The Cost of Lowballing Light Rail Ridership Projections

The Overhead Wire has picked up on a piece in Saturday’s New York Times about how light rail ridership in Phoenix has exceeded expectations. The post points out that this isn’t the first time the Federal Transportation Administration has underestimated demand for similar projects, a pattern that has the potential for real consequences:

3149451036_b6bac905f1.jpgLight rail in Phoenix: The demand is real. Photo by phxwebguy via Flickr.

Yay, FTA Models. You totally rule at figuring out ridership in new light rail cities. You did a bang-up job in Minneapolis (24K in 2020, current 26k), really got those Houston numbers right for 2020 (33k in 2020, current 38k), and Charlotte was right on target (9k
opening, current 14k). Note: the APTA daily numbers are a bit wonky. I
don’t know if I completely trust them to the rider but they make the

Now we can add Phoenix to the list of FTA model lowballing: "The
rail was projected to attract 26,000 riders per day, but the number is
closer to 33,000, boosted in large part by weekend riders."

kills me about all this lowballing is what the cost-effectiveness
number was — and what it SHOULD have been. Ultimately, that is what
decides projects. And it’s a little messed up that the FTA keeps
getting it wrong, especially when they can kill a project because of a
CE below Medium.

More good stuff from around the network: Sprawled Out looks at how Panera Bread has found success by creating public spaces in suburban communities that have few or none. Kaid Benfield on NRDC Switchboard writes about how San Francisco lots left vacant by the recession might be repurposed. And The Transport Politic has the news on proposals for high-speed rail in the US from SNCF, the French national railroad operator.

  • rlb

    So long as it passes the CE requirement, I have no problem with the figure being lowballed. I’d rather people be surprised by success than disappointed by failure. In the nytimes article, they talk of plans to add to the Phoenix line. Had they overestimated the ridership, this anti-transit Rhoades person would be considered a prophet and she’d have more credibility going forward. Instead she comes off as an ass.

  • A “Train Business Directory” has been developed for nine cities and has just crossed the one million hits mark over the last year. Called, the success of the website can be attributed to Phoenix. See the website for parks, businesses, churches and more near train stations.

  • I agree with rlb. Its much easier to get expansion if everything is going better than expected, and the opponents look dumb.

  • JJM

    So, does that mean light rail in the Albany/Schenectady/Troy area might actually be cost-effective? Our local MPO decided to fund bus rapid transit instead of light rail, based on cost-effectiveness projections.

    BRT will only take 15 minutes off the downtown-to-downtown time. Pretty rapid, huh?

  • I \v/ NY

    if i had to live in phoenix for job reasons, i’d choose to live along the LRT line. i’d guess the same would be true for just about everyone else here. and so i guess a lot of the ridership is fueled by urban-minded transplants living in the phoenix area solely for the jobs, who hate phoenix-style endless desert sprawl and living 20 hours a day in one’s car. one’s place of work may be in exurbia requiring them to drive to work on weekdays. but come weekends when they are at home enjoying their free time in the more “urban” parts of phoenix, they choose to travel by rail. at least thats how i interpret the ridership numbers.

    getting a new LRT system (and really the first mass transit line beyond a simple bus) was a big deal and was the best xmas present ever for the transplant urbanists living in phoenix which is also why i take it the grand opening attracted so many people.

  • JDR

    FTA doesn’t do the forecasts, but criticizes them.. relentlessly. It’s good to poke at the “black box” that produces travel forecasts and better understand what’s informing the forecasts because there are many regions that would use the model as a political tool. Many communities want light rail just because it looks good. It’s especially difficult to predict ridership in communities that currently don’t have light rail because these models are based on that region’s travel surveys and people’s travel patterns using the current system (before light rail is introduced). What I dislike is FTA’s insistence on comparing light rail to a fictional bus project that most regions probably wouldn’t support or ever develop. The cost effectiveness should be based on the light rail project versus the existing transit in the corridor as a baseline.

  • Patrick

    PA-TEC has linked a paper I recently published on this very topic, but viewed through a much different lens. If you are interested in how transportation models work, and especially in some of their shortcomings and the legal results thereof, I’d encourage you to take a look at it.


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