Commuter Rail

Does transit infrastructure cause ridership?

Does building a new transit line trigger ridership?  Does it even make sense to talk about the ridership of a piece of transit infrastructure?  

If you say yes, you're expressing an infrastructurist world-view that is common in transit investment discussions.  The right answer to the above questions, of course, is "No, but:

  • Infrastructure permits the operation of some kind of useful transit service, which consists of vehicles running with a certain speed, frequency, reliabilty, civility and a few other variables.
  • That service triggers ridership."

To the infrastructurist, this little term — "service" — is a mere pebble in a great torrent of causation that flows from infrastructure to ridership.  By contrast, service planners, and most transit riders that I've ever met, insist that service is the whole point of the infrastructure.

If you read the literature of infrastructure analysis, you  encounter the infrastructurist world view all the time, mostly in ways that's unconscious on the authors' part but still a source of confusion.  This afternoon I was browsing TCRP 167, "Making Effective Fixed-Guideway Transit Investments: Indicators of Success", which includes some really useful explorations of land use factors affecting the success of transit lines.  But when they talked about infrastructure features as causes of ridership, the report routinely delivered weirdness like this:

The percentage of the project’s alignment that is at grade proved to be a negative indicator of project-level ridership. At-grade projects may be more prevalent in places that are lower in density, while transit is more likely to be grade-separated in places with higher density or land value. Thus, this indicator may be reflective of density. It may also be true that at-grade systems are slower than grade-separated systems. At-grade status may reflect a bundle of operational characteristics such as speed, frequency, and reliability, although the analysis did not find that these factors individually had a statistically significant effect on ridership.  [TCRP 167, 1-17]

This careful talk about how a correlation "may" reflect density or "operational features" sounds vague and speculative when it's actually very easy to establish.  There is no shortage of evidence that:

  • High density reliably triggers ridership.
  • Areas of high density are less likely to have available surface rights of way.
  • Therefore, highest ridership segments tend to be grade-separated.

So this is a case where "A correlates with B" does not mean "A causes B" or "B causes A".  It means "A and B are both results of common cause C".  It's important to know that, because it means you won't get B simply by doing A, which is the way that claims of correlation are usually misunderstood by the media and general public.

Later in the paragraph, the authors again describe the obvious as a mystery:

At grade status may reflect a bundle of operational characteristics such as speed, frequency, and reliability …  

Yes, it certainly may, but rather than lumping all the at-grade rail projects together, they could have observed whether each one actually does.  

… although the analysis did not find that these factors [speed, frequency, and reliability] individually had a statistically significant effect on ridership

While this dataset of new infrastructure projects is too small and noisy to capture the relationship of speed, frequency, and reliability to ridership, the vastly larger dataset of the experience of  transit service knows these factors to be overwhelming.  What's more, we can describe the mechanism of the relationship, instead of just observing correlations:  Speed, frequency, and reliability are the main measures of whether you reach your destination on time.  Given this, the burden of proof should certainly be on those who suggest that ridership is possibly unrelated to whether a service is useful for that purpose.

Note the word choice:  To the infrastructurist, speed, frequency and reliability are dismissed as operational, whereas I would call them fundamental.   To the transit customer who wants to get where she's going, these "operational" variables are the ones that determine whether, or when, she'll get there.  It doesn't matter whether the line is at-grade or underground; it matters whether the service achieves a certain speed and reliability, and those design features are one small element in what determines that.  

I deliberately chose a TCRP example because the authors of specific passages are not identified, and I have no interest in picking on any particular author.  Rather, my point is that infrastructurism so pervasive; I hear it all the time in discussions of transit projects.  

I wonder, also, if infrastructurism is a motorist's error: In the world of roads, the infrastructure really is the cause of most of the outcomes; if you come from that world it's easy to miss how profoundly different transit is in this respect, and how different the mode of analysis must be to address transit fairly.

Whenever you hear someone talk about the ridership of a piece of infrastructure, remember: Transit infrastructure can't get people to their destinations.  Only transit service can.  So study the service, not just the infrastructure!




Is USDOT about to stop the growth of commuter rail?

It's much too soon to panic, but I did send this inquiry to the US Federal Railroad Administration.

Dear FRA,

Your 4/9 press release says:  "WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) today announced its intention to issue a proposed rule requiring two-person train crews on crude oil trains and establishing minimum crew size standards for most main line freight and passenger rail operations."  The rest of the press release is about the safety risks of big oil trains, which gives the appearance that this reference to passenger rail was added at the last minute.
The language creates a reasonable suspicion you are about to ban one-person crews on urban commuter rail services regulated by the FRA, which usually fall within FRA's use of the term "passenger rail".  While the text is unclear about what "minimum crew size" standard it proposes for "passenger rail", it makes no sense that you would need to "establish minimum crew size standards" if the intended minimum were 1.  
Your release mentions later that the rule is expected to contain "appropriate exceptions."  It would be wise to give the transit and urban development worlds some assurance that you don't plan to shut down the possibility of one-person-crew urban transit — using FRA-regulated rail corridors — through this rule.  Such services — similar to existing commuter rail but with higher frequency and smaller vehicles — are one of the best hopes for cost-effective new rail transit in the US.

Thank you!

Jarrett Walker
Jarrett Walker + Associates
"Let's think about transit"


that second on-board employee

A reader asks:
My question relates to the relationship between frequency and capacity.  In Boston on the MBTA … for many of the trains, there are 2 employees running the train.  On the Green line, trains are 2 cars long, with a driver in the first, and in the second an operator responsible for opening and closing doors and making sure no one gets on without paying.  For the other lines, the 2nd operator only has to open and close doors because you need to pay to get into the stations.
To me, it seems like a waste to have to pay a second individual to open and close the doors.  Outside of the highest frequency travel times, and even possibly during those, wouldn't it be better for travelers to have service twice as often even at half the capacity?  Outside of the truly busy travel times, trains rarely run anywhere near capacity.  Especially on weekends and in the evening, trains are never full but the less frequent service does not encourage those spontaneous transit trips that are so vital to urban life.
This is not my core expertise, but my understanding is that generally this is right:  the second employee is usually a holdover from days when fare collection and monitoring of doors had to be done manually.  The job often survives because it's coded into labor contracts and sometimes also into regulations.

I am unaware of anything that non-driving on-board employees do that would be utterly impractical to automate today, the best evidence for which is that trams, streetcars, light rail, and heavy rail can be found operating with a single employee all over the world.   (Fully grade separated heavy rail, of course, can also be run with zero on-board employees, liberating the agency to operate intense frequency even late in the evening.)  Fare collection is increasingly handled by Proof of Payment systems which feature roving fare inspectors.  While these fare inspectors have a cost, their number is not directly related to the number of vehicles in service, so they are not such a direct barrier to increases in service. 

Frequency is driven by staffing requirements rather than vehicles, so the number of employees on board is the dominant variable determining how frequently any line can be run.  Only during the peak commute period is the availability of vehicles a significant element of the frequency decision.
As you would expect, however, any local debate about turning second employees into drivers of additional service will be fraught.  It is very easy for opponents (usually including the unions) to make generalized allegations about safety and security because most people feel safer and more secure if there's an employee nearby.  So it's politically hard to do.

This is one of those issues that is intensely local, and where examples of experience from other cities just have trouble penetrating a local debate.  It happens even in Europe.  See for example the peculiar fare-collector job that exists on Amsterdam trams.  A little cubicle placed at the middle of each tram contains an employee who serves as a cashier, selling tickets.  Boarding and circulation on Amsterdam trams is awkward, and effective capacity much reduced, because you're required to board only at certain doors and exit at certain others.

This second employee on Amsterdam trams is, as near as I can tell, unique in Europe; everywhere else trams run with one employee (the driver) and roving fare inspection.  Get a European transit professional going on how bizarre this Amsterdam practice is.  It's great fun over a beer.  But they can also explain, politically, why it will probably never change. 

If readers know of recent stories where second employees have been successfully removed and retrained as drivers, thus allowing more service, please post a link in the comments.

sorting out rail-bus differences

Here's a crucial passage from the book I'm working on, though it may will end up in the next book rather than this one [Human Transit].  The topic is emotive, so I'm trying to be very carefully factual here.  I welcome your critiques in comments.  If you disagree on a matter of fact, please provide a reference to a source. 

In 2009, the then-popular [but now defunct] blog the Infrastructurist asked its readers whether streetcars are better than buses, and why.  Readers came up with 36 responses (listed verbatim here) that formed a good summary of popular perceptions about the rail-bus distinction.

Of the 36 reasons, only six refer to an intrinsic difference between bus and rail technologies.  All the others fall into two categories, which I’ll call misidentified differences and cultural feedback effects

Misindentified Differences

In your city, the rail system has lots of differences from the buses, including technological differences. But that doesn’t mean that all these distinctions are true rail-bus distinctions.  For example:

  • Propulsion: electric vs internal combustion.   In most North American cities that have both bus and rail, the rail is electric but the buses use internal combustion (diesel, “clean diesel,” or various forms of natural gas).  Electric motors have obvious advantages – in emissions, noise, acceleration, and comfort – but none of these are true rail vs. bus differences.  Rail can be run by internal combustion, and buses can be electric.  If you want to compare your electric rail option with a bus option, compare it to electric trolleybuses.  If you want to compare your internal-combustion buses with a rail option, compare them to internal-combustion rail options such as the Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU).
  • Mixed-flow vs exclusive-lane operation.  Transit speed and reliability are mostly a result of how much you stop and what can get in the way.  Rail is more often run in exclusive rights of way, but some streetcars run in mixed traffic and some buses run in exclusive lanes.  Monorails never get stuck in traffic, but neither do buses in Brisbane, Australia’s busway system.  Most city buses can get stuck in traffic, but so can any streetcar, tram, or light rail vehicle that runs in a mixed traffic lane.  (A major problem for BRT in North America is that people keep taking junkets to Latin America, where BRT is powerful but the economic context is too different, rather than to Brisbane, where they could see high-end BRT working in a wealthy city.)
  • Off-board “proof of payment” fare collection vs. “pay the driver” fare collection.  Fare-collection style has big psychological effects.  “Pay the driver” slows down boarding and is a greater hassle for all concerned.  Some rapid transit sytstems (rail and bus) provide paid areas with faregates, eliminating this delay.  The other solution is “proof of payment,” which means that you buy a ticket on the platform (or already have a valid ticket) but you only show it if a roving “fare inspector” asks to see it.  If you don’t have one, you pay a fine.  Rail is more likely to use “proof of payment” than buses, but there are exceptions both ways, and there’s no necessary link between the rail-vs-bus choice and the fare collection system.  High-capacity bus systems are beginning to shift to “proof of payment” fare collection to eliminate fare-related boarding delay.  UPDATE: San Francisco now uses proof of payment on its entire bus system.
  • Frequency and Span.  Your whole rail transit system may be frequent, while some your buses aren’t, and in that case, you’ll naturally associate frequency with rail.  As we saw here, a good Frequent Network map, which shows both frequent rail and frequent buses, will clear up that confusion.  Buses can be very frequent, while some rail services can run infrequently or peak-only.  (We usually call those commuter rail.)

Cultural Feedback Effects

A community’s attitudes toward rail and bus technologies can easily affect they way they are operated and presented.  In short, people who believe that rail is better than buses will tend to act in ways that make that belief true.  For example;

  • Differences in investment or care.  A community that believes that buses are only for poor people, or that rail is the mode of the future, will under-invest in buses as opposed to rail, producing a difference in quality that will reinforce that belief.  It may also hold bus operations staff to lower standards than rail staff, and encourage other cultural differences between bus and rail operations that become real for the customer, but are not intrinsic to the bus-rail distinction.
  • Perceptions of permanence.  If you don’t stop to think about it, rails in the street will make a service feel permanent, especially if you’re used to hearing people tell you that rails imply permanence.  History clearly shows that rail systems do stop running if their market disappears.  True permanence lies in the permanence of the market, and that lies in the pattern of development [See Human Transit Chapter 14].
  • Perceptions of legibility.  The notion that a bus might do something unpredictable and a railcar won’t is also a cultural feedback effect, typically the result of insufficiently clear and compelling information about the bus network.  It is quite possible to build bus services with such a high level of investment in infrastructure, such as stops and stations, that the routing is as obvious as a rail line’s would be; the Los Angeles Orange Line bus rapid transit system is a good example. 
  • Regulatory differences.  Government regulation often enforces different rules for road transport as opposed to rail transport.  These regulations are themselves a kind of cultural feedback, differences in habit and history between agencies that regulate roads and those that regulate rail.  By enforcing different standards and safety requirements, these regulations can cause outcomes that amplify the apparent difference between road-based and rail-based transit. 
  • Different potential for mission-creep.  If you build a stretch of road for a busway, there’s always a danger that somebody might try to open it to cars.  If you don’t trust your government to protect the stated purpose of a facility, this can be a major decision factor.  This issue applies, however, to the narrow range of cases in which a road or lane is being built that could be useful to cars but is closed to them.  It is not an issue where the proposal is to reallocate existing roadspace from cars to transit, nor when building a higher-end busway whose design makes it useless to cars even if they were allowed on it.

Intrinsic Bus-Rail Differences

When we set aside those two categories and look at the differences that really follow, intrinsically, from the rail-bus distinction, there appear to be seven, and only the first three of them are always to rail’s advantage:

  • Capacity.  Where demand is high, rail can serve that demand at a higher ratio of passengers to on-board staff, which means that once you absorb the (often large) construction cost, you will be able to offer greater capacity for a given operating cost.  A transit vehicle that’s too crowded to board doesn’t meet any of our seven desires for useful service, so this point is often decisive in favor of rail.
  • Ride quality.   Ride quality in buses is improving, and guided busways may give buses an even more rail-like feel, but new rail systems will probably always have an advantage with their smoother running surface.   Is the smooth ride of rail indispensible to a useful network?  This can be a tough question whose answer may vary from one community to another.
  • Limited energy-efficiency and emissions consequences tied to the difference between tires and steel wheels.  Again, the primary factor governing energy-efficiency and emissions is propulsion (electric vs internal combustion), which is not intrinsic to the rail-bus difference.  However, there is a small range of differences that arise from the physics of steel-on-steel vs tire-on-road operation, and that favor the former.
  • Noise from wheel friction.  Most noise impacts are due to internal combustion, which either rail or buses may use, so that’s a misidentified difference.  Rail transit lines that intersect streets may be required to install noisy crossing signals — a valid response to the extreme weight of commuter rail trains but more controversial as applied to light rail.  These regulatory requirements may be cultural feedback effects.  But rail has a further noise disadvantage that really is intrinsic: the tight fit between steel wheel and rail causes noisy friction when going around curves, especially when going fast. 
  • Some variable cost differences.  Broadly speaking, bus-based projects that use portions of existing roadway will be much cheaper than building rail for those same segments would be.  Beyond that, costs for bus vs. rail projects can be hard to compare.  Capital costs for rail include vehicles, while a busway is sometimes run with an existing bus fleet.  Certain bus-rail comparisons in certain corridors may turn up significant differences in operating cost that may be valid in that situation, but need to be checked carefully to ensure that they assume the same factors on both sides.
  • Maneuverability around obstacles is a specific issue for rail in mixed traffic, usually light rail or streetcars.  In mixed traffic, minor obstructions routinely occur in a lane, especially if the lane is adjacent to on-street parking.  People stop in the lane to make deliveries, get into and out of taxis, and parallel-park.  Accidents and breakdowns happen.  If these events block a streetcar, the streetcar is stuck.  A bus, in the same situation, can often go around the obstruction and continue.
  • Ability to extend existing infrastructure.  If you’ve already built rail on a large portion the length of a travel corridor, it may be logical to build rail on the rest, so as not to create a technologically required connection.  On the other hand, busways can often eliminate extra connections because buses can run through the busway but then flow out onto ordinary streets.  In each case, an advantage goes to the technology that makes better use of the infrastructure that already exists, whether road or rail.

Of course, in a particular transit debate, you may not have all of the choices that I’ve articulated here.   Still, it’s important to remember that most of the things you hear about why rail is better than buses are not true in the abstract, as facts of geometry or physics that follow from intrinsic differences between roads and rails. 

It may very well be that rail is culturally better than buses in your city, in which case all you’re really saying is that people in your city think rail is better than buses and will therefore tend to act in ways that make that true.  If you’re interested in appealing to your current population, and motivating them to make investment decisions based on their current perceptions about the benefits of rail, that may even be a good reason to build rail even if you don’t need its intrinsic benefits. 

But if you’re thinking in longer-range terms, don’t forget:  Attitudes, assumptions and perceptions will change over time.  Physics and geometry won’t.

UPDATE!  See endnotes for this post here!

If On-Time Performance is 96%, Why Am I Always Late?

A New York Times article today highlights the perennial misunderstanding embedded in how transit agencies typically measure on-time performance.

By official accounts, 2009 was a banner year for the commuter railroads that serve New York City. Of all the trains that ran last year, the railroads said, nearly 96 percent were on time — one of the best performances since they began keeping records.

But the reality, as nearly any rider would tell you, can be considerably different, and vastly more frustrating. Continue Reading →