Infrastructure Social Justice Urbanism

Which riders matter?

G train

» Given the need to prioritize transportation investments, whose mobility needs are most important?

In an article earlier this month, I described the Seattle region’s draft proposal to spend $50 billion over the next twenty-five years on a massive transit expansion program. In that article, I compared the cost of building and operating new transit projects with the expected number of riders each proposed line would carry, concluding that the region was choosing projects that were relatively ineffective from the perspective of maximizing their benefit-cost ratios.

There is no formula that can definitively tell us whether a project is a good or bad one, or how it stacks up against other potential investments.

What I didn’t delve into was the fact that that metric—like any metric—was founded on an assumption that not only biased my conclusions, but also which was impossible to avoid, even if altered to reflect a different premise.

What I assumed was that every potential rider for a transit line has equal worth. In the Seattle case, for example, I noted that the cost per expected rider of a light rail line from the Ballard neighborhood to downtown was far less than that of a light rail extension to Tacoma, so I concluded that the former project should be built first.

At face value, the idea that we should treat each transit rider equivalently in a comparative analysis may not seem particularly controversial. Doesn’t it make intuitive sense to prioritize transit projects that serve the most people for the lowest cost?

In truth, though, riders are different. Some are taking long trips, some short ones. Some are wealthy, some are poor. Some have no choice but to ride transit, others are picking it instead of driving.

If the Ballard light rail project I noted above was filled with people already using buses to get to work and who would save just a few minutes traveling by train versus bus, while the Tacoma project was to be used by people who otherwise would be driving and who would be saving a lot of time, can we still be confident that the Ballard project is the better one? What if the Ballard project was serving all wealthy people, while the Tacoma one was designed for the poor?

How do we differentiate between riders? Who matters most? These are essential questions that we must answer when we’re picking investments. After all, given the fact that resources are limited, we must have some way to determine how to use them—whether that is through a process of reviewing quantitative statistics or through political debate.

When it comes to urban transit systems in the U.S., determining what riders matter most has a direct impact on what types of services are provided. Many large regions, for instance, have chosen to subsidize commuter rail at a higher rate per rider than other modes of transportation. Essentially that means that suburban, longer-distance travelers are being prioritized over urban travelers.

There are many reasons to think that’s okay: Subsidizing suburban commuters may be necessary to maintain political support for transit; their trips are longer and therefore putting them on transit may do more to reduce congestion and pollution; and urban riders often have better access to a variety of ways of getting around, such as walking and biking. But we can’t avoid the fact that the decision to preference the suburban rider is a choice, not a random outcome.

Another way to look at the way we think about which riders matter is through federal policy. Some years ago, the U.S. Federal Transit Administration required transit agencies building new lines and seeking support from the government to demonstrate the cost effectiveness of their projects by using a formula that divided overall operating and capital costs by the number of hours of rider time savings in the end year of the project.

This system had the consequence of prioritizing projects that saved as much time as possible for riders, rather than focusing on other issues, such as better serving existing transit users, potential transit-oriented development, social equity, or overall mode share. As a result, the government encouraged the extension of lines far out into the suburbs, which scored better than inner-city lines. The downside was that, in general, potential riders who were wealthier and had longer commutes were prioritized over people who lived in poorer urban neighborhoods.

Facing resistance from cities around the country, the FTA altered this rule and significantly reduced its weighting in the determination of which projects to build. In the process, it has redirected its attention toward projects that are questionable from the opposite perspective: They too often emphasize slow, central city travel over fast regional needs.

The reality is that there is no formula that can definitively tell us whether a project is a good or bad one, or how it stacks up against other potential investments. The most we can ask is for a lot of information about not only how many riders a project might serve, but also who those riders would be and how they would be expected to use the system.

Residents, political officials, and policy makers deciding how transportation spending should be distributed need to focus on the question of which riders are most important to them, because in doing so, they will come to a better understanding of what projects to invest in and which services to provide.

Here are three questions that every region should ask about transit riders, not only in reference to new projects, but also about how transit service is being provided today.

  1. Do we want to serve people who are already riding transit, or do we want to attract new people onto transit? If the goal of transit investments is to (1) attract new riders onto the system, new investments should probably focus on areas of the region where transit service is currently poor but adequate demand exists for people to get on trains and buses. On the other hand, if the goal is to (2) improve the quality of life for existing transit riders—who can be depended on to actually take transit when the project is completed—new investments should probably emphasize areas of the region where existing lines are well-used but slow and unreliable. One example of a project that fulfills the latter goal is the Second Avenue Subway in New York City, which will attract relatively few new transit riders (most people in the area already use transit) but dramatically reduce commute times for them by replacing packed and slow buses. It is worth noting that even if more new people ride transit under the first scenario, the second scenario could actually produce more new trips as better transit in dense urban areas is more likely to produce off-peak, weekend, and non-commute trips. It’s also important to emphasize that if a goal of transit is to expand social equity, a focus on existing transit riders, rather than “choice” riders, is essential, since their needs are the greatest.
  1. Do we want to replace longer trips or encourage more trips? If the goal of transit is to (1) reduce overall vehicle miles traveled on the roadways, projects like commuter rail systems can often be very effective because they replace the trips of people who drive long distances. A commuter from the suburbs who drives 50 miles roundtrip each day is causing far more pollution and congestion than a commuter in town who drives 5 miles roundtrip each day. Alternatively, if the goal is to (2) encourage more overall transit trips, urban rail systems serving dense neighborhoods are likely to result in more boardings. In addition, prioritizing longer trips may have the negative effect of encouraging more outward sprawl by making it easier to take longer transit trips to and from jobs; in the long term, this could actually reduce transit use.
  1. Do we want to focus on commuter trips or transit in communities where all-day transit use is possible? If the goal of transit investment is to (1) significantly reduce or provide an alternative to congestion, resources should be concentrated on peak-hour services that parallel a region’s most-travelled corridors, typically expressways. Fast commuter lines can offer a real alternative to congested highways. On the other hand, if the goal is to (2) develop communities where people do not have to rely on their cars for most of their daily needs, projects and services that focus on urban neighborhoods designed around walking are far more relevant. In many cases, investments in these places may have no relationship to relieving congestion but may have far more relevance to issues like transit-oriented development.

No investment decision can be a pure response to any of these questions, but understanding what types of riders we care about can help us identify how we make choices about how to spend public money on transportation.

Image at top: G Train, from Flickr user Jed Sullivan (cc).

Finance Infrastructure Light Rail Seattle

You’ve got $50 billion for transit. Now how should you spend it?

New light rail station in Seattle

» Metropolitan Seattle plans to offer its voters the chance to fund a large new transit expansion program. But are the projects chosen for initial funding the right ones?

Building a regional fixed-guideway transit network is no quick or easy feat, at least in the United States in our era of high costs and relatively slow construction timelines. Seattle’s first light rail line was funded by voters in 1996 but didn’t open its first section for thirteen years; the full extent of the initial line just opened last month, a full twenty years later.

ST3 may be the most ambitious transit expansion package in the entire country, but is it more important to provide access to far suburbs or to focus on corridors where transit can do best?

Despite the slow pace, residents of big cities across the country are hungry for more, hoping to spread the benefits of rapid transit to other parts of their respective metropolitan areas. That impulse motivated Seattle residents to approve the $18 billion Sound Transit 2 package (named after the regional transit agency) in 2008, which will extend “Link” light rail north, south, and east, creating a 50-mile light rail network by 2023.

It has also encouraged Sound Transit to propose a third package of projects, expected to be submitted for voter approval this November. Sound Transit 3 (ST3) would support $50 billion in investments, to be completed by 2041.

Excitement about adding light rail—and the region does apparently want it, given the massive ridership produced by the opening of new stations last month—has nevertheless been countered by skepticism about the value of the draft ST3 plan put forward by the transit agency’s planners and leaders.

Their questions are relevant to any region that’s considering major new transit expansion projects: If the projects the plan includes aren’t ideal, are they worth paying for? If the projects are built in the wrong order, are the links scheduled for the back of the line worth waiting for?

Sound Transit 3 and the goal of regional transit

Like many of the regions that have funded major transit expansion packages over the past few decades, one of the basic principles underpinning the projects proposed for funding is that neighborhoods throughout the metropolitan area—from central Seattle to suburban Issaquah—should benefit from improved transit. To a large degree, this makes logical sense, since people living everywhere in the region are contributing to the revenues needed to fund the lines, and they deserve better public transportation, too.

Light rail here, there, and everywhere in new plans for Seattle. Source: Sound Transit.
Light rail here, there, and everywhere in new plans for Seattle. Source: Sound Transit.

ST3 adheres to the concept of providing transit access to communities everywhere. The network revealed in late March proposes dozens of light rail lines running south to Tacoma, north to Everett, and east to Redmond and Issaquah, as well as a south suburban commuter rail extension and new bus rapid transit routes on the east and north sides of the region (these BRT routes would be completed first). It would also include two new light rail lines within the city of Seattle itself, including a new downtown tunnel, and several infill stations along existing routes.

In total, the light rail route network would extend 108 miles by 2041, making it longer than today’s Chicago L system. The new lines and stations could carry about 300,000 new riders a day. Funding would be derived from a half-cent increase in the local sales tax, an increase in the motor vehicle excise tax, and a property tax. Bonding would be used to fund several of the lines, with back payments continuing for 25 to 30 years after the construction completion.

At an expected cost of roughly $390 per metropolitan area household per year, ST3 may be the most ambitious transit expansion package in the entire country, at least from a fiscal perspective.

The plan is currently under public review; the Sound Transit board is expected to approve a final plan (which could be quite different than the one I’m describing here!) in June. Given Sound Transit’s ability to complete projects on time and under budget, and given the instant success of the light rail connection to the University of Washington that, in a matter of days, increased overall light rail ridership by 63 percent, there are positive feelings in the Seattle region about the local transit authority. It is reasonable to expect that a funding proposal put forward to voters this fall will generate significant support.

Is excellent transit possible in a regional funding scheme?

One of the primary goals of the ST3 package, which was developed after months of consultation and review by agency planners, is explicitly to create a “regional transit spine” that, in Seattle parlance, means light rail basically here, there, and everywhere in the region.

More specifically, the regional transit spine would be a light rail line linking Seattle north to Everett and south to Tacoma. It’s a nice idea informed by the importance of providing transit service everywhere, but it is questionable whether the spine should be a priority over other investments.

The spine would be really, really long. The distance between downtown Seattle and Everett is 29 miles; the other direction from downtown to Tacoma is 33 miles. Light rail along those corridors would likely be the longest downtown-to suburb rapid transit in the country: Los Angeles’ Blue Line runs 25 miles to Long Beach; Dallas’ Red Line to Plano is about 20 miles; Chicago’s Purple Line to Wilmette is just 16 miles. The longest one-seat ride on the New York City Subway (on the A) is just 32 miles from end to end, including sections on both ends of the Manhattan business districts.

The problem with such a long light rail corridor is that, unlike commuter rail service, rapid transit is just not that fast. Because it is serving areas without major jobs centers or walkable neighborhoods, the long light rail corridor is inherently oriented toward suburb-to-downtown commuters. But at an average speed of just 30 mph, for example, ST3’s proposed connection between Lynnwood and Everett is just not fast enough to compete effectively with car trips on freeways. Projects that focus on urban corridors in dense neighborhoods, on the other hand, are competing with car trips on much slower city streets and providing new options to replace already-used bus corridors.

The lengthy protrusions of ST3’s light rail network are essentially privileging running as far out into the suburbs as possible over better serving the urban core. This is the fundamental question for Sound Transit: Is it more important to provide access to far suburbs or to focus on corridors where transit can do best?

The phasing plan offered by Sound Transit for ST3 suggests that the agency has essentially chosen suburban transit over better urban transit, specifically when it comes to the projects that would be completed first. The light rail projects programmed for completion in the 2020s are extensions in the south and eastern suburbs.

The individual project local transit advocates have been pushing hardest for—a light rail tunnel from downtown to Ballard, a dense Seattle neighborhood northwest of downtown—would have to wait until 2038 for completion. If you weren’t counting, that’s 23 years from now. Perhaps it wouldn’t surprise readers to learn that this news has left many upset.

Indeed, the news has put in question whether Sound Transit’s choices of projects to prioritize make sense. Fortunately, the agency has provided excellent, in-depth information about each of the proposed projects and allowed the public to weigh in based on details.

That Ballard-to-downtown light rail line would be quite expensive, costing about $4.6 billion in 2014 dollars, more than any of the other major capital projects the agency plans. But it would also attract many more riders—about 130,000 per day—assuming estimates are correct. That’s many more than any of the other projects on the ST3 list, as the following table shows.

ProjectLocationLength (mi)Daily riders30-yr operating cost (2014$m)Construction cost (2014$m)Completion
Ballard to Downtown LRTSeattle7.1129,5001,1404,6062038
Tacoma Link to College StreetcarSuburbs4.415,0003904632041
West Seattle to Downtown LRTSeattle4.733,5006601,9522033
Kent/Des Moines to Federal Way LRTSuburbs5.318,5004201,1172028
145th and SR 522 BRTSuburbs88,5004503872024
Federal Way to Tacoma Dome LRTSuburbs9.733,5009302,5102033
I-405 BRTSuburbs3712,0008107112024
Lynnwood to Everett LRTSuburbs15.439,0001,5904,1832036/2041
Redmond Extension LRTSuburbs3.78,0003301,0752028
Bellevue to Issaquah LRTSuburbs913,0009001,6502041
Sounder to Dupont CRSuburbs7.81,250903042036
Graham St StationSeattle2,0003073.52036
Boeing Access Rd StationSuburbs1,75030128.52036

Data above from Sound Transit. Costs are average of low and high cost estimates; ridership is average of low and high estimates.

When analyzed from a comparative perspective, as shown in the following chart, the benefits of a Ballard-to-downtown line shine through. The project’s construction costs per daily rider and per population and jobs served in the surrounding areas are the second-lowest in the entire system, and much less costly than most of the suburban extensions the agency is prioritizing.

That’s even more relevant when incorporating the operating costs of and the revenues generated by the lines. The total subsidized cost over 30 years per rider—in other words, how many public funds must be expended for each rider after fare revenues to cover the cost of construction and operations—is a good indicator of project performance.

There, the Ballard-to-Downtown line excels, costing the public just $2.77 per rider, the least of all projects being considered. That’s compared to $5.93 for the Kent/Des Moines extension and $15.88 for the Redmond extension, the two lines ST3 prioritizes in the short term.

Incomprehensibly, the two other projects that also perform well on this metric also wouldn’t open anytime soon: A Tacoma streetcar extension would have to wait until 2041 and a West Seattle light rail line would wait until 2033.

ProjectTotal 30-yr costs (2014$m)Construction cost (2014$)/daily riderConstruction cost (2014$)/population and jobs served30-yr revenues (2014$m)Subsidized cost (2014$)/30 years of daily riders
Ballard to Downtown5,74635,56815,6192,4092.77
Tacoma Link to Community College85330,83316,6372794.11
West Seattle to Downtown2,61258,26943,4746236.38
Kent/Des Moines to Federal Way1,53760,351102,4315165.93
145th and SR 52283745,52912,2862377.59
Federal Way to Tacoma Dome3,44074,925188,7229358.04
Lynnwood to Everett5,773107,24492,1261,08812.92
Redmond Extension1,405134,31361,75322315.88
Bellevue to Issaquah2,550126,92382,50036318.09
Sounder to Dupont394242,800131,9573530.85
Graham St10436,7507,350373.56
Boeing Access Road15973,42938,939496.74

Data above based on data from Sound Transit. Revenues calculated based on the average rider paying $2 per ride (for Seattle and Tacoma projects) and $3 per ride (for other projects) and 310 weekday-equivalents of revenue annually. (Longer trips cost more on Link light rail.)

Given these attributes, it is hard to understand why Seattleites must wait 23 years for their Ballard line. On the pure metric of the ridership-to-cost ratio, the phasing plan of ST3 should be revised.

Politically, this question of which transit projects to fund first may answer itself. Since the mid-1990s, Seattle transit advocates have reluctantly accepted a concept referred to as “subarea equity,” which essentially states that transit spending be distributed around the region in a manner commensurate with tax revenues from five sub-areas. Though the concept is open to interpretation—some suggest that the idea of geographical equity isn’t a mandate, but instead a guidance tool—the agency has clearly chosen to respect it, at least to a large degree.

It is also true that pushing forward a project like the downtown-to-Ballard light rail line would have negative consequences: It would likely mean more bonding to handle that project’s high costs, and it would by definition mean other projects on the system would have to wait for completion. A new downtown tunnel for this light rail line, which agency representatives say is required for its operation, will be difficult to engineer and complicated to build.

But Seattleites have the grounds to challenge the way Sound Transit is prioritizing projects. Assuming the project list is relatively final, at minimum the Seattle light rail lines and the Tacoma streetcar extension, which perform better than all the others, should be advanced. They’re the best deal for the taxpayer.

More broadly, residents of Seattle—and people living in any central city in a region contemplating a regional transit investment plan—should make the argument that transportation equity not only means serving many parts of the region, but also maximizing return on investment for taxpayers and picking projects that will attract the most number of transit riders.

As the following chart shows, Seattle accounts for less than 20 percent of the region’s population and just over 30 percent of its jobs. While of the ST3 major capital projects, 35 percent of total construction costs would be expended in Seattle, seemingly more than its share, just 27 percent of subsidized costs, when adjusted for revenues and operating expenses, would be spent in Seattle.* And most importantly, the Seattle projects would account for more than 52 percent of total new riders—far exceeding those projects’ share of the costs. In other words, they’re better value.

Seattle share of project costs

Data from U.S. Census ACS (2014), On The Map (LEHD), and Sound Transit. The Sound Transit region is made up of King, Pierce, and Snohomish Counties.

Reform is possible

I’m of course hardly the first person to point out the flaws of ST3. Indeed, local transit advocates have identified several potential changes to the plans, including expediting the construction of light rail in Seattle itself, eliminating unnecessarily complicated routes on the north side of the region, and encouraging more grade separation for the most-used sections of the network.

It’s worth noting that Seattle, unlike many American cities, is playing with a favorable transit environment. As the following chart shows, the share of commuters in the city using transit to get to work reached 19.6 percent in 2014, the latest Census estimates. That’s the latest in a quarter-century of upward trends and higher than even the rates recorded in 1980.

Seattle transit use over time

Both the city of Seattle and the region that surrounds it are growing very quickly, buoyed by a strong tech sector and a local regulatory environment that has allowed significant new construction. Much of the growth is occurring in transit-friendly, walkable neighborhoods.

With trends like these, the Seattle region really has an opportunity to continue encouraging a less car-oriented culture. Making the right choices about which projects are built, and when, will make a big contribution to this positive trajectory.

* To be clear, the city of Seattle is not a sub-area according to Sound Transit’s rules. But I identified its needs separately as illustrative for this comparison.

Photo at top from Flickr user Atomic Taco (cc).