Serving a “rainbow” ridership — How urban rail excels in attracting ethnically and socio-economically diverse ridership


Chart from paper shows overwhelming role of rail transit in contributing to growth of public transportation passenger-mileage.

Chart from paper shows overwhelming role of rail transit in contributing to growth of public transportation passenger-mileage.

by Lyndon Henry

A very curious argument is occasionally brought to bear against urban rail plans and projects — the claim that rail transit somehow has a class and ethnic bias favoring relatively affluent ethnically white segments of the population. This is particularly curious because, in a given city, the rail opponents that promulgate this contention — often trying to stoke public discontent or voter rejection of a ballot measure — will raise this fear among less affluent and predominantly minority neighborhoods, with a high percentage of residents more dependent on good transit service (which rail excels in providing). But then the same opponents will go to the opposite side of town and raise totally opposite fears among relatively more affluent ethnically white neighborhoods — urban rail will bring “those people” (supposedly, low-income minorities) into your neighborhood!

It’s ugly, it’s contradictory, but it does seem to work for rail opponents … up to a point.

Taking the “class/ethnic bias” attack on urban rail head on, back in July 2006 I presented a paper on this very issue to the 2006 National Meeting of the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials (COMTO), held that year in Austin, Texas (where I was then a data analyst for Capital Metro, the transit authority). I coined the term “rainbow ridership” to express the concept of ethnic and income diversity in transit ridership:

Serving a “Rainbow” Ridership — Designing and Providing High-Quality Public Transit for a Demographically Diverse Population

At the conference session, I also presented a PPT summarizing the paper.

The specific research question addressed in the paper is fairly simple:

Transit services, and major new transit system investments, such as rail transit, are typically aimed to fulfill several important types of travel needs. Two of the most pre-eminent of these needs are:

(1) Providing a basic, affordable service for transit-dependent travelers, many of whom are lower-income, or mobility-impaired because of handicaps, age, or other factors;

(2) Providing a high-quality service fashioned to attract more affluent urban and suburban travelers out of their motor vehicles, thus helping to alleviate dependency on private motor vehicle transportation and to reduce demand for peak roadway and parking capacity.

These differences reflect the contrasting needs of the demographically diverse population mix typical of North American urban areas today. But how well are these somewhat disparate needs being fulfilled?

Discussing several examples of how the “rail favors affluent whites” argument is wielded to try to stymie urban rail development plans and projects, the paper notes that

The portrayal of some kind of class and ethnic differentiation among transit modes — bus for the poor and nonwhite, rail for the rich and white — is highly dubious and certainly unsupported by evidence. The decision to install a higher-quality mode such as rail transit – or a busway, for that matter — is motivated by factors such as the desire to improve services for the riding public, to ameliorate environmental impacts, to facilitate greater efficiencies in transit operation, and to reduce the unit cost of transit service. Overwhelmingly, these goals are being achieved, and these benefits are being brought to very broad range of existing transit users as well as new riders attracted to the improved service.

In reality, rail systems appear to attract a far more diverse ridership, particularly with respect to ethnic background and income level, than do typical bus services. Inevitably, this implies that, for a given rail service in a specific corridor, a proportionately higher number of white/anglo and more affluent passengers will be attracted – even if the number of nonwhite, lower-income, and transit-dependent riders is equal to, or greater than, what would otherwise by carried by bus operations in the corridor.

For supporting evidence, the paper draws upon fact-based articles from the Light Rail Now website:

Light Rail and Lower-Income Transit Riders

Does Light Rail “Rob” Bus Service, or Make It Prosper? You Decide!

My paper also supports its thesis with summaries and discussions of a number of cases studies of ridership characteristics in operating rail transit systems: Los Angeles, San Diego, Denver, St. Louis, Minneapolis, and San Francisco.

Here are excerpts from some of the PPT slides presenting summaries of statistical data:


"Math exercise" challenges claim rail transit has class/ethnic bias, based on demographic percentage. Since rail attracts more, and more diverse, ridership, average income rises, but so does lower-income and minority ridership!

“Math exercise” challenges claim rail transit has class/ethnic bias, based on demographic percentage. Since rail attracts more, and more diverse, ridership, average income rises, but so does lower-income and minority ridership!


Los Angeles — Rail ridership (upper left) is 84% minority, bus ridership (lower right) is 88% minority.

Los Angeles — Rail ridership (upper left) is 84% minority, bus ridership (lower right) is 88% minority.


St. Louis is one example for which study data was available. Metrolink light rail transit system has attracted a more diverse ridership than bus system.

St. Louis is one example for which study data was available. Metrolink light rail transit system has attracted a more diverse ridership than bus system.


Summary of some study data supporting ethnic diversity on Metrorail system.

Summary of some study data supporting ethnic diversity on Metrorail system.


Minneapolis's Hiawatha light rail system also provided case study with data supporting rail ridership ethnic and income diversity.

Minneapolis’s Hiawatha light rail system also provided case study with data supporting rail ridership ethnic and income diversity.


Summary of some study data supporting income/ethnic diversity on Hiawatha LRT system.

Summary of some study data supporting income/ethnic diversity on Hiawatha LRT system.


From this evidence, the paper concludes:

High-quality transit services, especially rail systems, have demonstrated a marked propensity to attract middle- and higher-income ridership – the very people who would otherwise make up the majority of automobile users, clogging freeways and streets and contributing to an increased need for expansive roadway expansion and construction of parking facilities. In particular, the evidence suggests that higher-quality transit operations — particularly rail transit – tend to effectively serve two somewhat disparate transit passenger markets with two different types of service needs: (1) a basic, affordable service for transit-dependent travelers, including many lower-income, and (2) a high-quality service capable of attracting more affluent urban and suburban travelers out of their motor vehicles, thus helping to alleviate dependency on private motor vehicle transportation and to reduce demand for peak roadway and parking capacity. Overall, evidence suggests that high-quality transit service improvements tend to meet the needs of both categories of travelers with considerable success.

Thus, the research reported in this paper suggests that these types of higher-quality transit service actually produce a far more diverse ridership than is experienced with typical bus services alone. In effect, far from promoting inequity, the evidence suggests that these kinds of transit services foster a “rainbow ridership”, promoting passenger diversity within the nation’s transit systems.

The main takeaway from the paper can probably be boiled down to this: Rail transit tends to attract significantly more riders than buses, and from a much wider diversity of income levels and ethnic backgrounds. Be sure to read the complete paper to become fully informed on this critical issue.

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New light rail projects in study beat BRT


Phoenix light rail transit (LRT, left); Los Angeles Orange Line "bus rapid transit" (BRT, right). Photos: L. Henry.

Phoenix light rail transit (LRT, left); Los Angeles Orange Line “bus rapid transit” (BRT, right). Photos: L. Henry.

by Lyndon Henry

New light rail transit (LRT) projects came out ahead of new bus rapid transit (BRT) projects that were included in a research study I presented last November (2012) to the 12th National Light Rail Transit Conference in Salt Lake City, sponsored by the Transportation Research Board (TRB) and American Public Transportation Association (APTA). Dave Dobbs, a longtime colleague, helped me conduct the study.

In part, this research was a response to the assertions of critics of rail transit who maintain a constant barrage of attacks on rail, trying to convince the public at large and decisionmakers that public transit (especially rail) is just a waste of money … and that, if you must install something fancy, so-called “BRT” is invariably cheaper and better (or “Just like light rail, but cheaper…”). However, these attacks rarely appear in independent professional forums like this one, co-sponsored by the TRB (an affiliate of the National Academy of Sciences).

All papers accepted by the TRB for publication/presentation — including this work, titled Comparative examination of New Start light rail transit, light railway, and bus rapid transit services opened from 2000 — must undergo a rigorous peer-review process critically examining their methodology and conclusions.

My PowerPoint presentation to the conference has been placed online by the TRB and can be found here:

http://onlinepubs.trb.org/onlinepubs/conferences/2012/LRT/LHenry.pdf

In addition, I discussed the study — both the methodology and the results — in several articles published in my online blog column at Railway Age:

Research study: New LRT projects beat BRT [26 November 2012]

Research: BRT can truly be pricier than LRT [14 January 2013]

Study: LRT ridership gains are spectacular [18 February 2013]

Here are some summary results, excerpted from the Railway Age articles:

How well did LRT and BRT final costs compare with budget estimates? LRT again did better, exceeding budget by only 2% on average, while BRT averaged 35% above budget.

In terms of capital cost, for “substantial” installations (5% or more of route length involving heavy civil works), LRT was a clear winner, with an average cost per mile of $80 million, less than a fifth of BRT’s average of nearly $452 million. (All costs in 2012 dollars.)

Where electric LRT really excelled was in achieving ridership goals. On average, LRT projects seemed to meet their ridership targets at about twice the rate of the BRT projects, using the “ridership achievement index” we developed for the study (which accounted for the pace at which projected ridership was being achieved).

It should be noted that some BRT projects didn’t do so badly — Cleveland’s “HealthLine” project (Euclid Avenue) was achieving its target at a 60% faster pace than expected, while Los Angeles’s Orange Line busway was reaching its ridership at nearly 3 times the projected rate.

But some of the LRT results were really spectacular. St. Louis’s St. Clair Extension of Metrolink, for example, was racing towards its ridership goals at over 7 times the predicted rate; Minneapolis’s Hiawatha line at six times; and Denver’s Southwest LRT at more than 6 times. (It should be noted that 3 out of the 20 LRT projects studied were failing to meet projected growth rate targets; nevertheless, the overall LRT average still exceeded BRT’s.

There’s a lot more, both in the PowerPoint presentation, and in the full Railway Age articles.

Los Angeles — Downtown streetcar project gets 30 years of O&M funding


la-lrt-stc-sim-trf_Wilder-Utopia
Simulation of proposed streetcar in downtown LA [Source: Wilder Utopia blog].

Los Angeles, California — In a victory for supporters of a proposed electric streetcar line in downtown LA, who have campaigned for years, on March 6th the Los Angeles City Council okayed up to $352 million to cover the streetcar’s operating and maintenance (O&M) costs for three decades. Operation would be covered for 18 hours a day, seven days a week.

A March 6th story in the Los Angeles Times cited officials’ explanation that “The money will come from Measure R, the 2008 ballot measure that added a half-cent sales tax to fund county transportation projects….”

Linking the Civic Center to the Convention Center, according to the Times, the 3.5-mile loop “would run primarily along three of downtown’s main arteries — Broadway, Hill and Figueroa streets — and connect various neighborhoods, including the old banking district, South Park, Civic Center and the fashion district.” The proposed route stretches 10 blocks along Broadway before it veers over to L.A. Live and then runs through the financial district. Other streets it would run on, in addition to Broadway, include 11th, Figueroa, 7th and Hill.

la-lrt-stc-map-proposed-2012_streetcar-dot-la
[Map source: Streetcar.la]

Investment cost of the streetcar project is estimated $125 million. This past December (2012), approximately 70% of voters approved creating a tax assessment district to finance the local share of the project capital investment, and federal funds are being sought to finance $75 million of the total. The line is currently projected to open in 2016.

Councilman Jose Huizar, who sponsored the motion to approve the O&M funding, issued a statement that declared: “We are rapidly moving from a city that focuses on how many cars we can move to one that asks how many people we can move, and what are the best ways to do that.”

As the March 6th LA Times report further noted,

Supporters have emphasized the trolley’s potential to create economic growth in downtown, particularly along Broadway, where the city is working to revive old theaters and other historic buildings. Studies commissioned by the city have estimated that the streetcar could create 9,000 jobs over 25 years.

A December 4th LA Times story emphasized the strong popular support for the streetcar, perceived as a “missing transportation link”. The paper quoted downtown developer Scott Denham, vice president of Evoq Properties:

If you’re in New York, or San Francisco or Portland, you forget about your car. You walk, you take public transportation, and you get a much richer experience. The whole concept of being in L.A. and not having to drive to have a whole Saturday or Sunday to experience downtown … It’s really not that far off in reality.