The Secrets of Successful Transit Projects — Revealed!

Green Line Trax at Gallivan Plaza
The Trax light rail system in Salt Lake City has the hallmarks of high-ridership transit. Photo: CountyLemonade/Flickr

All across America, cities are investing in new transit lines. Which of these routes will make the biggest impact by attracting large numbers of new riders? A landmark report from a team of researchers with the University of California at Berkeley identifies the factors that set successful transit investments apart from the rest.

The secret sauce is fairly simple, when you get down to it: Place a transit line where it will connect a lot of people to a lot of jobs and give it as much grade-separated right-of-way as possible, and it will attract a lot of riders.

What makes the work of the Berkeley researchers, led by Daniel G. Chatman, remarkable is that it compiles decades of real-world data to predict how many people will ride a given transit route. Their conclusions should bolster efforts to maximize the effectiveness of new transit investments.

The report authors examined 140-plus factors to build these ridership models, based on data collected from 55 “fixed guideway” transit projects, including rail and bus rapid transit routes, built in 18 metropolitan areas between 1974 and 2008.

They found the success of a transit project is almost synonymous with whether it serves areas that are dense in both jobs and population and have expensive parking — in short, lively urban neighborhoods. In the report’s model, the combination of these factors explains fully 62 percent of the ridership difference between transit projects.

Surprisingly, the only design factor that seemed to have a significant effect on ridership was whether the route is grade-separated (in a tunnel or on a viaduct). In isolation, transit speed, frequency, or reliability did not have significant impacts, but the great advantage of grade-separated routes is that they can run quickly and reliably through high-density areas.

While it may seem like common sense to put transit routes where they will connect people to jobs, agencies don’t always choose the best routes — often opting for expedience over effectiveness. Salt Lake City’s FrontRunner commuter rail service, for instance, very closely parallels a newly widened I-15, and many stations are located in low-density industrial or residential areas. Ridership has fallen short of expectations.

Elsewhere in Salt Lake City, the authors identify the University/Medical Center Trax light rail route as a good example of a high-ridership transit project. It connects major high-wage job centers — notably the university, its hospital, and downtown — and also many leisure destinations like museums, sports stadiums, the state fair park, concert halls, and nearly half of the region’s hotel rooms. Locals have embraced light rail as an alternative to costly parking, as well: Parking demand on the growing University of Utah campus has fallen 30 percent since the route opened. The route carries 78 percent more riders than initially projected.

Planners have long known that density is linked to higher transit ridership, but until now they have largely relied on a 1977 report by Boris Pushkarev and Jeffrey Zupan for the Regional Plan Association, which defined basic thresholds below which different kinds of transit investments would not be cost-competitive. The new report adds a generation’s worth of experience with transit investments to not only update and flesh out the older research, but to understand which aspects of density and urban form interact to create places where transit can thrive.

The Berkeley researchers’ goal was to create an easy-to-use ridership forecasting model, built with data collected from finished projects across the country, that can help planners evaluate both individual transit routes and systemwide changes. Planners interviewed by the research team stated that “transit planning was an art and a political process, not a science,” and that tools should make it easier to evaluate proposed transit improvements.

Pulling back the lens, the researchers also found that regions where many people ride transit have several factors in common. Transit systems that reach concentrations of high-wage jobs and leisure jobs (in shops, restaurants, arts, and entertainment), and that serve metro areas that are simultaneously large and congested, are likely to draw more transit riders than systems that don’t.

One unanticipated finding was that access to these specific kinds of jobs, rather than to jobs in general, is a hallmark of transit-oriented metro areas. The authors suggest that perhaps easy transit access to high-wage jobs draws “choice” riders out of cars and onto transit. Meanwhile, leisure jobs  clustered around transit stations could be a proxy for “24-hour” mixed-use urban neighborhoods that draw transit riders throughout the day.

The results of the report are also available as a computer model, downloadable as an Excel spreadsheet [XLS], that “balances simplicity with technical accuracy, and could be used to augment” current practices in transit planning. Anyone with access to some basic information about a proposed transit line and data about the areas around it (most of it readily obtainable from the Census) can use the model to generate ridership estimates for the line and for the entire transit system.

  • Kevin Love

    What this article is saying is that people will use the means of transportation that is the fastest, easiest and most convenient way of safely going from A to B. If that happens to be walking, cycling or public transit, then that is how people will travel.

    The job of city planners is to ensure that transportation infrastructure and land use planning results in walking, cycling or public transit is the fastest, easiest and most convenient means of safely going from A to B.

  • Not having (yet) read the report, I would note that it seems sensible enough, with one possible caveat: Induced demand can occur on less-than-optimal route options. I’d cite HBLRT course in western Hoboken, N.J., as an example. The eastern option was the “low-beta” choice, and would have done all the study above deems necessary. But the western reality is also doing just fine.

  • OTREC

    The Salt Lake City study that found auto traffic dropped after light rail went in is at http://otrec.us/news/entry/light_rail_reduces_auto_traffic_cuts_emissions_study_finds

  • R.A. Stewart

    All across America except in Chicago. When I attended a convention in Salt Lake City a few years ago, I was very pleasantly surprised at what’s going on there. But the contrast with what’s going on here at home is just depressing. Lots of showcase renovation, not one mile of expanded service.

  • Jesse

    I sure hope Salt Lake City did all this transit while keeping (restore) “Balance” with car lanes and free parking. God forbid motorists perceive they lose anything, when in most cases they have plenty to gain.

  • forrest ethington

    There’s certainly high ridership for the University Medical line in SLC and traffic *has* dropped significantly. However, automobile traffic is still bumper to bumper on the main road leading to campus next to this line. Many professionals are commuting in from Sandy/Draper, 10-20 miles south, and are opting to drive rather than park and ride (which may or may not be saturated at this point). The whole area up there on the hill has a high population of drivers thanks to the near impenetrable access for pedestrians and cyclists on the made-to-drive-and-nothing-else roads (though there is the spandex-wearing contingent who make the climb).

    Jesse’s snark is spot on, the University of Utah *is* constructing large parking garage structures to go with its state-of-the-art, updated medical buildings, most of which are pretty easily accessed by the train. Though, the main University Hospital and the Huntsman Cancer Institute are still a trek up the hill beyond the stop, and judging by their always-full parking structures, the walk up to a hospital is understandably a likely deterrent to taking the train.

    All of that said, it takes a lot of time for this kind of wonderful infrastructure to be designed, approved, built, and paid for, and I’m hoping for a greater expansion on the east bench leading to the University of Utah.

  • Roland Solinski

    I understand your frustration, but Chicagoans are paying the price for decades of under-funding and a massive backlog of deferred maintenance.

    As you point out, a lot of the current maintenance work is bundled into showcase renovations to give the public some tangible evidence of the dollars being spent.

  • C Monroe

    Maybe connect the train to hospital with gondolas. Something that is actually cheaper to build over rough or hilly terrain than other styles of transit. I think cities that are set next to mountains or divided by water would be great places for gondola transit. Such as Pittsburgh.

  • Laurence Aurbach

    Thanks for highlighting this study. The guidance about design factors is different than you describe. With respect to grade separation of transit guideways, the study says “The degree of grade separation is likely influential because it serves as a proxy for service variables such as speed, frequency, and reliability that may lead to greater transit ridership.” Each of those variables was individually insignificant in the model, but the authors don’t say whether they tried bundling those factors and testing the combined effect. Their goal was to create the most accurate model with the simplest inputs, and using grade separation as a proxy fit that goal.

    The study also says that “Transit First” policies that give street space to transit can increase speeds and attract higher ridership. This suggests if at-grade routes can operate as quickly and frequently as grade-separated routes, they’ll draw equal ridership (all else being equal). In general that’s not possible, but methods like dedicated right-of-ways and automatic traffic signal priority at intersections can improve matters.

    The study did not include design factors that affect walkability in the model. But it does note that “Transit ridership tends to be higher where stations are easily accessible on foot, including access that is direct, safe, and interesting.”

  • PRE

    And where is BART proposing to spend a billion and a half dollars? To build a single new station in the median of I580 miles from downtown Livermore.

  • Justin

    After reading the article I’m kinda at most NOT surprised, most of the findings in this article seem so obvious, except maybe for the fact that it needs to serve people with higher paying jobs at most, but it does I guess make sense especially if it serves a dense downtown where most of the higher paying jobs are. Another interesting article

  • Jarrett Walker

    “Grade separated” is part of the recipe, really? Do riders care about grade separation or do they care about speed and reliability? Focus on the service outcome, not just the infrastructure!

  • hatguy

    Wouldn’t grade separation increase speed and reliability by limiting the number of variables that could cause delays on a route?

  • Karina

    I suspect that ‘high-wage jobs’ ends up being a proxy for ‘men’ and ‘executives without family responsibilities’. Because public transport only allows for point-to-point travel, it tends not to suit workers with more complicated lives, including responsibilities for children, etc.

  • ctylem

    I think you’re mischaracterizing the situation. The layout of rail in Salt Lake means that commuting from the western half of the valley to the U makes sense, but not so much for the eastern half of the valley. That’s why 400 South, the road along which TRAX to the university runs and which comes from the west, has had traffic reduced significantly. And that’s why Foothill Drive, the road coming from the southeast and without any decent transit (and the road that many of those commuters from Sandy and Draper, as well as Holladay and Cottonwood Heights, would use), is bumper-to-bumper.

    In any event, I rarely see 400 South (for non-Salt Lakers, the road along which TRAX to the U runs) bumper-to-bumper. Foothill Drive, on the other hand, is a nightmare for hours per day.

  • ctylem

    It must be noted that FrontRunner was extended in 2012 to Provo. What followed was a bona fide boost in ridership (103% in the first year of the extension being in service), and now commuter rail in the Salt Lake region is exceeding ridership expectations consistently. TOD projects are springing up next to several light rail and commuter rail stations. Salt Lake and the two other metropolitan areas surrounding it have a long way to go, but we’re moving in the right direction.

  • The definition of “high wage” is $40,000 a year, a level which almost 50% of full-time working women earn. Note that the study period is within the past generation, not the 1950s.

    Good transit oriented development brings lots more points close to stations than just “home” and “work” (notably including shops and services; the researchers hint that the “leisure jobs” category may be related to that). The booming number of young families in transit oriented neighborhoods across the country is perhaps a testament to that.

  • BTW, the report did not focus on Salt Lake City (discussion of it amounts to 2% of the report’s text), and the formulas were drawn from 55 projects and 18 metros. The two rail lines mentioned in the article are illustrative of many others nationally.

  • Karina

    I was thinking of the Australian context, where current debates are raging over potentially huge investments in light rail and where the focus is on central cities and employment centres. As I suggested, the convenience and flexibility provided by private transport is what is the deciding factor for many people, and the complex demands of family responsibilities are a big part of that — and, in Australia, at least, these still fall primarily to females, regardless of whether they are earning high wages.

  • The Overhead Wire

    It says in the report that grade separation is a proxy for speed and reliability

  • hcat

    They use transit because auto traffic is bumper to bumper, and because it’s damned hard to park at a university.

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