Transit Studies: Austin transit is on wrong track.

COST Commentary: The article below and the quote following it address key foundations of transit policy and approach in Austin. The first is regarding the falacy of the primary hub and spoke nature of Austin’s transit routing. It is based on the primary premise that the majority of the community’s transit riders are destined for the central core of the city. As noted below, this is not the reality of today or the future.

The quote at the end is regarding rail transit’s key justification that it promotes desired land use patterns and increases land values. Here again the quoted study does not support this premise.

How to Increase Transit Ridership

Issue No, 104 – June 2012

By Robert W. Poole, Jr., Director of Transportation Studies
Reason Foundation

For many years my intuition has suggested there was a contradiction between where most Americans live and work and how transit systems are trying to serve them. The ongoing trend for at least four decades has been the suburbanization of jobs that has followed the suburbanization of residences. Yet many transit systems have doubled down on providing radial service from suburbs to the imagined “central business district,” seemingly oblivious to the growth of multi-centric urban areas.

Some new research that came to my attention last month has explored this question empirically. I first heard it presented by Prof. Jeffrey Brown, at a transit conference at Florida State University in mid-May. A week later, the same research was featured in a widely circulated ridership article by Eric Jaffe on the Atlantic Cities site.

In their paper published online in Urban Studies, Brown and co-author Gregory Thompson set out to test whether a transit system’s “service orientation” makes a difference in its performance. So they assembled a set of transit data from 45 metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) with between 1 million and 5 million people, with annual data for the years 1984 to 2004. Each transit system was identified as either primarily “radial” or “multi-destination” in orientation. And each was then measured on three performance measures:

Riding habit (passenger miles per capita)

Service productivity (ratio of passenger miles to vehicle miles)

Cost-effectiveness (operating expense per passenger mile)

On all three measures, the multi-destination transit agencies did better. Brown and Thompson conclude that these results refute two assertions commonly made in the urban transportation literature. The first is that providing transit service to dispersed destinations is wasteful, compared to focusing on trips to and from the CBD. They conclude instead that “CBD radial orientation is in fact the most wasteful transit service orientation,” based on actual performance in most large urban areas. Second, since their data distinguished between systems with and without rail transit, they challenge the premise (which I have long accepted) that “investing in expensive rail systems causes bus service cutbacks, thereby diminishing overall transit ridership.” That would imply that bus-only MSAs would perform better than bus/rail MSAs, which was not supported by the data.

The paper goes on to present a pair of case studies, in which Brown and Thompson compare the transit systems of Tarrant County, TX (Fort Worth) and Broward County, FL (Fort Lauderdale). The former is a radial system, while the latter is a multi-destination grid system. In fact, Broward County Transit (BCT) originally operated as a radial system, but was re-organized as a grid system in 1980. They find that BCT offers four times as much service, with higher productivity for each mile of service. Passenger miles per capita is nearly five times greater in Broward County than it is in Tarrant County. And since BCT’s productivity is also higher, its service is much more cost-effective than The T (Fort Worth’s system).

Their main conclusion is worth quoting verbatim:

“Workers use transit to get to jobs in a multitude of locations that do not possess the built environment characteristics long thought to be important by most scholars in determining transit ridership. The results of this study suggest that most U.S. transit managers of bus-only transit systems and urban planners interested in transit are focusing on the wrong policy variables for improving transit ridership. For example, a destination can be very pedestrian-friendly, very mixed-use and very aesthetically pleasing, but if there aren’t the right kinds of jobs in these places, hoped-for ridership will not materialize. Before we try to change the built environment, we need to make sure transit takes riders where they need to go. The emphasis on making transit trips direct and linking riders to employment centers, which tend to be located in suburban locations, are two important lessons for agencies seeking to increase ridership.”

This study also comments on a study from 2009, Driving and the Built Environment: “Public policy, such as investing in transit systems to mold future development, also has had limited impact on development.”

The quote below is also from the same issue of Reason’s publication.

“The rehabilitation and expansion of U.S. transit systems began nearly four decades ago. This length of time is long enough to observe changing urban development patterns, given the rapid population and employment growth that has taken place over the same period. The evidence is clear on overall spatial patterns: population and employment have continued to decentralize (Giuliano, Redfearn, and Agarwal, 2009). However, transit investments are discrete and hence should be examined at the sub-metropolitan level. Is there evidence that transit-oriented development is taking place, and that the expected shifts in travel behavior—essential for [reductions in] congestion, emissions, energy use—are coming to pass? . . . Giuliano and Agarwal (2009) examined evidence on the impacts of rail transit investments on urban spatial structure. . . . Empirical studies that use appropriate statistical models, methods, and data show little or no impact of rail transit on land values or its proxies (population or employment density, commercial or residential building).”

—Genevieve Giuliano, “Transportation Policy: Public Transit, Settlement Patterns, and Equity in the U.S.,” Chapter 25 in Oxford Handbook of Urban Economics and Planning, Oxford University Press, 2011

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