Regional Rail for Non-Work Trips

Good public transportation must be useful for all travel needs. This in particular includes trips that are not commutes to work, which are the most typical use case for suburban trains. This is a key difference between American and European public transportation: in some cases the modal split for work trips are similar, for example New York’s split is similar to that of the major German cities, but per capita ridership in the German cities is a lot higher than in New York, because off-peak service is better and people use it more for non-commute trips. In the linked post I went over this as a matter of better off-peak service; in this post I am going to go over the more fundamental question of, what kind of trips can regional public transport provide apart from work trips?

Some data from Germany

Germany periodically conducts surveys of transportation usage, called Mobilität in Deutschland, or MiD. The most recent was in 2017, and the one before it was in 2008. In Berlin, the data I have is from 2008, from the city’s transportation plan for 2030. On PDF-p. 30, it produces the following modal splits by trip type:

  • Work: 39% transit, 40% car
  • School: 31% transit, 31% car
  • Shopping: 19% transit, 30% car
  • Pleasure: 21% transit, 32% car
  • Going back home: 27% transit, 31% car
  • Other, including business: 25% transit, 67% car

Here is Hamburg, also as of 2008 and not 2017, on p. 7, with the city and suburbs listed separately:

  • Work: 33%/48% city, 16%/65% suburbs
  • School: 32%/13% city, 34%/30% suburbs
  • Shopping: 11%/41% city, 4%/65% suburbs
  • Errands: 21%/37% city, 4%/71% suburbs
  • Pleasure: 17%/40% city, 5%/55% suburbs

The Hamburg S-Bahn barely extends past city limits, even less so than the Berlin S-Bahn, so the low suburban modal splits cannot be viewed as a failure of S-Bahn service to be useful for non-work trips. But it’s worth pointing out that in both Berlin and Hamburg (city, not suburbs), work is the activity with the highest modal split for public transport, followed by school.

Long and short trips

In a few posts over the years, I talked about a dichotomy of long and short trips. Long trips include the primary commute but also extraordinary trips such as to the airport; short trips are routine errands, including shopping and short-distance leisure trips.

In most transit cities, short trips are not done on transit but on foot. I usually bring up Asian examples because they concentrate development near the train station, so one walks to the train station either to shop at the department store within the station or to get on an actual train to get to work in city center. But this is equally true of Germany, even with vastly lower extents of transit-oriented development. The intersection points of the Ringbahn with U- and S-Bahn lines are replete with shopping centers.

The upshot is that if people don’t take regional trains to go shopping, because if the system works, then they can walk to retail. This is true even when retail is at big box scale – those Ringbahn stations have Kaufland and Real hypermarkets.

Sporadic long trips

If regional rail is not for short trips, then what non-work trips is it for? The answer cannot be none, because ridership on S-Bahn trains in Berlin and Hamburg is too high compared with the work modal split. The answer can’t just be school either, because there aren’t vast numbers of school commuters.

Rather, it’s better to think in terms of sporadic and usual long trips. When I go play board games, it’s a long trip and not a short trip, because the community is citywide, and people come from Friedrichshain, from Charlottenburg, from far western suburbs, from Lichtenberg, from Pankow, from Schöneberg. The same is true of queer meetups – even when I lived in Neukölln and some of these meetups were walking distance to me, they were not walking distance to most attendees, who would take the U- or S-Bahn.

All of this falls under the rubric of sporadic long trips: long because they are not normally in-neighborhood, and sporadic because they are not one’s usual commute to work or school. But they often involve several roundtrips a week, producing healthy ridership at all hours of day.

Meetups are an example of using the train for socialization at a scale that’s expressly citywide or even regionwide. In that sense, a large city with a good regional transportation network is good for social connections, because it encourages communities to be more specialized to people’s interests. In a city the size of Berlin, even with Germany’s shocking lack of diversity, one can find enough queers for an English-language meetup. In a larger city like New York, without the same language load, one can even find ever more specialized communities – there is no one gaming community but many, and they intersect, for example one can look for queer gamers, or for a Harlem-based group with predominantly black demographics, and so on. This isn’t really any different from the economic advantages of large cities, which offer more division of labor.

The upshot is that even if the sort of travel one can do by regional rail that is not for work does not seem to exist in a city with poor off-peak public transportation service, this does not mean improving off-peak transit is pointless. On the contrary: over time, the existence of such service will let communities form at convenient locations based on the shape of the network. It will make the city bigger in a sense, and this is a good thing economically and socially.


  1. Eric2

    I don’t understand this post. Are you tring to say that social trips (“queer gamers”) are not included in the “Pleasure” category?

  2. Frederick

    In non-work trips, comfort and convenience is probably more important than speed. And most public transit in the US are lacking in comfort and convenience.

    • Lee Ratner

      And Comfort is more than just having a clean vehicle and nice seat, it’s how fellow passengers behaved. Since I moved from New York City to San Francisco, I’ve noticed that transit etiquette is a lot poorer in San Francisco than it was in any other city in the United States. There are people who play music loudly or have really loud conservations or occasionally fights and at times somebody in need of mental health. In NYC and other east coast cities, most riders know the etiquette is not to disturb other riders. I think one reason why a lot of Americans prefer cars over transit is not trusting people to have proper transit etiquette.

    • Henry Miller

      That is only true if distance is long. when I visit my in-laws it is a minimum 18 hours to drive. Flying is just a bit too expensive for my family, plus airports are not fun with young kids. But a slow train might be acceptable if only one got close enough.

      When I’m going to something in my city the same considerations as work trips apply. However this is harder to serve because I’m more variable. I can plan my work around when the bus arrives and leaves. But if the bus is once an hour I may get a choice of waiting 45 minutes for the door to unlock, or be 15 minutes late. Neither is acceptable and so I’ll drive to many things that the bus could get me to.

      • Matthew Hutton

        Yeah but the slow train is going to need to be faster than 18 hours, because otherwise it will be a sleeper and those are never cheap (certainly compared to flying).

        And outside HSR rail isn’t in reality faster than driving. Even a 200km/h top speed which we have a lot here in the UK isn’t really enough.

        • Henry Miller

          If the train was more than once a week I’d be open to stopping for the night at a hotel. The ability to get up and walk anytime I want on the train is a big improvement over sitting in the driver’s seat.
          This is academic though. I live in a tiny city in the middle of the country, and my in-laws another tiny city. Neither is big enough to get anything approaching a direct route by rail. (we aren’t on the way to anything useful without going well out of our way for a transfer)

  3. Lee Ratner

    There is also the last mile problem. A lot of non-work trips for parents are going to have their kids along with them. Parents with kids are going to prefer the most direct method of travel from their home to the destination. This is going to be a car, especially since in American metropolitan areas with rail systems the station is going to be not that close to your house.

  4. RossB

    It isn’t just about the rail, either. A lot of cities are dependent on bus service. But quite often, in the suburbs the buses are only convenient during rush hour (and only peak direction). For example, I live in Seattle, and sometimes my friends will get together and play music. Ironically, the guy who has the most trouble driving is the guy with the worst option for transit. That is because he is doing a “reverse” commute over one of the big bridges that connect Seattle with the east side suburbs. Forty years ago that reverse commute was not an issue. Now, with companies like Microsoft on the other side of the lake, it is terrible.

    Yet at the same time, his neighborhood is connected poorly to Seattle. He can get there, it just takes a very long time. The only express service is during rush hour. This is not a super low density neighborhood, either — just one that happens to have the misfortune of being in the suburbs. So despite bus-lanes that would make that trip much faster, it just doesn’t run.

    While some of that is just a lack of funds, there is a strong emphasis on 9-5 commuters within most American transit agencies. It is something both you and Jarrett Walker have written about, and it is a serious problem.

    [The example given is for before the pandemic. No one is getting together to play music now.]

      • RossB

        What an arrogant and ignorant comment. People end up living in places like that for any number of reasons. In his case, his girlfriend owned a condo there (and he rented). Once they go married, It made the most sense to move in there, given their financial situation. In general the cheaper places are often found in the suburbs. Then there are jobs in the suburbs. He is walking distance to a major hospital — it would be quite reasonable to live there if he worked there. Once this pandemic is over, you really need to get out more. Meet people, talk to them — maybe read a few novels. Learn how the real world works.

        • adirondacker12800

          I want to make sure I have this right. His girlfriend lived there. He could have asked her if the bus service was lousy. Or looked at a bus schedule. But they decided to live someplace cheaper. It’s likely that one of the reasons it’s cheaper is that the bus service is lousy. So even though he had the advice of a local resident and bus schedules to look at he whines that the bus service is lousy. I suppose they could run empty buses through the neighborhood every ten minutes 18 hours a day. That sounds expensive.

          • Henry Miller

            He could have checked all that, and decided that even though he loves this girl he should marry someone else just because off the transit situation.
            Realistically where to live is a compromise. We all want out own hobby-farm (minimum 100 acres) right in the middle of downtown, but most of us don’t live in an area where that affordable even for the filthy rich. We need to make the best of our own little compromises not say we should have taken a different one.

    • Henry

      To be fair, there *was* a referendum to improve countywide transit, which failed, so the city did its own Seattle-only referendum which passed. This explains most of today’s service disparities; the city simply has a whole other fund dedicated to transit and the county doesn’t.

      • RossB

        Yes, but even if it had passed, it is likely that the suburbs would not have great transit. It is more of a challenge, and more than the city, there is a priority towards rush-hour service.

        • Henry

          A fair amount of frequent service to the dense areas was part of Metro Connects. It just has no funding plan due to the failure of the earlier referendum.

  5. R. W. Rynerson

    One key item that contributes to the hollowing out of transit all-day schedules in the U.S. and Canada is the use of cost formulas that are simple, easy to explain, and are used in a fallacious manner. In Edmonton and in Denver there were traditional “cost per hour” or “cost per mi/km” figures that were applied broadly. As each city grew there was pressure to reduce off-peak service to “get hours” for peak hour express routes. In real economics one can’t trade keeping a bus or a train out an hour later at night for an hour with an added bus or train in the peak. In both cases it was a struggle to go to multi-factor costing that made service decreases or increases less of a surprise at budget time.

    Alon is right about the social networking value of off-peak transit service. When I was interviewed on my retirement that came up and it was such a novel point that the editor left it in the on-line version:

      • RossB

        Seattle as well. Ridership increased at a time when every other city in the U. S. saw ridership go down. They also added a new light rail segment, but the increase in ridership was more than the increase in light rail use (most transit use in Seattle is on the bus).

        Study after study shows the importance of frequency. I think you would be hard pressed to find the opposite. But since you brought it up — do you know of any cities that have boosted off-peak frequency and *didn’t* see a rise in ridership?

        • Gok (@Gok)

          Denver launched new lines with relatively high off-peak service and hasn’t gotten much ridership.

          I don’t doubt that, all else equal, low off-peak headways are nice to have. But if one had to pick between too-crowded-at-peak vs. too-infrequent-at-off-peak, it seems like the former would cause a bigger drop in ridership. I am trying to find a study that shows it’s actually worth it to hurt peak service to some extent.

          • R. W. Rynerson

            There are radically different requirements to run peak improvements versus a good base service. The Central Line segment of the Denver LRT net is maxed out at a 3-minute headway (pre-Pandemic). Off-peak service handles some big loads at class change times for the colleges on the line (when they’re not Pandemic on-line). Night service on the rail lines helps to explain the pre-Pandemic booming night life downtown (often credited to MLB which is only there part of the year). Before LRT they used to roll up the sidewalks at night.

            An added note: currently if readers want to look up Denver schedules they are running the Saturday bus schedules and Sunday rail schedules with an arbitrary cut-off at night between midnight and 1 a.m.

          • Henry

            IIRC light rail and bus operations in Denver are funded from the same pot, so total service hours have not increased in Denver; in fact I can find several articles from the past decade talking about service cuts.

            This is noticeably different from Seattle, which has two separate agencies providing the light rail and the bus service, and did *not* cut bus service hours when the University Link extension opened, and instead shoveled it back into more frequent truncated routes.

      • R. W. Rynerson

        It’s rare that a wholesale improvement/redesign is made. Jarrett Walker and TMD have done that. It’s more common in small systems that do not stay current on their communities’ needs. Then they do a wholesale restructuring but with little change in resources and ridership. Larger systems tend to redo a zone or a quadrant or redo service when a major infrastructure project provides a rationale, and that describes my experience. That makes comparisons difficult.

        That said, we did do an unofficial experiment in Denver and suburbs when the opportunity arose. Rte 76 – Wadsworth Crosstown is a north-south grid line that made timed transfer focal point meets at what is now the G-Line Olde Town Arvada Station and at Lakewood Commons. Those focal points permit a variety of intra-suburban trips with as many timed transfers as can be set up. During one of those periods when there was a strong enough economy to risk expansion we had our elected board interested in experimenting with running Rte 76 every 15 minutes on weekday base service so it would make every meet and improve its connections crossing the grid of other lines. (Rte 76 crossed more RTD Director districts than any other bus route in the system so it was a win-win for good planning and good politics.) At the same time, with little comment, we expanded the span of 30-minute headways on parallel Rte 51 – Sheridan Crosstown into the evenings and on weekends and holidays. (That was the style of base service in Edmonton, where I had previously worked.)

        What happened? The outer ends of Rte 76, through classic suburban sprawl, did not respond to the improvement in any noticeable way. On the next service cutbacks the 15-minute headways were cut back to run between the two timed-transfer hubs. On the next cutback after that the route went back to 30-minute headways. In the meantime, Rte 51 unnoticed grew modestly. When service was reorganized for the W-Line and projected G-Line rail services the numbers led us to going to a 15-minute headway on Rte 51 and restoring the peak, short-turn 15-minute headways on Rte 76.

        What else happened? Complaints about transfers crossing the grid lines on Rte 76 increased when the service increased. The complaints decreased when the service went back to 30-minute headways.

        The experience with the outer ends of Rte 76 fit with a rule of thumb that seems to work: “the convenience of a headway is determined by the length in time of the customer’s trip.” A similar experience in suburbs of Boulder backed that up.

          • R. W. Rynerson

            Yes. We never have enough resources to do everything that people want so it’s a matter of recommending something likely to respond to the improvements. With each opening of rail or bus rapid transit the likely connecting route improvements change.

            Due to a common misunderstanding of this there is a folk belief that we were always cutting service. In Denver this predated construction of the rail lines. I concluded that it was because of the way that both media and the rumor mill work. The figures on operations are posted on the RTD website, so this evening I made a spreadsheet from 2010 through 2019. When rounded to even millions the total bus service hasn’t changed at all. The high was in 2017, with 3.27 million rubber-tired service hours. The low was in 2013 with 2.85 million. It has been redistributed and there are far fewer buses going into downtown Denver than when I started here in 1985.

      • Nathanael

        I’m reminded of the campaign in Boston to turn the Fairmount line from a poorly serviced peak-only line with few stations into a line with multiple stations and regular off-peak service. Counfounding factors but seems to have worked.

        For the negative example, Metra Electric in Chicago *used* to have high frequency rapid-transit-like service and now doesn’t, and has lost relative share of ridership as a result

  6. bahntemps

    Even in a smaller city like DC, it’s easy to find queer gamers (and I suspect that’s true in even smaller cities).

    It’s definitely been my experience, both in the US and in Asia, that queerness and board games go together like queerness and city planning.

    • Matthew Hutton

      Cities like Washington DC and Oxford and Cambridge in the UK are special 🙂

    • Herbert

      Germany is perhaps the country where board games are most prevalent. They are a stereotypic “family” activity. Of course that doesn’t preclude queer people from enjoying them, but that’s not the main demographic…

  7. wiesmann

    I live in Zürich, and if indeed most of our day to day shopping is done by foot / bicycle or short public transportation trips, it is quite common for us to make [relatively] longer trips for more exceptional shopping: clothing, books, etc. From where we live [Schwamendingen] it is roughly as fast by public transportation to get to downtown Winterthur (20km away) than to downtown Zürich (5km), so we often go to Winterthur. When we lived on the other side of town (Wollishofen), my wife used to take regional rail to go to her fitness in Horgen which is outwards, but again in terms of time, it was faster than going to clubs in the center.

    At least in Zürich this seems to be a relatively common pattern, with facilities (fitnesses and sport clubs, specialised shops) close to the railway stations on the regional train network, this allows them to cater to people from the city – who come by public transport – and people from the local area, who come by car – as car parking is possible.

  8. Herbert

    Trips that involve the consumption of alcohol anecdotally have high transit mode share even among people who are otherwise almost religiously car-addicted…

  9. Herbert

    Here’s a question: what is the value of rail extensions with very seasonal load factors? In Berlin that’d be one of the many suburban lakes which draw far more day trippers in summer than in winter. But I could conceivably see a similar effect for a rail line to the base station of a ski lift. Similarly sports stadiums virtually always have rail access in Germany, but only 17 times a year do the soccer stadiums justify such access. Now one might get some synergies by adding different sports at roughly the same site (Nuremberg has the handball/ice hockey arena near the soccer stadium) or stuff like convention centers, but still, the rail line will have a very peaky ridership pattern…

    • Alon Levy

      Where does Germany typically build football stadiums? Asking because Stade de France is close to the RER, and Olympiastadion is close to the preexisting S-Bahn.

      • Herbert

        Olympiastadion was built on a pre-existing site (of the Olympic Stadium for the 1916 games) in 1936… The most notable greenfield stadium construction of the 21st century in Germany would be Allianz Arena outside Munich, which was built near an existing subway stop whose purpose was initially to serve a P&R lot. Still, some people complain that it is not well connected…

      • Sascha Claus

        Diffcult to give a general overview, but when looking at existing stadiums (like Munich or Frankfurt Waldstadion), two things spring to mind:
        (1) Nowadays, traffic management belongs to the planning process and you don’t get away with building a new stadium without sufficient transportation.
        (2) New stadiums are usually sited in suburban locations (you need space) and close to autobahns (which are almost only found at the outskirts of cities). If rail transit is available in the city in question, a new (stub) line is built if not already in place.

    • Henry Miller

      Depends on local factors. If the ski lift is half way between a city and some village is could be that alone neither is worth serving, but a few hundred meters of extra rail (possibly a stub line) to make one line serve both could become worth it.

      Most sports stadiums are built in locations where there is already reason to run a line nearby. Thus you only need to justify building a station not the whole line.

    • Sascha Claus

      Serving a ski lift with a line (the concrete infrastructure) is easy, if there is some village nearby, like Holzhau or Altenberg (Erzg.)
      Problem is the capacity, because even if your single track line might be able to handle some additional, special trains (could be passing loops needed for goods trains otherwise), you still fitting need rolling stock that might not be available. Why buy trains that are only needed 17 times a year?
      (Sub-)Urban transit likely has its slow times when demand for recreational traffic is high, but might not be able to use the line. Getting a subway train to a stadium or ski jump with a dedicated subway line is easy; using it to go 50km out to a ski lift or a lake might be difficult.

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