Can Transit Perform Well in “Abandoned” Urban Cores?

This post, which points out that transit can’t be judged on the low ridership of services where ridership isn’t the goal, drew this question from Rob:

I have a question about cities with weak urban cores. I don’t know much about Seattle, but the story that the numbers tell is that the city’s population is currently near its historical high. But what do you do in cities that are losing population, like many in the rust belt? In my hometown, Cleveland, the population is lower than it’s been since 1900. Many urban neighborhoods are no longer the densest areas (there are 3 inner-ring suburbs more dense than the city-proper). What do you think?

As I explained, if Seattle’s King County Metro were pursuing a pure ridership objective, it would cut almost all service in the low-density suburbs and put all those buses in Seattle as higher frequencies on dense corridors.  The principle is the same in any network:

If your goal is ridership, follow patterns of dense development with intense service.

This principle explains why San Francisco has more than half of the Bay Area’s transit ridership despite having barely a tenth of its population.  It explains why, if you rank any transit agency’s services by productivity (passengers per unit of service cost), the high-frequency lines in the densest part of the city always come out on top.

The answer to Rob is that different cities may have different patterns of density, so in your city the highest-ridership area may not be the historic core.  On the other hand, even substantially neglected cores trigger strong ridership because even if density is lower than it could be, it’s often still higher than in the suburbs.

When I started working at Portland’s Tri-Met in 1983, the most productive bus routes were already all in the inner city, in areas that would look pretty neglected to you if you visited them via time machine from the gentrified Portland of today.  Even when flight-to-the-suburbs was at its maximum, there were lots of people left in the inner city, and their relative poverty was only part of why they were still on the bus system.  It was also because the bus system worked well for them, and worked well in the kind of geography they lived in.

(If anyone can find productivity-by-line statistics for some “neglected-core” cities like Detroit or Cleveland, I’d love to see them.  But I bet you’ll find that even in such places, there are a lot of transit riders left in areas that look abandoned to you, and that inner-city service is still performing pretty well.)

This is also an example where “design” comes in.   If you press on the “follow patterns of dense development” rule, what’s under it is the principle of a radius of demand.  A transit stop’s market is the area that’s within a fixed walk distance radius.  Since it’s a fixed radius, it’s a fixed area, so the number of people and jobs and activities there is determined by density.  However, some people may be within the fixed radius but not able to walk to the stop because of barriers in the street network; such barriers are much more common in newer suburbs than in old core cities.  The fully connected grid street networks of old urban cores generally minimize walking distances and thus maximize the real radius of demand.

8 Responses to Can Transit Perform Well in “Abandoned” Urban Cores?

  1. Pantheon December 19, 2009 at 6:43 pm #

    In addition to physical barriers, any psychologist will tell you that psychological barriers could affect the radius of demand. This is because psychological barriers affect an individual’s perception of distance, even if they do not have any bearing on actual distance or act as a physcial impediment. There have been studies where they found that if people were located near a psychological barrier, they perceived things on the other side of the barrier as being very far away, even if they were not as far as things on their own side of the barrier that they perceived to be close to them. A psychological barrier could be many things, including an overpass, a bridge over a highway, a railway track, or a particularly wide multi-lane street. Anything that is not actually a physical impediment but which the mind processes as a barrier, or “border”. The psychological power of these barriers can be shown by the fact that urban gangs often use them to define the borders of their territory. The most common of these would be an overpass, underpass, or wide multi-lane street. These would also be most common in suburbs, and least common in dense urban areas. In some instances, a transit professional might calculate the radius of demand for a transit stop, and find that the actual demand for the stop is lower than it should be, due to being cut off from part of the expected demand area by a psychological barrier.

  2. Jarrett at December 19, 2009 at 6:56 pm #

    Pantheon. Good point. Zoomed out to continental scale, the US-Canada border as seen from Canada is a nice example of a psychological barrier, which makes Vancouver interact with Toronto much more than with Seattle.

  3. Pantheon December 19, 2009 at 7:34 pm #

    Well, it’s hard to call an international border a psychological barrier, because there are powerful institutional forces that cause nations to interact within themselves more than outside themselves. The CBC news will ensure that people are more educated about what is happening in Toronto than Seattle (and Seattle news stations will no doubt sooner cover happenings in Florida than in Vancouver). Further, immigration control means that many people in Vancouver will have lived in Toronto or might have relatives there, whereas they will not have such a personal connection to Seattle.
    So an international border is what I would call a very real barrier, not a psychological one. For something to be a psychological barrier, it needs to be something that is not a physical impediment but which affects an individual’s perception of distance. A big, ugly overpass is a very typical example. A river could be another, even if an individual lived right next to the bridge. Because of political realities, a border is a physical impediment of sorts, in that most are not free to cross it as they please.
    Nonetheless, you may have a point. I just used the measurement stick on Google Earth to find that Birmingham, Alabama is as close to Vancouver as Toronto is. I bet if you surveyed Vancouverites on their perception of distance, they would tell you that Birmingham is much farther away than Toronto.

  4. rhywun December 19, 2009 at 8:44 pm #

    Even US state boundaries have very real effects on movement. I grew up in Rochester NY and over my childhood and teenage years became very acquainted with nearly every part of the state, even the parts which were much farther away from me than PA, which to this day I have never visited (except the small town on the border of NY where my mother was born).

  5. rhywun December 19, 2009 at 9:09 pm #

    Interesting. I was just looking at a preliminary study that Buffalo’s NFTA is performing in order to improve its service. Even though Buffalo’s population is still rapidly declining, its urban core is still dense (and poor) enough to command by a wide margin the vast majority of public transit trips. (PS. There’s a line-by-line ridership count, with lots of land use maps and such, here, if you’re interested. WARNING: It’s a 22MB pdf file.)
    The challenge Buffalo and cities like it face is that many of the trip destinations have moved out to the suburbs, which feeds a vicious circle of urban residents having to buy a car to do many useful things, which worsens transit… you get the idea. So even though there’s still a dense network of reasonably frequent service inside the city limits, it doesn’t reach all the activities one might want to pursue.

  6. Eric December 20, 2009 at 1:01 pm #

    While borders do delimit areas, “borders”, unlike psychological barriers, are liminal places between distinct subareas. An interesting phenomenon that transit planners should be sensitive to is the potential of TOD’s to transform a psychological barrier to a border.
    Borders are barriers inverted into convergence zones, intensifying economic and cultural activity. I find borders do great things for personal expression. Part of the attraction, economically and culturally is the social liberality that seems to be promoted in these places.

  7. Jarrett at December 20, 2009 at 3:56 pm #

    Eric. Fascinating comment, with which I agree. It brings up the example of rail tracks (surface or elevated) which form psychological barriers (“wrong side of the tracks”) if not actual ones. TODs are often the places where the “barriers” are “inverted into convergence zones.
    The border is essential to the convergence zones that occur along it, not just because the border may limit crossing opportunities and thus funnel people through certain points, but also because “social liberality” depends in part of the pleasure of transgression. Transgression quite literally means “movement across or beyond,” so if there’s no border there’s no opportunity for transgression.
    I realize the postmodern notion of “transgression” went out of style in about 1990, but I still find it useful sometimes.

  8. Nathanael December 22, 2009 at 7:10 pm #

    Cleveland’s “inner suburbs” are lucky enough to be old enough have been built with grid patterns, and often around interurban or streetcar lines. So in Cleveland targeting those suburbs makes a *lot* of sense.