Green Line Thoughts & Ridership Estimates

Jo and I recently went out to the Clackamas Town Center Mall.  Partly just to do it, partly because one can buy really cheap ladies shoes, and Jo wanted some shoes.  So off we went. 

While we where out there I wondered off into thought when we boarded out north bound #72 bus.  This is the mother load of all bus routes in Portland.  With ridership higher than any other route it has a frequency as low as every few minutes during peak hours, and still every 15 or so minutes during the slowest hours.  Riders are often so crammed onto the buses, for so many hours of service, that the dramatically subsidized fares often turn a net operational profit for this bus line.  Considering the paltry amount that a fare represents of the overall cost of operations, this bares a rather amazing value return for TriMet.

Near the #72, running parallel for the busiest stretch of the route, runs the new Green Line.  The Green Line has higher capacity, solely because it is using Light Rail Vehicles while the #72 route is limited to 40’ buses.  The #72 along this part of the route follows 82nd Street (or Avenue, not sure what it is actually dubbed).  The Green Line follows about 10 or so blocks away near Interstate 205.

[In the image I’ve made the Green Line…  green (imagine that!) and the #72 line dotted dark blue]

These parallel routes have the potential to garner more ridership than any other area of TriMet’s System.  Currently I suspect, but am not sure, that the Blue Line Light Rail System holds the crown of highest ridership.  It sits easily within the 25-30k count during a weekday,making it easily the busiest Light Rail Line in the entire North Western United States.  Seattle’s Sound Transit however works diligently to build up their light rail system, prospectively surpassing TriMet’s Blue Line with their first line.

All this led me to wondering a commonly asked question among transit aficionados in Portland and even in other areas of the country that pay heed to Portland’s System.  Will the Green Line take any ridership from the current #72 Route as configured?

My Current Estimates

My current estimate is, if it does take some of the current ridership, it will only amount to 3-6% of it.  I suspect 40% of the Green Line’s Ridership will be new to the corridor, and possibly half of that 50% (20% of total ridership) will be completely new to transit.  These new riders will most likely be drivers who will now park at the park & rides along the Green Line Route to come into downtown or points along the route leading into downtown.

I also suspect that first year ridership, with the economy in the doldrums and the primary rider (*) base being heavily affected by the downturned economy, could be as low as 7000k per day along the corridor.  About half of what the #72 Route currently carries in a day.  However as things play out in the economy, I would suspect ridership to climb, dare I say skyrocket, to within 13-14k within 1-2 years of the opening of the line.  This pending, we at least hold steady with 0-1% growth over the next year or two.  Looking at the US economic history, this should be easy to attain, so I’m going with the estimation the Green Line will at least achieve the 13-14k per day by 2011, possibly as late as 2012.

I wouldn’t expect the Green Line Route to surpass the 13-14k estimate until the area increases the density of residents by about 20% over what it is now or gas prices surpass $3.50 per gallon.  Both of these things will most likely pass around 2013 or 2014, pushing the ridership higher, but at first I wouldn’t suspect too much.  With the looming elephant in the room of massive inflation. Corrective taxation for the overzealous administrations (not excluding the current one) will see a continually falling value in the dollar while seeing incomes not keep pace with valuation needed to maintain cost of living.  Parity will be almost impossible to maintain, which later in the next decade will make ridership increase even more.  Mostly out of monetary necessity than choice by riders.  However I can imagine that the next decade will see a dramatic change in attitudes of people, I doubt any significant change will occur until about 2017-2018 at the earliest, and suspect real change to start around 2020”ish”.

However, depending on the attractiveness of this alignment being rail versus bus, a fair number of preferred riders could be attained.  Currently I would be surprised for this to amount to more than 1-2k rides per day, but TriMet routes have surprised me in the past.

Anyone else have any hard guesses/estimates for the Green Line Route?

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16 Comments

  1. Seems that your estimate is low, at least if you are considering the mall alignment along with that of I-205. Seems the access to PSU and other new areas downtown could well bring in more riders as well. TriMet’s 2020 prediction is 46,500, though the breakdown of that, I don’t know. I think they can beat 13,000 though

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  2. Good points Zak.

    So are you estimating around 13k riders per day? 14k?

    By 2020, I could possibly see 30k, maybe even 46.5k, but we’re going to have to have MASSIVE economic growth. That part I can’t imagine at this point. The US economy, especially with the push for more Government Services, will absolutely not see growth that is needed to perpetuate ridership of that level…

    …unless the Government finds a way to force more people into transit.

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  3. Adron wrote:

    [i]…unless the Government finds a way to force more people into transit.[/i]

    We learned from last year that the way government forces us onto mass transit is by letting the barrel price of petroleum get so overheated it melts down the marketplace as a whole.

    That whole experience spawned transit advocacy in most American cities. That’s probably the last thing an anti-government president with incestuous ties to the oil industry wanted in the back nine of his career.

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  4. I wouldn’t call that Government force btw, I call that a more proper market price of oil. Something that generally hasn’t been reflected in the cost of oil since about 1930.

    But I digress, even with the prices skyrocketing to the price it did, we still only saw about a 10-15% net increase in ridership, which currently has all been lost. As I stated above, either a major economic boom, or a price increase in fuel will have to be seen before we get ridership back on track for increases, especially to achieve TriMet’s 46,500 daily ridership by 2020. Even with that 10-15% increase in ridership, that only means about 1% or less switched from cars to transit.

    …eh, either way. Got any estimates Wad? 🙂

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  5. Well hell, guess I’ll throw in an estimate myself. Figure that the MAX system has a total ridership of over 2300 per route mile. I’ll say that I think the Green Line can match that, given the relative densities near the station plus the bus connections and the mall alignment, which I think will pull in a lot of riders. So put me down for 19K for now. Maybe I’m an optimist, but I guess we’ll find out soon enough when the line opens! 🙂

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  6. Oh and btw, I am NOT including the mall alignment. That is a completely different alignment, and has almost zero to do with the Green Line. They where only connected under a single project when they started construction. Up until then they where totally separate projects, which I still see that way.

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  7. [i]I wouldn’t call that Government force btw, I call that a more proper market price of oil. Something that generally hasn’t been reflected in the cost of oil since about 1930.[/i]

    Of course it’s a government force, Adron. You’re not looking deep enough. 🙂

    The Bush administration, in concert with the Federal Reserve, had veered away from the what had been an established policy of a "strong" dollar. This pursuit had also lowered some of the speculative interest embedded in the exchange rate of the currency. This capital went somewhere. It was directed into equities, commodities and futures prices.

    We experienced oil hyperinflation while keeping the currency stable.

    Those prices, as we now know, reflected tremendous rent sought by speculators. The price of oil was pushed up as it became the last safe harbor for investors as dollars were weaker and the credit markets seized up.

    We cannot really say for sure that the margin price for a barrel of crude oil reflects the "proper" cost. I’m not even sure what a proper cost would be other than the intrinsic commodity price and its added value of transportation, labor, refining and marketing costs. We also don’t know for sure at what the supply balance is, as reports of reserves are notoriously variable. The industry itself has seen production fall but cannot officially call Peak Oil because it’s hard to accurately render whether supply has been tapped out or withheld.

    [i]But I digress, even with the prices skyrocketing to the price it did, we still only saw about a 10-15% net increase in ridership, which currently has all been lost.[/i]

    This is not something that can be blamed for incompetence.

    First of all, "only" a 10-15% increase is an enormous level of riders. Tri Met carried more than 322,000 weekday boardings in 2007. Add 15% to that and that works out to 48,000 boardings.

    That’s wonderful if Tri Met were a for-profit business. But Tri Met is a government agency, and 48,000 more customers is a logistical nightmare.

    Here’s why. Tri Met operates on a social service model, where its economics are based on operating costs rather than capital costs. Rather than aligning its capital and operating costs to hit a growth target, as in a for-profit business, capital is aligned to operating capacity to manage service provision. As a consequence, most of its budget is backward-looking rather than forward-looking.

    It’s accustomed to paying for a budgeted amount for services already rendered. It does this through controlling capacity — making sure it doesn’t oversupply transit service.

    One day Tri Met planners get a call early in the morning from irate politicians. They are screaming at you to explain why there are 40,000 people in a given day standing at a bus stop or train platform and wondering why the hell they can’t get a ride.

    For one thing, thank your lucky stars you have MAX. If this growth had been all on rail, the marginal costs of added service are lower than a bus. You could stuff people on trains, couple them, and add small increments of service for a lower marginal cost than a bus.

    If all of the growth had been on buses, then you’ve got big problems. You have 534 maximum buses on hand, each carrying a systemwide average of 34 passengers an hour. (A low-floor bus has a seating capacity of 38). If you are a planner, you must figure out how to get those buses to do the work of almost 1,400 additional buses at the rates of 2007 supply and demand.

    [i]As I stated above, either a major economic boom, or a price increase in fuel will have to be seen before we get ridership back on track for increases, especially to achieve TriMet’s 46,500 daily ridership by 2020.[/i]

    The only thing Tri Met can do is supply the service and hope for the best. If the economy gets even worse, then there is no way to meet those figures, especially if the Green Line corridor is hard hit.

    Setting a ridership estimate 10 years out in the future is a very hard target to hit. You are using assumptions from the time you are preparing your report, and the outcome relies on economic and social factors running according to some algorithmic pattern. A lot can happen in 10 years that could mean the line attracts only half that figure or even double that.

    Adron, can you predict the timing and duration of every economic cycle as well as residential and job density in the corridor for the coming decade? As for me, I wouldn’t even know where to begin.

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  8. Interesting insights Adron. My only comment is that in Portland north-south arterials are generally labeled as "avenues" and east-west roads are "streets" notable exceptions are the occasional "boulevards" and I believe Naito is a "parkway"

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  9. Wad, just wanted to mention a few things. I am UBER happy we have MAX, exactly as you point out, during the major boom in ridership it handled the absolute brunt of rider increases. The buses did ok, but as you obviously point out, they can’t handle large increases very well at all. The cost of handling those extra riders grows at a vastly higher rate than the MAX handling the ridership.

    In addition, I didn’t mean to imply that 10-15% is a small number of riders. It is absolutely huge for transit, since as you point out, is setup to simply provide transport for X budget for a general X number of riders. The system just isn’t setup to handle large increases at a fast pace.

    However, I must say that even though 10-15% increase is huge for transit, it is absolutely small in the grand scheme of things. 1% of daily travelers is by no means a significant change in the overall aspects of city travel. Which 10-15% ridership increase on transit is about, or less than, 1% of daily travelers.

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  10. [i]Wad, just wanted to mention a few things. I am UBER happy we have MAX, exactly as you point out, during the major boom in ridership it handled the absolute brunt of rider increases. The buses did ok, but as you obviously point out, they can’t handle large increases very well at all. The cost of handling those extra riders grows at a vastly higher rate than the MAX handling the ridership.[/i]

    True, and the ridership went where it was expected. When a transit system gains ridership, it will usually be on the trains or buses with the highest frequencies. The infrequent services had very small growth or stagnated. Ridership doesn’t spread equally throughout the system.

    [i]Which 10-15% ridership increase on transit is about, or less than, 1% of daily travelers.[/i]

    I check Census data for Multnomah County 2005-2007. Transit’s share of work trips was 11%. The City of Portland’s share was even better at 12.5%. Of course, Clackamas County and Washington County bring down the curve with about 4% and 5.5%, respectively.

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  11. I ponder what area "The City of Portland" was that reached 12.5%? Do you have a link to the map?

    I’ve seen some city of Portland measurements, depending on what is considered the city, at the rate you state of 12.5% and as high as 16-20%. I know the closer to downtown one gets, the higher that number goes. In the very core of downtown, between the west hills and about 20th on the east side, transit use is at least 20%+ and walking + bicycling is probably at about 25-30%. Rarely do I see comprehensive totals of these percentiles. It would be interesting to see larger breakdowns of these statistics.

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  12. [i]I ponder what area "The City of Portland" was that reached 12.5%? Do you have a link to the map?[/i]

    Sorry, no map. But there is a table.

    http://tinyurl.com/n8gver

    You can’t get maps for the detailed tables. I should know. I’ve been working on a series using Census data to plot potential subway ridership along Wilshire Boulevard. I use characteristics that would be indications of higher transit usage: poverty rate, renter-occupied unit rate, households with 0 or 1 cars, transit as a share of commutes and walking as a share of commutes.

    I also took the supply of existing bus service, parallel and connecting, within a half mile of the proposed stations.

    In the first one I did, making a case for a Wilshire/Crenshaw station, I found two zip codes had transit usage rates of 21 and 34%.

    http://metroriderla.com/2009/08/17/the-case-for-a-wilshire-crenshaw-station/

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  13. Nice entry Wad… thx for the link. I’ll try to dig up some of the material I’ve looked at in the past. It brings some interesting insight to the more "Portland" areas and the more "sprawly suburban" mess than receives really low ridership.

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  14. Oh yeah, MAX is insanely more efficient to operate if ridership stays at a decent rate. From every calculation I have figured, within 20 years ALL capitol and operations cost for light rail are the equivalent solely the operational costs of 40′ buses. Suffice it to say, the original Blue Line light rail at a whopping $280 million or so has more than decreased the cost over operating the same service with buses or BRT especially!! 🙂

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  15. General impression of new green line and downtown mall.
    Hopefully 5th and 6th Street transit traffic will improve. Cars should not be allowed on 5th and 6th (say from Burnside to PSU?? nor on the Steele Bridge; save the bridge for rail, bus, bikes, pedestrians)
    Too many trains downtown! Please don’t add more. Turnarounds added at PSU and north end leave a lot to be desired.
    New bus shelters are a disaster. They are not even pretty; roof line blocks the view for bus number sign; do nothing to shelter from wind (and it does get windy); almost to no seating, sorry Grandma).

    Anyway, I am sure we will all adjust, but?? could have been better. I’m disappointed.
    I also found it difficult, upon first use, to locate bus stops, and initially, where to get on the green/yellow max on the mall. There should be some indication somewhere that the no. 14 bus does not run on the mall anymore.

    Reply

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