Transit: If you build it wrong, they might not come

By Robbie Webber
Both the San Diego Mid-City BRT line and the DC-area Silver Line Metro are struggling with lower than expected ridership. Recent news coverage points out that both lines may suffer from poor implementation. The disappointing usage may hold lessons for other cities considering ambitious new transit services. Walkability in Tysons Corner, VA, and reliability in San Diego are hampering transit use.
San Diego’s route 215, which was envisioned in 2003 as a bus rapid transit line incorporating many of the elements in ITDP’s BRT Standard—dedicated lanes, signal prioritization, and off-board ticketing— has struggled to improve ridership since it opened in October 2014. El Cajon Boulevard, the road that forms part of route 215, was once a major thoroughfare.  But now many San Diegans rely on Interstate 8 for east-west travels, so there is significant unused width that could have been used to provide a dedicated lane for the BRT. However, businesses along El Cajon objected to loss of a car lane, even though the average daily traffic is only half the roadway capacity.
Mid-City Generic Map V2 8-15-14ai-01The oversized road also encourages speeding, making pedestrians nervous about crossing the road to reach transit stops. In addition, the traffic signal prioritization that would have allowed buses to request a longer green light has been plagued with problems, and the lack of off-board ticketing means loading has been slower than planned.
As a result of the lack of the originally planned BRT features, route 215 has struggled with reliability—one of the selling points of BRT—and ridership numbers haven’t been much higher than the old route 15 it replaced. Redevelopment along the corridor is continuing at a brisk pace, but without reliable transit, many developers are still building auto-oriented buildings with high parking ratios.
Across the country, the DC Metrorail Silver Line is reliable and fast, but at its one-year anniversary, ridership has been anemic. In a document shared internally with staff at the Transportation Planning Board at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, Metro admitted that more people could be boarding the Silver Line now, according to an internal study of jobs within a half-mile (considered walking distance) of the four new stations within Tysons Corner. Fewer than 8,000 riders per weekday use the four stations, but given current densities Metro planners determined ridership could be closer to 11,000 per day—or about 30 percent more.
The area it serves in Tysons Corner, VA, was built around the car, and Metro blames the lack of first and last mile connectivity—sidewalks, crosswalks, and bike lanes—for the lack of a robust ridership. Chris Lemberger, an urban development scholar at the Brookings Institution and George Washington University, calls it, “not just an edge city, but the edge city,” and the Washingtonian magazine called Tysons, “the most ambitious re-urbanization on Earth.”  Fairfax County adopted a 40-year plan to transform Tysons Corner from a sprawling suburban landscape of wide roads and parking lots into a walkable urban place, but the process will be slow.
But Tysons and the Silver Line suffer from another problem: the habits of the people who were already working and living there. “Remember, the people who have been working in Tysons have been coming here by car always. So to get them out of their car and onto public transit, we have to teach them it is far easier than they may imagine,” said Michael Caplin of the Tysons Partnership, a business and civic group.
Despite the current connectivity challenges, Tysons is already being transformed, and transit ridership gains are sure to follow as new residents and workers take to walking, biking, and transit. The Silver Line will serve as a fast and reliable connection between DC, already dense and job-rich Arlington, and eventually Dulles Airport. Certainly, riding the Silver Line, even with the last-mile issues in Tysons, will seem more attractive than fighting the notorious Northern Virginia traffic. And back in San Diego, where the area around the Mid-City Rapid line is already walkable, the ridership is climbing, and development will help the line. However, to maximize this mode shift, many potential riders will need to see improved speed and reliability before making the transit choice.
Robbie Webber is a Senior Associate at SSTI.