Who are these people and where are they going?

According to METRO surveys, 40% of the people riding the Main Street light rail line weren’t riding buses before. That’s one of the more interesting tidbits from Frank Wilson’s State of Metro Address last month (it’s online here, but it seems to work in Internet Explorer on Windows only). Some people may be startled. I’m not surprised—I know several people who didn’t ride transit before 2004 and now ride the train frequently – but it did leave me wondering about who’s riding, and why.

We know the Main Street is a success. Before construction, METRO predicted 40,000 daily riders in 2020; we reached that milestone 15 years early. Ridership continues to trend upwards:

[click on any graph for a larger version]

There are a few obvious spikes in this graph: high “novelty” weekend ridership at first, the bus route changes in 2004, Katrina refugees in 2005. And there are seasonal trends: unsurprisingly, November and December, with many holidays, average lower weekday ridership. But every month has had average higher weekday ridership compared to the same month the previous year; for the past year that increase has averaged 12%.

That’s the big picture. But thanks to automatic counters on the trains, METRO has more detailed figures, which they sent me when I asked. Here’s some of what they show.

Stations

The busiest stations are those that serve major employment centers: Dryden, Main Street Square, TMC Transit Center, and Memorial Hermann-Houston Zoo. Other busy stations are bus transfer centers (Wheeler, Preston, and Downtown Transit Center, along with TMC Transit Center) and park-and-ride lots (Smith Lands and Fannin South).

Over a quarter of METRORail ridership, though, comes from less busy stations. These stations either serve underdeveloped areas (Ensemble/HCC, McGowen, Bell) or primarily recreational destinations (Museum District, Reliant Park, and Hermann Park – Rice U). The former could see significant ridership increases if the empty lots surrounding them are developed; the latter account for only 7% of weekday ridership but 15% of weekend ridership.

Station spacing is a major issue in transit design. More stations mean that more destinations are accessible, but they also result in slower trips. At 35mph, each station adds about 30 seconds to the trip. Thus, eliminating the Ensemble/HCC, McGowen, Bell, Museum District, Reliant Park, and Hermann Park – Rice U stops would reduce the travel time from one end of the line to the other from 31 to 27 minutes, and reduce Main Street Square to TMC transit Center from 20 to 17 1/2 minutes. Would that encourage more people to make that trip? Possibly. But it would also eliminate stations that account for 16% of trips. And presumably the people not boarding at those stations won’t be making a return trip later, which means we lose around 30% of trips. Would the faster travel time make up for that? Probably not.

Rush vs. non-rush

Like most transit systems, METRORail experiences distinct rush hour peaks. I know from personal experience that rush hour trains, even through they run every 6 minutes and many run as two cars instead of one, are standing room only. But while late night and weekend trains are not as crowded, I often find myself standing then, too.

Unfortunately, I don’t have hourly breakdowns for boardings. But I do have the weekday/weekend splits:

  Average Weekday Average Saturday (as percent of average weekday) Average Sunday (as percent of average weekday)
METRO system average 100% 46% 29%
METRO park-and-ride buses 100% 0% 0%
METRORail 100% 43% 25%
METRORail park&ride stations> 100% 31% 16%
METRORail (w/o park & ride ridership) 100% 48% 29%

Overall, METRORail gets a slightly lower percentage of its ridership on the weekend than the system as a whole. As the park-and-ride figures suggest, That’s probably an indication that more rail ridership comes from people with weekday-only jobs and access to a car than local bus ridership does.

Passenger origin

As I’ve noted before, many rail systems get a high percentage of their ridership from Park-and-Ride. Even with only two park and ride lots (the METRO pay lot at Fannin South and Medical Center contract parking at Smithlands) park and ride passengers account for 30% of weekday trips. Nevertheless, that’s a low percentage compare to other systems, and park-and-ride riders are outnumbered by people arriving by bus: the three bus transit centers count 50% more boardings than the park-and-ride stations, and there are significant volume of bus transfers at other stations (like UH Downtown and Preston) as well.

The weekend park and ride totals (22% of total Saturday trips and 20% of total Sunday trips) are increased by recreational activities. In fact, there’s additional weekend park-and-ride boardings from people who park downtown (especially in the streets and parking lots around Bell station). Special events contribute even more riders (130,000 people rode light rail to the Rodeo in 2006), but METRO does not count them in its “typical day” statistics.

Volumes

With a few assumptions, we can use station boardings to find out the number of passengers passing each point along the line every day, On a simple suburb to downtown line, we’d expect the highest ridership volume would be just outside downtown, with the volume dropping off past each suburban station. But METRORail serves two employment centers. Thus, an “average weekday train” would have 13 people on board after leaving Fannin South, 34 after Smith Lands, and 48 after TMC transit center (multiply those numbers by 4 or 6 for a rush hour train). As people get off at the Medical Center, somewhat fewer get on to go downtown. By the time the train gets to the Museum District, it’s down to 39 people. Then it starts to fill again, to 45 people after Wheeler. They start to get off Downtown: 41 people are left after Downtown Transit Center, 23 are left after Main Street Square, and only 11 are still on board when the train pulls into UH Downtown. Of course, almost none of the people who started the trip finish it. The average trip on the 7 1/2 mile METRORail line is only 2 1/2 miles.

Conclusions

Coverage of car wrecks and expansion and politics has overshadowed the most important story about light rail in Houston: it works. Ridership not only exceeds expectations but is trending upwards. Trains are full. Riders are going to a wide range of destinations and they’re spread out along the length of the line. More than 10% of all METRO trips occur on only these 7.5 miles of track.

In fact, METRORail works because it is urban and runs in streets and stops often. The ridership is coming from buses and pedestrians, from many stations, and from the two dense activity centers it serves. That’s encouraging, since that’s what the lines METRO is planning to build next will be like. We are on the right track.

Reach your own conclusions in our forums.

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