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Destinations Matter: Building Transit Success

CTOD paper analyzes performance of 19 transit lines to understand factors contributing to ridership

The effectiveness of transit is typically measured by ridership – ridership projections, for example, often determine whether a project will win federal funding. But the complex movements of people within a region make accurate predictions difficult. Indeed, three of the most successful lines that have opened since 2003 (Minneapolis, Denver’s Southeast line, and Los Angeles Orange BRT line) received only a medium-low rating from the Federal Transit Administration, and under current rules would not have been funded.

The Center for Transit Oriented Development has just released a paper, "Destinations Matter: Building Transit Success," that analyzes the performance of 19 transit lines to better understand the factors contributing to high ridership. Of the 19 lines examined, seven exceeded projections, eight are on track to beat projections, and two did not meet projections, while data for three was unavailable. The conclusion: that connecting destinations is key, and that the funding decision-making process needs to take into consideration a fuller range of factors that enhance ridership.

Much of the problem with existing travel models is that they are based on transportation and land use inputs at the regional scale, which don’t accurately reflect the density of development or walkability that will occur once stations are built. Neither do these models predict the ridership increases that could occur over the entire system once a new lines provides better access to more destinations. Neither does the analysis reflect a nuanced understanding of the importance of whether a line connects to destinations like regional job centers or major entertainment venues.

For example, it may be more cost-effective to build a line down an existing railroad right of way. But these corridors often skirt residential neighborhoods and high-density employment centers, and can result in disappointing ridership. It’s also more cost-effective to build lines down the middle of freeways, but again, lack of a pleasant walking environment and easy pedestrian access to stations makes taking transit a far less appealing alternative.

The study concludes that lines that link multiple regional destinations and housing opportunities appear to be the most successful in generating ridership. This paper recommends that the funding decision-making process take into consideration a fuller range of the factors that contribute to high ridership. For example, this paper recommends and demonstrates a job center analysis.