Skip to Content
Streetsblog USA home
Streetsblog USA home
Log In
Transit

Are Federal Transit Models Short-Changing Universities?

Planners of the new Tucson streetcar predicted that it would carry 3,600 passengers a day. Just three months after it opened, the figure is 4,700. Builders of the light rail between Minneapolis and St. Paul that started running in June foresaw 33,000 daily riders in 2015; the count has already passed 37,000.

Despite its slow travel time, the Twin Cities' Green Line is surpassing expectations -- in part because the FTA underestimates the university effect. Photo: ##http://www.cts.umn.edu/Publications/catalyst/2014/july/greenline##U of M Center for Transportation Studies##
Despite its slow travel time, the Twin Cities' Green Line is surpassing expectations -- in part because the FTA underestimates the university effect. Photo: ##http://www.cts.umn.edu/Publications/catalyst/2014/july/greenline##U of M Center for Transportation Studies##
Twin Cities' Green Line surpassed ridership expectations -- in part because the FTA underestimates the university effect. Photo: U of M Center for Transportation Studies

These two rail lines have something in common: They pass through the heart of major state universities. Maryland’s Purple Line, which will break ground next year, does the same. There’s every reason to believe ridership will beat expectations there too.

The forecasts in Minnesota and Arizona did not fall short for lack of effort. A lot of work goes into ridership estimates, and they are carefully vetted by the Federal Transit Administration. Indeed, that vetting may be the cause of the lowball predictions.

Since the federal agency has the job of choosing the best among many projects seeking funding, it can’t let local governments puff up their numbers. So it insists that forecasters begin with computer models approved by regional planning agencies and lets them deviate only when hard evidence justifies it.

The models are slanted against transit. They ignore the ongoing return to the city and assume a future of more sprawl and more driving. On top of that, they treat universities like any other workplace. That’s a good enough approximation if you’re trying to predict rush-hour highway traffic, the purpose for which the models were originally put together, but it undercounts potential transit riders.

For many reasons, transit gets more use at universities than elsewhere:

    • Students tend to have less income than their neighbors
    • Cultural change is turning younger adults, especially the college-educated, away from driving
    • Few students have children, so they have less need of cars for errands
    • College campuses are more walkable than other places, especially in the suburbs
    • Parking at universities is often scarce and is usually a long walk from classrooms and offices
The Tucson Streetcar has also beaten ridership expectations. Will Maryland's Purple Line too? Photo: ##http://live.azstarnet.com/Event/QA_with_Sun_Link_officials_on_the_streetcar?Page=2##Daily Star##
The Tucson Streetcar has also beaten ridership expectations. Will Maryland's Purple Line too? Photo: ##http://live.azstarnet.com/Event/QA_with_Sun_Link_officials_on_the_streetcar?Page=2##Daily Star##
The Tucson Streetcar has also beaten ridership expectations. Will Maryland's Purple Line too? Photo: ##http://live.azstarnet.com/Event/QA_with_Sun_Link_officials_on_the_streetcar?Page=2##Daily Star##

FTA recognizes the limitations of its models, and it allows builders of new rail lines to handle students differently. But it’s not easy to put numbers on diffuse social trends, and walkability is hard to measure.

The Tucson streetcar project tried to count its students, but it had trouble backing up its estimates and left them out of its official forecast. Minnesota rail planners treated students as a separate category of commuter, willing to put up with more delay on a bus or train than someone going to work. In both cities ridership beat forecasts even before school started, showing that the university effect is not just about students.

There’s every reason to think the same thing will happen when the Purple Line runs through College Park, Maryland. Its forecasts [PDF] don’t include the new riders who will be attracted by vastly improved transit service from the campus to Bethesda and Silver Spring.

The model predicts 550 daily boardings in 2030 by university employees at the stop in front of the Student Union. But shuttle buses from there to the College Park and Silver Spring Metro stations already carry 600 employee round trips a day.

Students who now ride the two shuttles and parallel public buses were added to the forecast. Here again the numbers look to be low. Ridership was expected to increase 25 percent -- what would be expected on the current buses, just due to enrollment growth and tightened parking restrictions.

The success of transit lines depends on more than measurable quantities of jobs and homes. Walkability and culture matter too. The Purple Line, anchored in the three urbanizing centers of College Park, Bethesda, and Silver Spring, is poised to be another outperformer.

Ben Ross is the author of "Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism" and a longtime transit advocate in Maryland.

Stay in touch

Sign up for our free newsletter

More from Streetsblog USA

Friday’s Headlines Are Still Unsafe

Traffic deaths are declining for those ensconced in thousands of pounds of steel. For the rest of us, not so much.

April 12, 2024

Measure HLA Is Now Officially Law for L.A. City

Check the city maps to find what bus, bike, and walk improvements are coming to streets in your neighborhood.

April 12, 2024

Talking Headways Podcast: Women’s Transportation Seminar

Sara Stickler of WTS International on women’s expertise in transportation and opportunities for mentorship, leadership and education.

April 11, 2024

Don’t Call Thursday’s Headlines a Comeback

Transit ridership isn't all the way back yet, but it continues to climb after collapsing during COVID. Unfortunately, the financial effects of the pandemic on transit agencies still linger.

April 11, 2024

Long-Awaited Report Reveals Widespread Parking Crime by NYPD

The overdue report confirms years of Streetsblog reporting on placard abuse, illegal parking and enforcement failures by the police under two mayors.

April 11, 2024
See all posts