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Teaser graphic

In the "Why do I keep calling Tri-Rail a failure, and why do I keep saying the Red Line is going to match its record" department; this graphic below is from this spreadsheet, which is a work in progress on developing some metrics from the national transit database.

There are those who think that any rail is good rail; and there are those who think that any rail is bad rail. Then there are those like me who recognize that some rail systems do a much better job than others in a "new rail city" at delivering new riders - and it's frustrating how few seem to recognize intuitively the difference between a city like Houston, where the trains are packed and voters overwhelmingly approved a massive expansion as a result, and an area like South Florida, where after 20-25 years and a massive investment in double-tracking a very LONG route through a very heavily populated area, no community support for rail has developed despite a much more supportive population when the service started.

The metric I have here is basically "how much of the metro area did they get to ride the train, adjusted for mile of track". Here's why that's a good starting point: You should have the goal of maximizing return on your investment - your investment is basically miles of track; and your return is how many people ride - but to compare metro areas against each other, you should also consider how many people are IN that area to begin with (delivering 20,000 riders per weekday in Portland is a far greater achievement than delivering 20,000 riders per weekday in Manhattan).

Light rail systems are being used everywhere here except South Florida and Austin, obviously. (In both our cases, unlike the other cities here, commuter rail has effectively precluded light rail - and is being sold as a light rail analogue anyways).

After the break, the picture...

The actual data point here, for those interested, is "(average daily unlinked trips) / (metro area population) expressed as a percentage", then multiplied by 100. The extra scaling is necessary because every metro area includes vast regions not served by any of these rail lines; the figures are otherwise far too low to be compared against each other. I had to do "average daily unlinked trips" since the national transit data only breaks down into annual trips for each mode (I divided by 365). I used my l33t math skills to figure out Austin's based on 1500 people per day (3000 unlinked trips).

It's got some problems - for instance, Dallas is getting screwed here by the inclusion of Fort Worth in its metro area. (In contrast, Tri-Rail is fairly including all 3 South Florida counties in its population shed - it actually runs in all three - fewer miles in Dade but more passengers if I remember correctly). Also, it would be nice to adjust this for hours of service as well - note that Tri-Rail runs all day long, not just during rush hours. But it's a start, and it backs up what I've been saying about the ridership numbers compared to the potential in the area.

Note that I even used the 2008 data, which is artificially high due to the gas price spike (Tri-Rail ridership collapsed back to 2007 figures in 2009; the national data warehouse doesn't have 2009 stuff yet). Also, the population figures don't rise until the next census - so 2008 looks even better compared to 2007 in the spreadsheet than it really was.

So does the theory fit the observed data? Yes, given its limitations. Houston looks really good - they invested relatively little money (represented by track miles) yet got big riders. Portland is way up there because they have lots of miles AND lots of riders. Salt Lake does well; a lot of people don't pay attention - but they're well-regarded. Given the metro area problem, Dallas fits about where I'd expect it to.

And most importantly, Tri-Rail shows its awful, awful, awful performance here. A lot of people who've never been to South Florida don't know this, but it's a fully urbanized area stretching over a size bigger than Houston with more people than Houston; several mature downtowns with lots of transit interest; etc. It's NOT just beaches and retirees; and the retirees that ARE there started out as incredibly easy sells to rail, since most of them moved from the northeast.

Yeah, it's a tortuous metric. What's your suggestion?

PS: About three times now I've found a typo where I wrote "unliked" instead of "unlinked". Freudian?

This entry was posted in the following categories: Austin , Charts and Graphs , Don't Hurt Us Mr. Krusee, We'll Do Whatever You Want , I Told You So , Transit in Austin , Transportation , Tri-Rail


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Is a post on the postponement of the rail bond on the way? It seems like the chances of a rail-only bond passing, especially after the Red Line proves to have no benefit, will be near zero.

Well, you pretty much said it. We're left hoping the Red Line will be a smashing success.

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