Saturday, April 9, 2016

Green Caltrain: New Jarrett Walker study contradicts conventional Silicon Valley wisdom

new report from global expert Jarrett Walker (report starts on page 287) kicks off a two-year initiative to rethink VTA service with a goal of increasing transit ridership. The report’s findings contradict key tenets of conventional wisdom about transit in Silicon Valley politics, and may trigger lively discussions about how to improve transit service.
The dominant finding is that VTA ridership has declined because the agency is providing reduced service, despite a growing population. The study finds that service is most productive where it is most frequent, despite the higher cost, since frequent all-day service enables easy transfers and supports a variety of trip purposes. The report supports arguments made by TransForm and other advocates that ridership could be increased by providing greater service frequency on a core network.
A key element of frequent service is the ability to make connections without long waits. Currently, the most robust transit service is found in East San Jose, with a grid of connecting service.  The report notes there may be other areas that could support high frequency grid services, especially those where urban-style nodes of density and walkability are emerging.  The report bolsters critiques that transit lags in West County because North/South routes are too infrequent.
Several of the report’s findings contradict conventional wisdom about Silicon Valley transit.
*  Conventional wisdom: The main goal of transit should be alleviating rush hour congestion for drivers, and VTA would gain more ridership and financial stability with commute-focused service.   In fact, according to the report, VTA’s most productive routes provide all-day frequent service for many kinds of trips, and ridership is steady throughout the day.  Commute-focused service is harder to provide cost-effectively, since revenue trips are one-way, and drivers need to head back with empty buses.  
*  Conventional wisdom: ridership is low in low-density suburban areas because of neglectful VTA service.  The report explains, by contrast, that high ridership transit depends on three factors: land use,  walkability, and service.   Areas that have low-density, single-purpose land use with poor walkability will not support high-ridership transit.   Land use and street design are under the control of local cities.
Hopefully this finding will catalyze lively conversation with city leaders who express concerns about poor VTA service, while maintaining low-density land use and streets that are not safe and attractive for walking.  
Conventional wisdom: VTA is unwisely neglecting major opportunities to relieve congestion on major freeway corridors, especially via commute service along Highway 85 and 237.   By contrast, the report’s analysis explains that transit is less cost-effective when it attempts to connect low-density housing and low-density job areas across long distances, with plentiful free parking at the destination.  This finding casts serious doubt on the goals of the West County coalition seeking large amounts of funding for long-distance commute service on the freeway corridors from low-density residential neighborhoods to spread-out office parks with free parking. 
Express commute transit service is more competitive with driving when parking and/or road use isn’t free.  Are the leaders who want to fight congestion willing to require paid parking and/or roadway tolls?
[Conventional wisdom] transit is and should be mostly for low-income people who do not have other choices. The report shows that while transit is correlated to income, transit ridership is even more strongly correlated to land use density.  In Santa Clara County, less than 5% of commute trips are made by transit, and most low-income workers drive.  Since Santa Clara County’s growth over time will largely be infill development increasing density, it will be important to upgrade transit service to support the denser land use patterns.  
Income and Population Density
Hopefully future phases of the report will look at opportunities, not only for transit to support planned land use, but infill land use opportunities that would support high-ridership transit.  
Because high-quality transit supports economic opportunity, hopefully the discussion will also consider housing affordability in transit-rich areas.   With the increased popularity of denser, walkable areas, we are seeing a trend toward the “suburbanization of poverty”, with lower income people living in further-out, low density areas that are difficult to service with transit.
One of Walker’s key messages is that transit agencies need to make policy decisions about how to balance the goals of high-ridership, cost-effective service, and lifeline “coverage” services that are important to provide even if ridership is low.  If VTA wants to substantially increase ridership without slashing lifeline service, revenue would need to increase.
The report also raises the issue of the transit fare structure in conflict with its ridership goals. VTA does not offer transfer discounts.  So an “out-and-back” bus/light rail trip with a transfer would cost $8.    Also,the frequent bus network is inadequate to connect East San Jose residents to a sufficiently wide range of opportunities such as jobs, school, retail, and other activity centers.  For longer-distance trips to economic and educational opportunities, it will be helpful to consider access to BART and Caltrain with bus connections and accessible fares.
Unfortunately, the study gives little consideration to the upcoming role of BART, and potential role of Caltrain, as part of a frequent network.  Caltrain and ACE are not considered “because they represent a small proportion of VTA’s budget.” This makes sense from the perspective of VTA as a financial entity, but little sense from the perspective of a transit user wanting to get to jobs, schools, and other destinations. Also, unlike VTA’s schedule choices, which are seen as variable and subject to policy change, Caltrain’s heavily peaked service is taken for granted. Electric service will enable more frequent all-day service to be provided cost-effectively – would this increase ridership, and how would it affect overall transit network performance?  The report also doesn’t take into account Stanford’s Marguerite, and other local service brands that are part of the network.
In summary, the challenges that lead to poorly performing transit derive from conventional wisdom about transportation and land use in Silicon Valley:
* we can have better transit while preferring  low-density land use and free parking
* transit should focus on alleviating peak hour congestion* the main goal of transit is to serve poor people who are transit-dependent (although most low-income people in Silicon Valley drive)
* transit service improvements should focus on agency brands, rather than user experience
The report contains powerful insights that could trigger important debates and decisions that could help the region increase transit use, but we’d need to get past the conventional wisdom in order to achieve the goal.

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