Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Filthy Lies: Where's the Truth in Transit Planning?

So I was reading a post on Tube City Almanac about the rising cost of completing the Mon-Fayette Expressway, and one point in particular struck me. The author was talking about the over-inflated per day usage forecasts, and it got the little hamster in my head running.

Why is it that every transportation (that includes highways) forecast for usage or ridership is always waaaaaaaaaaaay off? It seems every forecast, even well beyond our fine city are hopelessly optimistic. This fact is commonly used as fodder by car and sprawl lovers to prove that we should "stop wasting our time on mass transit" and build more highways. My point is not to say that, but to say that mass transit administrations (PITTSBURGH ESPECIALLY!) should not give anti-transit people any more ammunition.

Look at the North Shore Connector; despite reducing the length and stops on its route (to lower the overall price tag so as to get government funding) they estimated the daily ridership around 10,000 riders per day. While it can't yet be proven or dis-proven, it seems optimistic for 1.2 miles and 2 stops. Sadly, that is far from the only example. The West Busway was projected to have 50,000 riders a day!!!!! WHAAAA????!!! So far, it attracts around 8500 riders a day. Granted, the plan for the busway was 8 miles, but I question if three miles would have made up the difference (although the last three miles would have been the most important to efficiency, the section that took the busway into the city was excluded, now you have buses entering general traffic, and losing all the advantages of a separated grade system. See my post "Missing the Point" about a lack of an integrated system).

The Wabash Tunnel is yet another example, Port Authority said it felt that approx. 2500 vehicles per rush hour would use the tunnel. It turns out, and depending on who you listen to, the tunnel hosts more like 100-300 vehicles per rush hour. Even the East Busway, which is relatively successful has never met expectations for daily ridership.

Again, I ask why? I dug around on the Internet and found this is a systemic problem. Pittsburgh is not alone by a long shot, there is a great report here called "Transit Cooperative Research Program Synthesis 66". It's basically a survey taken from various transit agencies around the country, and they focused on research methods. It brought up some very interesting points.

One point stuck in particular stuck out in my mind. There is no standardized method for gathering and applying data. Various transit agencies have various methods/formulas/criteria for determining potential ridership. For example, one transit agency may use population densities at the origin and terminus of a proposed route, along with traffic density on surrounding routes (bus routes, rail routes, highways etc.). Another transit agency may only factor in population densities at the origin and terminus of a proposed route. In my mind, there is clearly something wrong with this approach, if I am a federal panel reviewing a research study on a potential project, how am I supposed to trust the conclusions presented if I don't understand the methodology and data used to reach the conclusion was gained?

I didn't find this anywhere in the report, but in my expert opinion, I think that transit research, both here and elsewhere in the country is treated as a means to an end, and not as objective research to prove or disprove a theory or proposition. In other words, instead of saying we have an idea for a new transit project, and we want to validate it, agencies say, we have an idea for a new transit project, let's make a report that will back up our idea. It's subjective, and it is not a realistic measure of a project's potential success. I'm sure agencies use this process because it produces better, more immediate (relatively speaking) results, but in the long run, it hurts everyone. It adds ammunition to the arguments of anti-transit groups/people, and it makes those that might normally support large capital projects be skeptical of them.

How do we solve these problems? Well, the first part is easy, again relatively speaking. Standardize methods. I'm not going to attempt to lay out what these standards might be, but in my mind it's common sense. I understand there are individual factors facing each project, but there are also common traits among them all.

The second part is harder, and I think goes well beyond public transit agencies, to most government agencies. Get rid of the subjective nature of transit research and reports. Don't even ask me how to accomplish this. It seems that people in transit agencies, just like government at large have agendas.

Either way, how can you expect the public to support mass transit, when all they see is overspending, and inaccurate/overinflated research? It's just one piece of the puzzle for what is wrong with mass transit, but if we could solve it, that's one less piece of the puzzle to solve later!

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