When does perception become reality? When a preconceived notion trumps all logic and becomes the first thought associated with a specific topic. Why is it then, that “light rail” seems to be the favored quarter when it comes to alternative transportation modes? Last week, I tackled the first half of why we perceive light rail to be superior to commuter rail when I wrote about, “Why Route Matters for Indianapolis”. In that post, I highlighted that it isn’t neccesarily the mode that gets you there, but where a transit route goes that drives ridership gains.
So…. why light rail?
If we base our decision on the facts alone, we can determine that LRT offers advantages. Service frequency, ease of use and closer station spacing all combine to create a propensity to choose LRT over all other modes when given a choice. Additionally, when compared to a bus, statistics have shown that LRT draws more riders than comparable bus service. Furthermore, one of the advertised benefits of LRT over bus, is that it’s static locating of rails in the ground promote incentive for private developers to build near station areas. This type of development (often called Transit Oriented Development or TOD) typically offers a denser living environment due to it’s lessened need for automobile parking. Private development within urban areas is a KEY economic development opportunity and often one of the main political reasons for choosing “light rail” over all other modes of transit. Another perception and a hard one to battle, is that LRT technology is new. The compact nature of LRT operating within urban environments creates the image of an efficient and “fun” mode of transportation to utilize.
Why NOT bus?
The bus’ main competition is the automobile since they both share the same right of way. Given a choice, statistics show that people would rather drive than use a bus. Case in point. IndyGO recently released their 2010 year in review. In the report, they indicated that 116k people rode the IndyGO Express lines last year. To contrast this, I searched the Indianapolis MPO website for their traffic count maps. I zeroed in on the stretch of I-69 that was measured between 82nd street & 96th street; a comparable geographic region for where the IndyGO Express line services. The count? As of 2002, 107k traffic counts. PER DAY. Similar ratios can also be observed by comparing daily IndyGO city bus numbers with daily traffic counts in the urban core. The bottom line is that people are voting with their choice in mode of transportation. Additionally, I cannot cite one development in the Indianapolis region that was chosen because it was located along a bus line. Of course developers will mention the route’s precense, but it is highly unlikely that a route was a primary factor in locating a property development.
Why or why not commuter rail?
Basically, this boils down to level of service. Commuter rail typically provides a quality of service similar to light rail, but a frequency that makes it difficult to utilize. The example set by other cities can provide a picture of what we might expect from commuter rail service in Indianapolis. Portland’s WES (Westside express Service) runs every 30 minutes during rush hour on weekdays. WES provided an average of 1180 daily rides in December of 2010. Minneapolis’ Northstar, according to the website, only offers 6 inbound trips per weekday, 1 of them in the afternoon, and those in the morning are close to every 30 minutes. There is service on the weekends, but it is greatly reduced. Northstar carried 710,400, an average of 1946 per day in 2010, it’s first year of revenue service. Even in Chicago, METRA, which could be considered a service leader in midwest commuter rail service, offers a sporadic level of frequency on it’s electric line (south). Unless planners consider offering better service for the commuter routes in Indianapolis, 30 minute headways could be reasonably expected.
Regarding Private Development
Perhaps the greatest measuring stick, is when a politician can get up in front of a group of his peers, local or foreign, and tout the benefits of living in their city. Regarding transit investment, the first place that comes to my mind is Portland and their streetcar. According to the latest data that I have seen, the downtown Portland area has benefited from $3.5 billion in economic development in the form of condos, retail, etc within 2 blocks of their streetcar route. The leaders in Portland point to the streetcar as the single biggest motivator for rehabilitating an entire district, now called The Pearl. If I could point out a case that clearly makes the case for frequent rail service as an economic driver, this would be it. The development did not result from a bus, nor was it low frequency commuter rail. It was light rail/streetcar type of service that created a perception that there was an opportunity for private business to invest in the community. Obviously, Portland’s civic leaders grabbed onto this opportunity and the ride continues to this day.
Circling back to Indianapolis, one of the key reasons for Indyconnect’s existence, is that it is will give people in the region another tool to create wealth. This can come in the form of equitable travel to employment, activity centers or property development areas around stations. This is not a bad thing if the creation of that wealth generally benefits everyone using it. So what if some developers make some money…. we get a good transit system to use right? At it’s core, providing these opportunities has the chance to increase the quality of life for people who choose to indulge in said opportunities. It is for this reason, why arguing for “light rail” is a valid topic of debate and also why route matters. One last thought to close on this matter. Fellow Urban Indy writer Graeme Sharpe recently put together the above graph, depicting the amount of subsidized lunches that are provided to some area schools. This is one possible barometer of the economy present in those geographic areas. Put plainly, Noblesville HS is closely aligned with the NE Corridor while the other 3 are located along the Washington St corridor.
If we are trying to create economic development options, are we doing so in the right places? You decide….
If I have leaned a little too much on Portland for some of the conclusions, it is for good reason. The recent census figures pegged their growth at 10% over the last 10 years with a glut of that occuring in the inner core. Furthermore, TriMET provided nearly 100 million boardings in 2010 compared to 8.5 million in Indy. For a city that is comparable in a number of way, it is hard not to use their example to frame our story.