Successful rail transit systems serve dense employment centers. Our light rail line is successful because it serves two, and it goes right into the middle of both of them. People don’t like to transfer; they want to be able to get off the train and walk to work.
Want proof? Look at Denver. Denver’s light rail system is unusual in that it has two Downtown branches. One runs on city streets through the heart of Downtown (top picture, above). The other follows a rail line around Downtown, then stops at an intermodal center (Union Station, bottom picture, above) where riders transfer to frequent bus service that runs through Downtown on a transit mall.
Denver is also unusual in that it’s a big believer in one seat rides. In Houston, I’ve had several METRO planners tell me they are concerned about the operational issues of having two lines share track. In Denver, they have 5 different lines running on the same two-track alignment, and three lines sharing the same tracks on Downtown streets. Both of the two major suburban corridors have direct service to both of the downtown branches.
Finally, Denver is one of the handful of cities that has tried to build light rail to serve a spread out suburban employment center. Denver’s Tech Center resembles not the Galleria but rather the Energy Corridor: office parks scattered around freeway exits with big gaps between them.
All of this sets up an experiment: how do we get ridership? Lightrailnow.org gives us the data to run that experiment. Here’s February’s average weekday ridership on each of the lines:
Lines running into Downtown
Lines running into an intermodal center at the edge of Downtown
Lines running from a suburb to a low-density suburban employment corridor
Notice a pattern? Passengers don’t want to transfer to a circulator service to get to work, even a high-quality circulator like Denver’s. And serving suburban employment densities with rail transit is just about futile: 80% of Houston’s bus routes have higher ridership than Denver’s suburb to suburb rail line.
Trains aren’t vacuum cleaners. You don’t just put them next to a freeway and hope they suck people out of their cars. People will ride transit if it gets them where they want to go conveniently. If we want to maximize the number of people who will take transit (which should be the goal) we need to find places where transit will serve as many people as possible as conveniently as possible. That means serving density, particularly employment density, directly.
At CTC, all routes lead to our forums.