Urban Transit Vs. Commuter Transit

The Geary corridor in San Francisco is a neat model for transit ridership. The Golden Gate Park separates the Richmond District from the Sunset District, so the four east-west buses serving the Richmond – the 38 on Geary itself and the closely parallel 1 California, 31 Balboa, and 5 Fulton – are easy to analyze, without confounding factors coming from polycentric traffic. Altogether, the four routes in all their variations have 114,000 riders per weekday. The 38 and 1 both run frequently – the 1 runs every 5-6 minutes in the weekday off-peak, and the 38 runs every 5 minutes on the rapid and every 8 on the inner local.

I was curious about the connection between development and travel demand, so I went to OnTheMap to check commute volumes. I drew a greater SF CBD outline east of Van Ness and north of the freeway onramp and creek; it has 420,000 jobs (in contrast, a smaller definition of the CBD has only 220,000). Then I looked at how many people commute to that area from due west, defined as the box bounded by Van Ness, Pacific, the parks, and Fell. The answer is 28,000. Another 3,000 commute in the opposite direction.

Put another way: the urban transit system of San Francisco carries about twice as many passengers on the lines connecting the Richmond and Japantown with city center as actually make that commute: 114,000/2*(28,000 + 3,000) is 1.84. This represents an implausible 184% mode share, in a part of the city where a good number of people own and drive cars, and where some in the innermost areas could walk to work. What’s happening is that when the transit system is usable, people take it for more than just their commute trips.

The obvious contrast is with peak-only commuter rail. In trying to estimate the potential ridership of future Boston regional rail, I’ve heavily relied on commute volumes. They’re easier to estimate than overall trip volumes, and I couldn’t fully get out of the mindset of using commuter rail to serve commuters, just in a wider variety of times of day and to a wider variety of destinations.

In Boston, I drew a greater CBD that goes as far south as Ruggles and as far west as Kendall; it has a total of 370,000 jobs. Of those, about 190,000 come from areas served by commuter rail and not the subway or bus trunks, including the southernmost city neighborhoods like Mattapan and Hyde Park, the commuter rail-adjacent parts of Newton, and outer suburbs far from the urban transit system. But MBTA commuter rail ridership is only about 120,000 per weekday. This corresponds to a mode share of 32%.

I tried to calculate mode shares for the MBTA seven years ago, but that post only looked at the town level and excluded commuter rail-served city neighborhoods and the commuter rail-adjacent parts of Newton, which contribute a significant fraction of the total commute volume. Moreover, the post included suburban transit serving the same zones, such as ferries and some express buses; combined, the mode share of these as well as commuter rail ranged from 36% to 50% depending on which suburban wedge we are talking about (36% is the Lowell Line’s shed, 50% is the Providence Line’s shed). Overall, I believe 32% is consistent with that post.

Part of the difference between 32% and 184% is about the tightness of economic integration within a city versus a wider region. The VA Hospital in San Francisco is located in the Outer Richmond; people traveling there for their health care needs use the bus for this non-commuter trip. On a regional level, this never happens – people drive to suburban hospitals or maybe take a suburban bus if they are really poor.

That said, hospital trips alone cannot make such a large difference. There are errand trips that could occur on a wider scale if suburban transit were better. Cities are full of specialty stores that people may travel to over long distances.

For example, take gaming. In Vancouver I happened to live within walking distance of the area gaming store, but during game nights people would come over from Richmond; moreover, the gaming bar was in East Vancouver, and I’d go there for some social events. In Providence I’d go to Pawtucket to the regional gaming store. In the Bay Area, the store I know about is in Berkeley, right on top of the Downtown Berkeley BART station, and I imagine some people take BART there from the rest of the region.

None of this can happen if the region is set up in a way that transit is only useful for commute trips. If the trains only come every hour off-peak, they’re unlikely to get this ridership except in extreme cases. If the station placement is designed around car travel, as is the case for all American commuter lines and some suburban rapid transit (including the tails of BART), then people will just drive all the way unless there’s peak congestion. Only very good urban transit can get this non-work ridership.


  1. Eric

    Of that 184%, let’s say it’s 80% of commuters to downtown, and 104% “other” trips between areas of no particular notability. Does this mean that if you run a bus from anywhere to anywhere in an area of comparable density, you will still get the 104%, i.e. a very high ridership? Is this a strong argument for “operate it and they will come”, which we accidentally discovered because of the overlay of CBD passengers?

    • Alon Levy

      I don’t actually know. As a sanity check, I looked at employment within the area I’m setting as the residential zone; there are 56,000 jobs there, and I looked for numbers of commuters across Laurel/Emerson (there’s a job cluster right to its east), but it’s just 2,100 in the peak direction and 600 in the reverse-peak direction. Maybe you could scrounge a couple hundred more internal commuters, but we’re still talking mid 30s. So maybe not 184% but only 162%, which is qualitatively the same conclusion.

      Whether similar results can be expected elsewhere, I don’t know. For sanity checks, let’s look at transit commuting in New York. In New York, the census factfinder tells me there are 2,272,028 transit commuters as of 2017 (and this number is a hair up since 2016 even though transit ridership is down). Of those, 1,796,228 are on the subway and 401,793 are on the bus; the rest are mostly on commuter rail, but somehow there are 8,652 streetcar riders, in case you have too much faith in census figures. At any rate, subway ridership per weekday was 5,580,845, which is a multiple of 1.55 over the number of commuters times 2.

      It’s definitely lower than Japantown and the Richmond, which have a higher multiplier relative to all commuters, not just transit users. On NYCT buses the multiplier is much higher, but that’s because a lot of bus ridership is subway connections, and the ACS instructs people to only name the mode by which they traveled the greatest distance, which in basically every bus-subway connection case is the subway.

      • Jacob Manaker

        Slight tangent: if the census is including the New Jersey portion of greater New York, then those 8652 streetcar rides could be taken Hudson-Bergen Light Rail or Newark City Subway trains.

          • James Sinclair

            I may be completely off here, but doesnt the census ask you to report which mode you spend the longest on, as your one and only mode?

            Someone living in NYC could take one mode across the river (PATH, Ferry) for 10 minutes, and then spend 20 minute on HBLR, thus becoming a streetcar rider.

          • Alon Levy

            It asks about greatest distance, not greatest time. I got the ACS in 2009 while living with someone whose commute was almost exactly 50/50 bus/subway by distance; we put down subway.

          • Comradefrana

            From what I’ve gathered: The American Community Survey asks for the primary place where you worked during the calendar week preceding the day when you got the questionnaire (the “Reference week”). Then it asks you which mode have you used for the majority of that commute by length. The data is finally aggregated according to place of residence or place of work.

            This means that if you, for example, look at mode of transportation of area A based on residence, it counts commutes which longest distance was made in area B (doesn’t even have to be an adjacent area). That’s how you get people commuting on a mode that doesn’t exist in the area in question.

            Taking it back to New York and streetcars: If you use residence based table as Alon did, it can realistically include people whose longest part of the commute was on the HBLR or even who were working during the reference week in Boston and used the Green Line.

            Or, if you rather want it form the horses’ mouth: https://www2.census.gov/programs-surveys/acs/tech_docs/subject_definitions/2017_ACSSubjectDefinitions.pdf?# pages 94-96

          • James Sinclair

            People suck at estimating distance, and if you are comparing ferry distance to HBLR distance, then I doubt 10% of people would be able to give you an estimate of how much distance is covered by either mode.

            Basically, I think at least some portion of those 8,652 NYC streetcars riders are correct. Of course, some of those are folks who think checking streetcar is funny, or cool. At such a small number, 2 people giving a joke answer could have resulted in a big difference

    • Jhonny

      I don’t think that’s ALWAYS the case, but it can be.

      Rail of course will funnel travelers along its corridors by mere existence alone. Buses don’t have that effect to that extent

  2. Michael

    The reasons are completely endless why there’s very low off-peak & reverse direction ridership on the MBTA commuter rail. The frequency is terrible off-peak, the land use around most stations means that very few destinations are within walking distance. There’s little-to-no integration between the train schedules and surface transit routes (if any). There’s not particularly high population density outside of Boston & Cambridge. The lines don’t connect well to the subways. Fares are priced for 6 figure earners. Ultimately, the network is designed for an affluent park & rider… well, if they are driving anyway why would they take a train for the Wellesley Farms to the Westborough Park & Ride leg of their journey?

    The grand bargain that I would propose if I am the MBTA czar: Step 1, NIMBYvilles, fix your surface transit networks and we’ll give you clockface frequency & fare integration. Step 2, fix your land use policies and we’ll take the development proceeds/value-capture around the stations to get the N-S rail link built so we have connections to all the subway lines. Step 3, let’s pass an excise tax and give ourselves price relief on fares, electrification, & modern rolling stock.

  3. adirondacker12800

    If the station placement is designed around car travel, as is the case for all American commuter lines and some suburban rapid transit

    Most American commuter stations were there before there were cars. They may have moved a block or two over the past century or so but they were there before there were cars. Just because there are lots of cars around the station doesn’t mean it was designed for them.

    • Alon Levy

      They’re surrounded by parking lots and not by condos or walkable retail. When the lines were built there were no cars, but at the time the urban layout was entirely SFR because there was no demand for more, and ridership wasn’t very high. (The LIRR has higher ridership in the 1920s than today, but it came from Queens, not Long Island – that’s why ridership fell after the 7 opened. The busiest station was Bayside until I forget when, I think after WW2.)

      • adirondacker12800

        We must be looking at different suburbs. The ones I’m familiar with, developed before 1940 and they are walkable. It’s not Times Square but it’s not fields of McMansions either. The kinda place that makes New Urbanists plotz.

        • Alon Levy

          Dobbs Ferry, which reached half its current population in the 1920s, is walkable in the sense that you can, if you want, walk a kilometer from a house to the train station. But it’s not walkable in the sense of having anything else to walk to.

          • adirondacker12800

            Some of them are going to be like that because retail would be declasse. Some of them even have apartments over the retail if there aren’t separate apartment buildings near the station.

          • johndmuller

            The “Rivertowns”, as Dobbs Ferry et al are known are not quite so barren as you are making them out to be. Like similar heritage villages in other locales, each contains the basic minimum collection of retail outlets that allow one to exist carless without great deprivation. They limit or restrict big box stores and for the most part, national chain outlets to favor more “unique” local proprietors. It is actually quite similar to the setup in your normal NYC neighborhood. As these towns are right on the commuter main lines (30-40 min to GCT), access to the major shopping and other opportunities of NYC is not much different for an in-city denizen and probably better than many outer borough residents experience.

            The downside to these villages compared to city neighborhoods is not so much the connections to the core or the need for a car to access the big box stores, but the fact that neither inter- or intra- village transit is particularly great and that the reduced density areas outside the village centers are not so walkable and often have next to no local transit available.

      • IAN! Mitchell

        Would making trips on the LIRR within the 5 boroughs subway fare restore ridership to 1920’s levels?

  4. Jay. Yudof

    Well thought out and written, as always Schooling as a source of ridership should never be overlooked.

  5. kingledion

    You mention gaming, but you should mention the real “commuter” gaming, that is, sporting events.

    The Boston area you drew has 3 major league teams (Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins) hosting 81, 41, and 41 home games, respectively, drawing average crowds of 36,000, 19,000, and 18,000 respectively. That is in the range of 12,000 home game attendees per day averaged over a year, and up to 55,000 when the games overlap in April and May. I don’t know transit share, but from what I recall there is absolutely no parking at Fenway for the Red Sox; I’m not so sure about the Garden.

    The SF area, doesn’t have any, if I understand the CBD you drew, since it looks like you stopped north of AT&T park.

    In any case, it seems like sporting events in can drive enough traffic to make serving them significant. This is particularly true in the case of smaller cities with multiple Downtown arenas, where the attendance is very high relative to overall transit ridership (Minneapolis, Detroit, Cincinnati, and St. Louis come to mind)

    • Matthew

      Fenway has some parking and people try to find street spaces (local residents and politicians try to stymie this). But yes, most of the spectators come by foot or T, it’s also part of the tradition: completely overloading the green line pre and post game.

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, actual sportsball games are huge for transportation – there’s a rush of everyone leaving at once when the game ends, usually at a stadium that’s not designed for high capacity because when there are no games it’s not a travel draw. In both Boston and SF you have stadiums right at the margin of the CBD, at Fenway or South Beach, just too inconvenient to use the normal subway network. I know that at Gillette Stadium they run special commuter rail shuttles, and in New York they add subway service when the Mets and Yankees play; not sure what they do at Fenway or AT&T.

      • Matthew

        They put employees for crowd control at the nearby green line stations Kenmore and Fenway, stage additional trams at Blandford street sidings, and run Kenmore/Government Center short turns. Basically there’s a lot of ppl who use the Riverside park and ride, and a lot of people connecting to the subway in the core. It gets quite jammed. I don’t remember if they ever bothered to run a commuter rail shuttle from Yawkey though it’s been suggested.

      • Robert S.

        Re: SF’s AT&T Park
        The commuter rail (Caltrain) station is a block away at Fourth + King (ballpark is at Third + King). They’ve added runs in the past to handle the fans from the Peninsula.
        SFMuni’s Metro (LRV’s) has a “Ballpark” platform on King St. between Second and Third. They run shuttles and regular service from there to Embarcadero Stn. which is also a BART station. I’ve been on one of those shuttles several times which develop a sort of ‘Orange Crush’ due to fans in team colors (black + orange) packing the car. Upon reaching the Embarcadero Stn. the car mostly empties out due to the fans transfering to BART.
        NB – Some fans choose to walk the eight (?) or so blocks to Market Street instead of waiting for an LRV. SFMuni also has a bus terminus next to the Caltrain station for #30/#45 (Chinatown/North Beach/Marina) and the #47 (Van Ness corridor).

        • Robert S.

          P.S. The ballpark was isolated when it was built. These days it’s on the way between the CBD and UCSF’s Mission Bay campus (hospital, clinics, labs, classrooms, etc.). The T-Third line is currently the connection though that will change when the Central Subway (YUCK! on price and route) opens. Even then that line will only be a block away at Fourth + King. N-Judah service (UCSF Parnassus/Sunset) will stay the same.

      • Jhonny

        So should supports stadium be built in pre-existing neighborhoods that already draw travel demand?

        Or should they be built in industrial areas with high job density?

        Or just out on empty lots and the inefficient travel patterns be damned?

        • Alon Levy

          You probably want stadiums in areas that have lower land values (because they just don’t generate the value of dense housing or offices if those can be supported) but still good transportation. Yankee Stadium is at a really good place for a stadium, because it’s both a low-value area and a subway transfer point. But it matters what sport is played. Basketball is best, because basketball arenas can be used for other events, like concerts, which is how Madison Square Garden and the O2 Arena operate. Baseball requires dedicated stadiums that can’t be used for anything else, but at least it’s played several times a week in the season. Football and American football are worst, because they’re played weekly and take up giant amounts of space that can’t be used for anything else.

          • Matthew

            Baseball stadiums are quite frequently used for concerts. Fenway park is planning to do even more concerts per year than the few they currently do, if the city approves.

  6. Ross Bleakney

    This is consistent with everything I’ve learned about transit over the years. It is very easy to focus on commuting. You will often see transit reports based on that (percentage of transit commutes, etc.). The implicit assumption is that transit might be great for getting to work, but for the rest of the time, you drive (if you can afford it).

    But that simply isn’t true in urban environments. The more urban, the less this is true. It is common, in any big city, to see very high midday ridership on the subway. Some of those people may work different hours, but some obviously aren’t. They are visiting a friend, heading to school, making an errand or just checking out some club or restaurant.

    The relationship between high density and high transit ridership has been known for a long time. But I don’t know if anyone has studied why this occurs. One assumption is that car ownership goes down as density increases. In a highly urban environment (New York) it just isn’t worth the cost or hassle to own a car. I’m sure that plays a part, but it isn’t the only factor. Seattle has seen increasing car ownership at the same time it has seen increasing transit use. Many neighborhoods are become increasingly urban and convenient — but folks still own cars. If I’m not mistaken, this has happened in New York City as well. All of this makes sense, as car ownership tends to increase with wealth (both New York City and Seattle have an increasing number of upper middle class occupants). But that doesn’t mean people use the car that often. I knew someone in Brooklyn that mostly drove her car from parking spot to parking spot. She probably put a couple thousand miles on it (if that) each year. But she had the car before she lived there, might want it after she left and it came in handy once in a while. In Seattle you can get around fairly well now on transit, but a car is necessary if you are going to another town or the mountains. I’m sure there are a lot of people in Seattle now who do most of their non-work related trips via transit while their car sits in the garage.

    I can think of a lot of reasons why it is more than just car ownership. One is parking. As Seattle grows and becomes more urban, I hear people (mostly old folks, like me) complain about how hard it is to park in various neighborhoods (e. g. Ballard). They seem to be ignoring the fact that has never been easier to get there by bus. But my guess is they will figure it out, or that others already have.

    The scale of a city just works better for transit. Again, this is nothing new (transit scales). Transit frequency and coverage can increase with density, and all that. But it is more than that. It isn’t just density — it is density plus proximity. With every transit trip, you have stops. A ride from one end of Manhattan to the other takes a while. But along the way, with every stop, you have thousands of potential destinations. A similar trip in the suburbs — one taking the exact same amount of time — will simply stop by fewer places of interest.

    It is easy to dismiss this as being caused by poor planning. Cities have generally focused on the urban areas, and poorly designed the suburban ones. But even when they build very frequent, fast, suburban oriented transit, it fails to have the ridership of urban areas. All the top performing stations on BART are within the urban core (San Fransisco, Oakland and Berkeley). Outside that urban core, the highest performing station is El Cerrito del Norte. This makes sense given its proximity to both Berkeley (3 stops within 10 minutes) and Oakland (within 20 minutes of the city center). Looking at the data for that station (at least for the one month) seems to validate that. While trips to downtown San Fransisco are still the most popular, about a third of the trips are to places that are closer, and urban (Oakland and Berkeley). Proximity matters, a lot. Or to put it another way, if you want to build a highly successful transit line, then focus on proximity and density.

    • Richard Layman

      FWIW, you might be interested in reading this chapter from the textbook _Geography of Urban Transportation_, it’s called “Transportation and Urban Form: Stages in the Spatial Evolution of the American Metropolis.” I guess it’s been updated for more recent editions of the textbook.

      Click to access Muller_reading.pdf

  7. Richard Layman

    you are way better at numerical analysis and GIS than I am. But I am pretty good at conceptual/qualitative analysis. You might be interested in my writings on “intra-district transit” and the “sustainable mobility platform” in particular with DC as an example. But yes, these writings key on the difference between transit as the backbone of a sustainable mobility dominated paradigm versus transit as a service for commuters.




    Obviously, San Francisco’s density, the multi-modal city-focused transit system as distinguished from commuter services which complement it, and difficulty in many parts of the city to park personally owned vehicles makes the city a poster child for the sustainable mobility platform too. NYC sure. Places like Jersey City and Hoboken. Etc.

  8. Wanderer

    Caltrain remains my poster child for an underserved commuter/regional rail system. Caltrain has been gaining commute ridership steadily, it can take you into either San Francisco or Silicon Valley.

    But off peak trains run only once an hour, seriously liming its attractiveness. Many of the Caltrain stations (like Redwood City) are in 19th Century town centers. They’re pleasant and walkable at least in some directions (e.g. Palo Alto, good to the east, not good to the west into Stanford). Some of the stations (e.g. Mountain View) have hundreds of parking spaces, but the overall parking supply is moderate compared to BART. BART averages about 1,000 parking spaces per station, even though some stations have none. Maybe with San Mateo County’s new transportation sales tax this can be improved.

    • Reedman Bassoon

      1) Caltrain is useless if you don’t meet its ideal service pattern. The train station south of downtown San Jose is Tamien. Gilroy is the south end of Caltrain service. 32 miles between them, of Caltrain’s total 77 miles of track. There is zero/nada/zip southbound service south of Tamien in the mornings. There is zero/nada/zip northbound service from Gilroy in the evenings. There is zero/nada/zip service between Tamien and Gilroy on weekends. I worked in south San Jose for a couple of years — people from San Francisco had to drive their cars to work because although there was a train station nearby, no trains operated for their “reverse commute”. 2) Caltrain doesn’t run near the new Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara (where the San Francisco 49ers [American football] play). But, it does run one special train from SF to Mountain View for games (VTA Light Rail goes from Mountain View, right to the stadium). Note that Caltrain offers no special train for people coming to games from south of Mountain View (i.e. the majority of Silicon Valley). 3) There is also a heavy rail station next to Levi’s Stadium [Great America Amtrak station, NOT to be confused with the Santa Clara Caltrain station]– but it is essentially unused for games because of so few trains [Capital Corridor and ACE. 332 passengers per day. The Coast Starlight blows through, doesn’t stop.]

  9. Jhonny

    Can you do an analysis of Costa Rican railways and what they should invest in with the highest priority?

    Do you think an airport rail link to SJO makes sense?

  10. Art Lewellan

    “The Walking Communities of 2040”
    The original essay with this title was penned in 1997 to grace the back cover of a transit proposal submitted to (a big) City Council where it received a formal review and was awarded merit. Twenty years later with significant progress achieved in light rail projects nationally, mass transit still fails to address ever growing traffic woes nor soothe environmental nightmares predicted with global warming. As today’s divestment in fossil fuel movement builds momentum, I remain certain that mass transit must receive redirected investment dollars. I am just as certain that self-driving car technology is a fraudulent ruse meant to distract public attention from actual solutions that include truly modern mass transit as a fundamental travel mode with the most potential to direct development beyond car dependency and traffic havoc.
    The transit proposal is based on a design concept dubbed LOTi (Loop Oriented Transit Intermodal). Sometimes I refer to it as sort of missing link. Its closest model is Denver’s 16th Street Shuttle. The design application writ broadly is meant to reduce the cost and impact of light rail and transit centers; streamline both light rail and peripheral bus lines by avoiding circuitous routing; provide convenient transfers rail to bus and between bus lines with the least number of any suitable transit vehicle; and, to offer much more potential for transit-oriented infill mixed-use development.
    The basic flaws of self-driving cars are simple enough: Their technological hurdles are plainly unsurmountable, they will never be completely safe. They won’t decrease traffic congestion, fuel/energy consumption nor emissions sufficient to prevent worst harm from catastrophic climate change. They are most unlikely to reduce travel-related cost of living. They won’t take full advantage of the benefits EVs offer, and the technology is supported for all the wrong reasons; to bust transit operator and teamster unions; to give freeway planners an excuse to predict worsening traffic can be managed with reckless tailgating; to maintain most profitable but least resilient regional utility grids despite how decentralized EV+PV household backup power systems are proven complementary.
    The most telling aspect of self-driving car folly is eliminating ownership whereupon all cars are kept in central garage locations and dispatched on demand. Never mind that in a grid failure, every household with an EV in the garage gains a backup power supply. Never mind any emergency where a car is needed immediately, not one that may arrive too late. Self-driving car tech completely denies those safety features and pretends “mass tailgating” won’t produce horrific multi-car pileups. Self-driving tech in many ways puts safety dead last.
    A household EV offers the means to more closely monitor and reduce energy consumption overall, both for driving and household use. Rooftop PV solar arrays are thee perfect match to EV battery packs. Perhaps most important, a household EV is an incentive to drive less, whereby more trips become possible without having to drive, whereby local economies grow and alternate modes of travel – mass transit, walking and bicycling – all more energy efficient than EVs alone – may serve more travel needs in this vision of walking communities in 2040. It’s last line, “Look, there’s a gas station. You don’t see too many them no more.”

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