Sunday, August 22, 2021

METRO Update, Inner Katy BRT, and Epic Failure of Transit-Oriented Development Ridership in Dallas

This week is an excellent analytical guest post from Oscar Slotboom.

The Latest Metro Ridership

Metro ridership has been stuck around 55% down for the last year, and was down 54% with 138,975 weekday boardings in the most recent data. Nationally, transit patronage has come up from its 2020 low point, reaching 50% of pre-covid patronage in June.

For perspective, average daily highway traffic on the Katy Freeway near Gessner dropped 18% from 387,769 in 2019 to 317,629 in 2020. Traffic counts are reported with a single annual value, and highway traffic in 2021 has returned to near pre-Covid levels in most places.

The Inner Katy BRT
Metro held a virtual meeting on August 16 for the Inner Katy bus rapid transit (BRT), part of the MetroRapid feature of MetroNext, which will provide a fast connection to downtown for commuter bus services on the Katy and Northwest freeways, and also provide service to the new Uptown BRT. A nice feature of the Metro's depictions is that the stations will have bypass lanes for express buses, so they won't be slowed by local service.

Separately, TxDOT is studying the addition of managed lanes on this segment, and one of TxDOT's options is covered by Metro Option 3 (Tell Metro you support Option 3 here!). The managed lanes are the most critical link in the MaX lanes network which Tory and I have promoted, and would also be part the REAL Network being planned by TxDOT. Unfortunately, H-GAC recently denied TxDOT's request to include the managed lanes in the regional plan. The project will be reconsidered for inclusion in May 2023.

Regular readers will know that Tory and I are big advocates of BRT as a much better alternative to light rail, so we are glad to see this BRT project moving forward. To summarize the advantages of BRT:

  • Light rail is obscenely expensive, with the most recent Metro expansions which opened in 2013 and 2015 costing around $152 million per mile, and the current national average just over $200 million per mile. BRT is far less expensive. Although cost reduction will vary, a good estimate is that BRT costs one-third as much as light rail.
  • Light rail is painfully slow, with MetroRail averaging 14 miles per hour, slightly slower than than the national light rail average of 15.8 mph (page 5). Street-level BRT will be about the same, but grade-separated BRT such as the Inner Katy BRT should be at least twice as fast.
  • Light rail is totally inflexible and unadaptable, usable only by trains. With BRT, buses can serve any route and then enter the BRT facilty. A BRT guideway could potentially be used by technologies of the future, such as automated transit vehicles.
  • Metro's light rail expansions opened in 2013 and 2015 have low ridership. Pre-covid (Jan 2019 through March 2020), the Red Line north extension ridership on a per-mile basis was only 24% of the original Red Line, and the Green/Purple Lines combined were only 21% of the original red line.
  • Street-level light rail is subject to conflicts with cars and pedestrians, while grade-separated BRT as planned for the Inner Katy project eliminates this hazard.

Metro's project site does not provide a cost estimate for the overall 7.6-mile project, and the final cost may vary substantially depending on the option selected and the number of stations. The current H-GAC TIP (page 4-55) lists construction cost at $190 million and total cost at $228 million, which seems low. All Metro's options include an elevated guideway section along the Katy Freeway about 4 miles long. 

Difficult-to-reach Stations

Metro's depictions show very inconvenient access to the BRT stations. Starting at ground level, patrons will need to go up an access tower to reach a skybridge which is 35 to 40 feet above the ground, cross the skybridge to the station and then go down to reach the platform. Mobility-impaired patrons will need to take two elevators to travel from ground level to the platform. It will take at least 30 seconds to reach the platform from ground level, making security more difficult.

My immediate reaction was that Metro should consider shifting the stations to be just south of the freeway so there is only a single, shorter ascent/descent for the boarding platform. At most proposed locations, this would require only minor additional right-of-way, such as the Circle K at Shepherd or the warehouse at Studemont.

Number of Stations: Less is More

Metro originally planned two stations at Shepherd/Durham and Studemont, but due to community input they are now looking at 4 additional stations, at Houston Avenue, Yale/Heights, TC Jester and Memorial Park.

Every station imposes a cost. There is the initial construction cost, and then the ongoing cost of operation, maintenance, and security. But the most significant impact is on the service speed: every station causes a slowdown in the average speed of service, and slower service makes transit less attractive to potential users. So it's a bad policy to add stations just to placate a few people who want a stop.

None of the 6 potential station locations have the characteristics for high ridership, because none are near an employment center, transit-dependent populations or high-density housing (but more on that subject later).

The Houston Avenue station can't be justified. It's already served by Metro Route 44, and it's so close to downtown that time savings for local residents using the BRT would be minimal. The number of residents near this station going in the reverse direction to Uptown is surely negligible. In addition, the area to the north has no opportunities for new development.

Five stations on this 3.4 mile section can't be justified, so Metro will need to carefully consider the locations and hopefully stick with two.

Can a Memorial Park Station be Justified?

The Memorial Park station ranks highest in community feedback, with around 46% of respondents rating it as extremely important. But is the public being realistic about actually using public transit to go to a park? I think this situation is very similar to public transit service to the airports. People view it as highly desirable, but for many reasons very few people actually use it.

  1. There is ample parking available at Memorial Park, free outside the main activity area, which eliminates a major reason to use public transit.
  2. Many park users bring equipment and drinks. This especially includes golfers but also softball players, tennis players, and people with children in strollers. Driving is much more convenient when you have equipment.
  3. After completion of park activities, most people will want go home quickly. If you're tired and/or sweaty, do you want to walk the distance to the BRT station and wait for the next bus?
  4. Most park visitors go to the park outside of peak traffic periods, so traffic is light for most visitors, eliminating another reason to use public transit.
  5. Since park patrons outside the loop and in Uptown are most likely to drive, patrons using BRT would be coming from inner loop stations and downtown. There is generally a low number of residences within 1/4 mile of the proposed stations.
  6. In Dallas, White Rock Lake Park is their approximate equivalent to Memorial Park. The DART Blue Line light rail has its White Rock station on the north edge of the park near a major street (Loop 12). Granted, this is not a perfect analogy since White Rock Lake park is so large. The White Rock station served 406 weekday boardings in the most recent data, which is the second lowest ridership for a station on the north Blue Line and ranks #50 among the 64 DART light rail stations.

Realistically, the main ridership of a Memorial Park station would be people living in the Rice Military area who will use it to go to work downtown or Uptown. Metro will need to carefully consider if that is enough to justify a station.

Epic Failure of Transit-Oriented Development LRT Ridership at Irving's Las Colinas

Transit-oriented development seeks to build high-density housing near transit stations to encourage use of public transit. There's limited or minimal opportunity for TOD near the proposed BRT stations, but even if there was good opportunity, we can't assume TOD would increase ridership.

In Irving (just northwest of Dallas), DART's Las Colinas Urban Center seems to be a perfect implementation of TOD: there are thousands of apartments within easy walking distance of the station, and numerous large office buildings about 1/4 mile away. The DART Orange Line provides direct service to major employment centers at DFW Airport, the Dallas medical district, Uptown/Victory and downtown Dallas. A university and community college also have stations on the line. So this should be one of the best performing stations in the DART system, right?

No, just the opposite. The Las Colinas Urban Center station has the second-lowest ridership in the DART system (see above chart, data source). It served a dismal 170 boardings (roughly 85 people on a round-trip) per weekday in DART FY 2020, which was partially affected by Covid, and had low ridership before Covid. The adjacent Irving convention Center station has the fourth lowest ridership in the system, and the other adjacent station at the University of Dallas has the lowest ridership in the system.

It's poignant to realize that the Orange Line was routed through the middle of Las Colinas to make it convenient to potential users, but the street-level alignment forces it to go slowly through the area, reducing service speed and possibly lowering ridership on the overall Orange Line.

Sure, someone may be able to point to a TOD somewhere which can claim improved transit patronage. But TOD is a total bust for public transit patronage in Las Colinas. So be skeptical when officials promote transit-oriented development.

Labels: , , , , ,