they’re unbeatable for travel to the train station.

  • Woody

    The Dallas Amtrak Station is easily reached by DART, a 45-mile system soon to be a 90-mile light rail system.

    Houston’s station, however, is not directly on the successful starter light rail line, though just about everything else is.

    Your larger point is surely correct, because the list goes on: Sacramento, Portland, Salt Lake City, Denver, Albuquerque and more on the way.

  • In Atlanta the current station is not very well served, but the old train station downtown at Five Points is at the central transfer point of MARTA.

  • jim

    I’m sort of ambivalent about this. On the one hand, what you say is true. Intercity trains can come into cities without good transit links and still attract riders. On the other hand, the easier it is to get to the train station, the more likely people are to ride the train. If as a country we have the choice of two city pairs to connect with high speed rail and one pair has good transit links and the other doesn’t, all else being equal, we should probably fund the pair with transit links.

    I do sometimes worry about arguing away the barriers to rail. You argued that Ed Glaeser was wrong in dismissing Dallas-Houston HSR. I understand why you made that argument. But it allowed Megan McArdle to claim that HSR proponents want to build high speed rail connections between Dallas and Houston rather than where it makes sense, like the North Eastern Corridor (!).

    Rail connections make more sense in some cases and less in others. We should accept that and push harder where it makes more sense (and softer where it makes less).

  • Jim, Megan McArdle lies so often that it doesn’t really matter what anyone actually says anymore. For that matter, Glaeser isn’t completely truthful either when he considers HSR on a city pair that nobody’s ever proposed HSR on, and that is unlikely to get any federal HSR money.

  • Why do you have to choose city OR suburban stop? A train can stop at booth. For example the old Metroliners got 1/3 of their business in the DC area from New Carrollton. (The stop was dropped because the new Acela trains didn’t have the capacity to handle all the potential business).

    Stop at Tampa Union station and stop in the suburbs too!

    Obviously it won’t be high speed if it stops a lot, but if it was only going to the suburbs, then extending it to the city delays no-one

  • Wad

    Gordy wrote:

    1. People and jobs are shifting away from city centers. In all or virtually all major metropolitan areas the share of jobs and residencies in the central city is declining and the share in the suburbs is increasing. This trend favors air and car travel over rail travel.

    You are discounting that rail would have a transformative effect on future trips, thereby making central cities more attractive commercially and increasingly residentially.

    Such a blanket statement doesn’t also account whether a central city area has actually lost a job, i.e., had a commercial tenant move out and not be replaced by anything. If the central city area is the most high-value location in the city, a tenant would move out if it could gain savings by moving to a cheaper suburb but would likely be replaced by another tenant who would commercially gain by being in a high-value location.

    2. Congestion is worse and parking is more expensive in city centers than in suburbs. This also favors air travel over rail travel.

    Congestion and high parking prices also produce several alternatives. You could get to a center city by public bus or rail, taxi, rental car with a drop-off location downtown, airport shuttle van, be dropped off by someone …

    “It’s so crowded, nobody goes there” is a cute Yogi Berra quip, but has little bearing in reality.

    3. Only a few cities have transit systems sophisticated enough to provide a realistic alternative to cars for access to downtown rail stations for most of their residents.

    And even fewer have transit systems sophisticated enough to provide a realistic alternative to cars for access to airports. Yet the aviation industry is not collapsing because of that.

    If service is attractive enough by schedule, station stops, passenger amenities and price, people will gravitate toward train service.

  • Wad

    Woody wrote:

    And rental cars? No open lots sprawled around the terminal building, not at Penn Station in NYC. You would have to use shuttle buses to move the renters to the waiting cars some blocks away — hey, just like at the airport!

    That, or the big rental car chains do what they do now: Use the roads as backup storage. Rental car companies will have their own drivers keep cars moving, picking up and dropping off people or shuttling the vehicles between outlets.

  • Woody

    As I keep thinking about this issue, I can argue it either way. On one of these blogs — maybe even this one, I forget a lot these days — I once asserted that expanding rail routes and frequencies would pour more passengers into local transit systems.

    I was challenged on this assertion by one of the many folks posting hereabouts who are far better informed than I am. The challenger said that rail stations added very few passengers to transit totals, which were overwhelmingly local commuters, students, shoppers, etc.

    Pondering this possibility for about half a minute, I realized that the challenger was right, and I was wrong, certainly about big systems. All the passengers arriving at Penn Station are a spoonful in the bucket of the NYC subway and bus totals. Likewise Union Station and Metro in D.C., which I use once or twice a year.

    But I thought, in a smaller transit system the out-of-town train passengers could matter more. So I went to look at Sacramento, which just a few years ago extended its light rail system to its busy Capital Corridor station, with more than a dozen daily connections to the Bay Area and Silicon Valley.

    I looked at the ridership figures this way and that. They went up a lot one year and not so much another. Obviously other factors were at work, like the price of gas or the state of the economy. But I couldn’t see any impact from the extension to the station. Some newspaper articles quoted passengers who were pleased that they would not have to walk four or five blocks to get to the light rail and where they wanted to go. But I could not determine any influx of new transit passengers statistically or anecdotally.

    OTOH The impact of transit stops at train stations may be huge. If you look at a weak route, like the Heartland Flyer now running from Oklahoma City to Fort Worth with barely 200 passengers a day on average, let’s say 225 a day. Oh dear. But add a transit system that feeds in another couple of dozen passengers to the train station. And you’ve got an 11% increase on the Heartland Flyer, enough to make a substatial impact on the bottom line for that route.

    As it happens, both Oklahoma City and Fort Worth are talking about putting in rail transit. Fort Worth seems much farther along, with studies on-going for a route that would extend to its cultural district on one line — the Kimball, the Amon Carter, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Will Rodgers Center that hosts musical acts and horse shows etc., and a college campus — while another line reaches to a hospital-medical center.

    And Fort Worth is talking about building rail without going through the ordeal of applying for federal funds. Adding the street car lines would make a weekend visit to the city an easy thing for folks who would just as soon leave the car behind, and folks from Fort Worth looking to travel to the cities and towns to the north.

    So that figure of an extra 24 riders a day that I pulled out of my secret hiding place is not so improbable. And those 24 new riders from transit lines carrying thousands would have a major impact on the farebox recovery of the Heartland Flyer. That good news would come even without extending that train to Kansas City or San Antonio, or increasing the frequency to twice a day or better.

    And On The Third Hand, talk about linking a transit system to intercity passenger rail seems to be a good talking point when local leaders try to promote rail transit to the voters. I’d say it’s harmless.

    That the point may be sort of bogus as far as transit surely infuriates opponents. That it probably helps passenger rail does not mollify them at all, since members of the Ayn Rand cult hate Amtrak as part of their core beliefs.

    When I went to look for a list of planned, proposed, or actually underway transit expansions, I found 60-70 cities listed, at various stages between dream and reality. Not all of them have Amtrak service– Las Vegas and Phoenix, conspicuously do not — but most do.

    If Ray Lahood keeps tweaking the funding system towards reality and can cut the approval time from a decade to one election cycle, and if Obama can find the kind of funds for transit that he put aside for HSR, we could see dozens of new transit lines coming down the tracks with a stop at the Amtrak station. And that’s even before any HSR gets built.

  • The Heartland Flyer isn’t weak. In 2008 it was frequently sold out, and nearly broke even operationally.

  • Woody

    Alon —

    You must have access to better sources than I do.

    I looked at the NARP website. It reported 79,434 passengers on the Heartland Flyer in 2008. That was up nicely from the year before, when it carried only 67,302.

    So 79,434 divided by 365 = 217.627, rounded up that is 218 passengers per train. Up nicely from 184 the year before.

    The Heartland Flyer must run very short trains to “frequently sell out” with an average of 218 passengers a day.

    Glad to hear the route almost broke even operationally. Do you mean before or after the subsidies from the States of Oklahoma and Texas?

    What am I missing here?

  • For a large metropolitan area, Christopher Parker is quite right – for a through line, the preferred alignment ought to include one central urban station and an outer suburban station on both sides of the city.

    You can’t stop the HSRail every five or ten miles, but given the sprawl of American cities, its a rare large metro area that is not at least three stations wide.

    Its not at the inner urban station that a noticeable benefit to ridership for local transport will occur, but at the outer suburban stations.

  • Cameron Slick

    I can imagine a good example of an in-between city on a proposed HSR Line. Chicago – Twin Cities via Milwaukee & Madison. In order to be convenient for suburban riders and businesses, a stop at the Milwaukee Airport and Brookfield are necessary, so that western suburbs don’t have to drive or bus all the way to Madison. A similar example could be used for Hastings, MN, 30 miles southeast of St. Paul and also more convenient for its suburban proximity.

    The same can be said for Royal Oak & Dearborn, MI; Gary, IN, Joliet, & Glenview IL; DFW, TX; and Tacoma & Everett, WA.

  • DBX

    Woody, I’ll vouch for Alon at least on the sell-out numbers. The Heartland Flyer DOES run very short trains — typically three cars, a mixture of Superliners and ex Santa Fe Hi-Level cars. This is just another example of Amtrak’s serious rolling stock shortage.

  • Woody, the source for financial performance is at http://www.amtrak.com/pdf/0906monthly.pdf – though I’d look at the FY 2008 data, which is more representative of things to come; FY 2009 was colored by recession and by a temporary fall in gas prices. In fact you can replace the 0906 part in the URL with any combination of year and month divisible by 3, to get quarterly or annual reports; the only reason I don’t directly link you to 0809, the full FY 2008 report, is that for some reason it doesn’t include indirect costs, overstating NEC profits.

    I’m not sure whether the numbers include state support or not. Given that the main state-supported routes – Empire and the California routes – lose large amounts of money, I’d guess that the numbers don’t include state support.

  • Huricano

    Transport Politic: Can the federal government put design restrictions or condidions on the placement of train stations and route of the lines? If so, does it?

  • Huricano –
    I’m not sure if that question is addressed to me or to the readership at large, but I’ll try my best to answer. The federal government has no system by which it funds full rail corridors today, a problem I raised in a previous post. As a result, unlike with FTA grants, conditions aren’t the FRA’s specialty — at least not yet. It seems very likely that as funding for rail evolves into a major issue, the FRA will begin to demand that rail authorities follow certain rules, such as conditioning support on station design and placement considerations. Those rules do not currently exist.

  • Woody

    Alon, thanks for the link. A ton of interesting info. I’ll give it a lot more study. The route to route comparisons were very telling.

    BTW What is the better measure, do you think, loss per seat mile offered or loss per passenger mile?

    The largest losses came from the trains running less than daily, — Sunset Limited and the Cardinal, no surprise. So I understand why Amtrak is moving to add cars and frequencies there first.

    Surprisingly good numbers on the St Louis-Kansas City route. Did you notice that Missouri’s bid for HSR funds included a plan to buy new cars on that route? Maybe they noticed how business improved with greater frequency STL-CHI.

    And you are quite right that the Heartland Flyer numbers look good here. (I couldn’t see where the state subsidies got into these figures, or if they did.) That’s very encouraging.

    If they are running only three or four cars (which might earn the adjective “weak”) and still doing so well, it indicates great potential.

    More links attract more passengers. So if the Heartland Flyer gets linked to Tulsa and/or to Wichita/Topeka/Kansas City, or eventually to St Louis or even Chicago at the northern end, and to the Sunset Limited at San Antonio, it could be a big success.

    Not to mention those passengers riding because of the coing-soon fort Worth streetcar lines.

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