» All across the country, transit agencies are opening new rail lines with inadequate service.
At $37 million for two miles of track, Salt Lake City’s new S-Line, sometimes referred to as the Sugar House Streetcar, was one of the cheapest rail transit projects recently completed in the United States, with per-mile costs equivalent to the typical bus rapid transit project. From a capital cost perspective, it’s a great success.
Too bad the S-Line is such a dud when it comes to ridership. According to recent data from the local transit system, the project is serving fewer than 1,000 riders a day, far fewer than the 3,000 expected for the project. One explanation is that the short route doesn’t attract many people. Another is that the line’s frequency is simply too low to convince people to orient their lives around it.
The thing is, providing new rail lines isn’t enough — service standards really matter when it comes to attracting people to use transit. And on that front, too many transit agencies around the country are failing to offer the services people can rely on. The problem extends far beyond New Orleans and encompasses a large share of the cities that are investing in new rail lines today, ultimately limiting their effectiveness and cutting down on ridership.
We must commit our transit agencies to providing a minimum level of transit service on their lines, particularly those in which it has been deemed necessary to invest millions of dollars in capital upgrades.
Certainly part of the answer should be speeding transit up. In an urban environment where automobiles dominate, making sure that buses and trains can move as quickly as possible reduces commute times and, ultimately, reduces the appeal of driving by providing a time-competitive alternative. At an average of 10 mph, the S-Line is certainly no stunner.
But the streetcar’s bigger problem is that trains only make the 2-mile, 12-minute trip every 20 minutes, or 3 times an hour.* If you miss a trip, you might as well walk, because you’ll save virtually no time waiting for the train. As Jarrett Walker has noted many times, frequency of service can be just as important as speed, since the frequency at which a vehicle on a line arrives determines how long most people have to wait — especially when they’re transferring between services, an essential element of any big-city transit network and one that cannot be significantly improved with real-time data.
An examination of the operations of 49 new or extended light rail or streetcar lines built in the U.S. after 2000, summarized in the table at the end of this article, suggests that the situation experienced in Salt Lake is hardly unique, particularly at off-peak hours. While the large majority of these services offer at least four trains per hour (one vehicle every 15 minutes in each direction) at peak hours, 35% offer fewer than 4 trains per hour at midday and 73% offer fewer than 4 trains per hour in the evening (indeed, 33% offer 2 or fewer trains per hour, or a train every half hour, in the evening).
The difference for a passenger using a transit service offering robust frequencies — 6 trains per hour, or one train every ten minutes — versus mediocre ones — 3 trains per hour, like the S-Line — can be dramatic. A hypothetical rider in the robust city who has to take two 15-minute train trips that involve one transfer between them will spend an average of 40 minutes commuting in each direction (30 minutes on both trains and 5 minutes waiting for each individual train). In the mediocre city, on the other hand, average waiting times of 10 minutes for each train would increase commute times to 50 minutes, or a 25 percent increase. In the worst circumstances, where a rider just misses each train, the rider in the robust city would require 50 minutes to commute while her peer in the mediocre one would need 1h10, a full 20 minutes more.
To create a transit system that is attractive enough to pull people out of their cars, high frequencies of service at all times of the day are essential.
Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Seattle, as the table demonstrates, have chosen to outfit their new rail lines with a robust level of service that befits the major investment that has been put into them and recognizes the time constraints of their riders. Others, from San Jose to Sacramento to San Diego and even to Portland, have simply chosen to give up on their passengers at night. What they’ve effectively decided is that only people who truly have no other choice should rely on transit outside of peak hours.
The poor service offered on these lines produces infrastructure that is massively underused. One of the frequent arguments made by proponents of investment in rail is that “people know” that the trains will come because of the fixed track and supposedly high quality of service. But inadequate operations make this benefit disappear.
The federal government, which has funded the majority of these projects, has failed to enforce any sort of minimum level of service that these lines must provide. Rather than mandate that new services funded through grants offer service at least every 15 minutes, for example, the Federal Transit Administration simply requires agencies to “develop quantitative standards for all fixed route modes of operation” for issues like vehicle headway. In other words, if a transit agency provides service every three hours on a just-built rail line, that’s fine — as long as that information has been submitted in triplicate to Washington in advance.
The federal government is throwing money at these projects with little supervision over how they are operated. The results are underperformance and relatively low ridership.
Certainly many transit agencies will suggest that the reason they do not offer better service is that they cannot afford to do so; as I wrote last week, the way that transit funding is allocated results in perverse incentives that encourage transit expansion over transit service. But local governments that commit to new projects should be required to identify adequate funding to cover operations if they are awarded federal money for construction.
Other agencies might argue that the service they provide simply matches the demand; there is no need to offer more than three trains an hour on the S-Line because only 1,000 people a day will even ride the thing. This fact raises questions about whether it made sense to build the project in the first place — if it’s not serving many people, is it needed? Or it represents a self-fulfilling prophecy: Of course the line serves few people because the service it provides is so poor.
Choosing to invest in better services comes at a cost. But it’s one that our political leaders and local transit activists should be fighting for. Now that we have some rail lines constructed, let’s start running more trains on them before we rush out to build more track!
|Service levels for new or expanded light rail or streetcar lines in the U.S. since 2000|
* This is the level of service provided all day. In its submission to the federal government in 2010, Salt Lake claimed it would provide service every 15 minutes at peak and every 30 minutes in off-peak periods.
Image at top: S-Line Streetcar in Salt Lake City, from Flickr user Paul Kimo McGregor (cc)