Transit & Passenger Rail News Bits

CATS survey: “LRT riders not former bus users”

“North Carolina’s Charlotte Area Transit System Thursday disclosed survey results finding that 72% of Lynx LRT riders are new to public transportation and hadn’t used buses before. Among those riders surveyed who previously had traveled by means other than a single-occupant vehicle, 21% of Lynx passengers previously rode a bus, while another 6% either used a CATS vanpool or another form of carpooling.”

There are a couple deductions that can be made here and they link back to the previous entry of how to increase transit ridership.  The first observation is that light rail installations continue to do what they’re famous for, handling existing bus ridership, while drastically increasing ridership by gaining new riders.  In the case of the CATS System 72% of new riders are brand new to public transport.  In almost every area light rail is installed, this happens.

Now some might say, “wait a second, they had crappy bus lines before…”  and yadda yadda yadda.  Actually, Charlotte had some pretty decent bus lines, that where fairly timely.  They even had a FREE line downtown that ran about every 5 minutes.  None of them garnered as much ridership, even remotely, compared to the light rail.


In Seattle though, the light rail has a much greater reputation to outshine.  The reason is simple.  Seattle has an amazing bus system.  For the light rail there to shine as brightly and outclass the bus lines in ridership it will have to carry a seriously HUGE number of people.  So far, it is off to an average start.  It looks like, even there, the light rail by middle of 2010 will do what the other light rail systems around the country have done.  Carry more, quicker, and more efficiently than the pre-existing bus lines.

Costs – Was it Worth It?

One of the other things though, that comes with light rail is the initial capital costs that are massive.  In the case of Seattle they’ve set new records for highest cost per mile.  One reason though, is that they dug a tunnel, laid new track in an existing tunnel, and about half the entire line is raised above ground – and mighty high might I add.  This raises the question why and what for?

This is also somewhat simple.  They wanted to the light rail to stand between buses and commuter rails.  They didn’t start running it to compete with buses or replace them, nor to take the place of commuter rail, but instead to complement the systems.  The light rail is an arterial service.  None of the bus lines are setup similar to the light rail.  The buses that exist within the system are either express, or locals.  Both of which again, act in different ways and for different purposes than the light rail or the commuter rail.

In every case the idea is to gain ridership that otherwise wouldn’t touch transit.  Light rail does that, so does regular and timely (most of the time) bus service.  These are two things Seattle has.

Portland Bus Service

Portland is different from Charlotte and Seattle in major ways.  Different population size, different geographic relief, and of course different politics in each location.  Portland has many advantages and some disadvantages as each city has.  Portland’s bus system is oriented toward local runs.  Only a handful of bus routes in Portland exist as express routes and none of them exist as high capacity bus routes as some do in Seattle.

In some ways, Portland bus service is very similar to that in Seattle and in many ways it is not.  It was first to gain many of the benefits and ridership benefits of transit tracker and other such tools.  Seattle took ages to catch on with their own system.  Portland has been noted for better and more readable stops (ya know, the ones that are marked), and an easier system to understand from a scheduling and rider point of view.  However Seattle often has more frequency on a lot of routes, more bus options, and above all has a VASTLY cleaner bus system.

One thing Portland has definitely done is gain massive ridership with light rail that otherwise would not have been made with mere bus improvements, and highly unlikely even with BRT.  Seattle is only now catching up with their own light rail system, and paying dearly for it (many x what Portland has paid per mile for ours, tunnel included).  Seattle has many opportunities for growth along their line as Portland has had along ours.  However Seattle also has opportunities to not make some of the stupid mistakes we’ve made here in Portland (like the stupid turn around at Sunset Transit Center or some of the other nonsense).

But as with all the parts I describe here in Seattle, Portland, and Charlotte one thing is constant, each city has major advantages over other cities to attract talent than cities without it.  On a per capita basis I can rest assured that these cities, even through and after the recession/depression we’re currently in, will maintain a more educated, talented, and capable populace than other cities of their respective size that don’t have a structured, well managed, and mixed mode transit system.  Matter of fact every major city that has livability and increasingly capable population segments and technologically advanced workforces have and continue to invest in having elaborate and capable transit systems.  Case in point, Sacramento, Dallas, and other similar cities.

So what are the next steps?  Some might say enough is enough, it doesn’t do enough for us so stop building light rail.  However more tend to say that they love it and want more.  In poll after poll people say they want high quality transit options.  Time and again, high quality tends to garner significant ridership increases.

Even though I don’t agree with every move TriMet, Metro, Sound Transit, or CATS makes I do believe they need to stay the course.  Even though I somewhat agree that more focus needs to be made to help people realize buses aren’t low quality or low class transportation.  But by all means we shouldn’t waste ourselves trying to convince a society that will only be shown by example.  Continually building primary arterials with high quality transit as back bones, with buses, streetcars, and other modes to provide local trips is the way to do it.  With just a mere double digit percentile of the population using transit in Seattle and Portland, it makes these two cities world class and well known.  Charlotte with the newly mixed modes available, is quickly moving toward a world class status of its own.  As ridership gains more ground over the coming years, these cities will stand even brighter in the world spotlight of American cities while those cities that don’t build out, will fade and dim any hope they have to compete.

So I say, stay the course.  That is all.

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