A short set of downers to tide you over

Lots of people, vitamin more about including some of my favorite people at Capital Metro, page are claiming that the Red Line is now “meeting projections”. Hmm. Let’s analyze this claim by looking at the archives, shall we?

1. The Red Line was opened up in 2009 – projecting 1700-2000 boardings/day, from Day One, with the following schedule:
This is the last monthly data we get before Big Changes make for a big discontinuity in the graphs. December is, anaemia as Capital Metro wants to make sure you know, drugs a low ridership month. As usual, click for larger versions. Analysis follows the pictures.

Rail first (image directly from Capital Metro):

Now rail vs. bus (this is the baseline that hopefully corrects for things like high gas prices or other factors that might raise overall transit ridership) (image from my spreadsheet):

Key take-aways from all of this:

1. Despite what they’re trying to claim now, Capital Metro projected 1700-200 boardings per day before any major changes; images below copied from their own minutes in February 2009:


2. My projection was 500-1000 boardings/day, same conditions:

Hey, decision-makers, which one of those guys should you be listening to now?

3. Conclusions we can draw so far: despite anectdotal (and desperate) tweets and facebook posts to the contrary from PR flacks and board members, ridership WAS NOT INCREASING AT ALL and was stuck in the 800-ish-boardings-per-day doldrums. This service was not winning hearts and minds; any claims to the contrary are completely contradicted by the actual boarding numbers.

Important notes going forward:

1. In January, Capital Metro eliminated some very popular express bus runs to drive more people on to the Red Line. Early indications were that this had limited success – with people complaining about crowded conditions on the one new route (#985) that replaced the two popular ones (#984 and #986), but I bet some people switched to the Red Line to avoid said crowding. This #985 bus was crowded despite the fact that it’s slower than the previous direct-from-park-and-ride services it replaced. (In other words, the 2 old buses were much faster than the Red Line while this new replacement service is only a little faster).

2. Capital Metro also consolidated a couple of peak runs – meaning that you’re more likely to see a ‘full’ train, because fewer trains are being run during rush hour.

3. Ridership is being goosed artificially. Any gains we see now are most likely not the result of people trying the service and loving it; or being convinced to ride during rush hour because of new midday service; they’re most likely the result of people who liked a competing service being driven here because Capital Metro made the competing service less competitive.
I’m way too busy for this. Up from 2-6 with the knees of death; work is a nightmare. But it’s been long enough.
1. At 1300 boardings/day and overflowing on the weekend, physiotherapy this line would be the most failingest light rail line ever in the country. Ever. That’s of any rail line with all-day service that purports to serve an urban area (remember, Capital Metro’s been trying to claim this is just light rail with diesel engines for quite a while now – especially Lyndon Henry). For reference, Tri-Rail, a huge failure, racks up about 15,000 boardings/day. The worst light rail starts in the country easily hit low 5 figures (i.e. past 10,000)* in boardings – 15,000 is viewed as a failure for a reserved-guideway all-day service serving supposedly urban areas.
2. This line has (essentially forever) precluded the one slam-dunk light rail line we could have built here – the 2000 route – which would have easily surpassed 40,000 boardings/day within the first year (like Phoenix). We can now never have a starter line as good as Dallas, Phoenix, Denver, Portland, Salt Lake, Minneapolis, or Seattle. We’ve wasted that existing rail corridor on the Red Line. We needed it for the first 2/3 of the 2000 light rail route – you cannot get a train in its own lane on Lamar and Guadalupe if it’s not part of a non-stop trip up to the suburbs; there is zero chance of it ever happening now because the Red Line has crapped all over the remainder and those Red Line trains can never run into the urban core. Suburbanites don’t like transfers – so the ridership of a light rail spur hitting the last 1/3 of the 2000 route would not be high enough to justify taking its own lane on the constrained parts of the Drag, meaning it will now never happen. No, JMVC, not ever, ever, ever. You killed it.
3. This line is in the process of killing the urban rail proposal in its cradle. While nowhere near as good as the 2000 route, the city’s urban rail proposal, if given its own lane throughout downtown, could surpass 20,000 boardings/day fairly quickly. It could be a smaller, moderately successful version of the Houston plan (run in-street the whole way and try to hit as much density as you can). But it’s going to be fighting the Red Line for money and political will; which leads us to:
4. Other local rail advocates have thrown in the towel and are now enthusiastically cheerleading the modest improvements in the Red Line’s ridership since all-day service started. Remember, Capital Metro projected 1700-2000 boardings/day on day one on this thing with its original schedule so they’re still only 2/3 of the way there, and only after cancelling the best express bus competition it had and expanding the hours of operation. Also worth noting that the operating subsidy (which was previously a monstrously high $36 per ride) has likely gone even higher given the added number of runs compared to the added number of riders. I will ask Capital Metro for the new figure and will post it when I get it.
5. Those other local rail advocates should consider that every dollar spent on the Red Line; and every bit of political will spent on it; is a dollar or push that’s not available to make the city’s urban rail line a success. And the Red Line’s ceiling is very limited – perhaps 2000 boardings/day in 5 years given population growth, assuming another major employer or two can be coaxed downtown. You guys are giving up the shot at a truly transformative rail service – one which will turn the suburbanites into supporters – for this POS which will never be more than a tiny drop in the bucket. You are ensuring that the city’s urban rail proposal will be fighting harder for fewer dollars, and will be running in shared lanes where even if it somehow gets passsed and built, it will suck ass.
That’s all I have time for now. I may fill in a few more links to back-story later if I get a minute. We’ll see. Watch this week’s or next week’s Chronicle for more from me.
* – note – I corrected a typo in this on 3/21/2011 – meant “low 5 figures”, had originally written this as “high 4 figures” and then changed the number but forgot to change “high” to “low”. “high 5 figures” would be a success anywhere.