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Forget the bells and whistles, what transit riders want is good service

The Silver Line makes its way to Washington, passing another Metro train on a lower rail, March 11, 2015. (Photo by Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)
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Bells and whistles are nice, but what riders want from transit is just good, reliable service.

In other words, transit leaders, it’s all about the basics, a new report says. And getting those basics right.

“The frills are easy to implement,” said Steven Higashide, a senior program analyst with TransitCenter. “The things that really matter, frequency and improving speed are difficult to master.”

That’s because they often require trade-off, Higashide added. Dedicated bus lanes for example might mean fewer lanes for cars. Increasing frequency or changing routes may require money. Metro wanted to speed up boarding by eliminating the ability to reload SmarTrip cards on buses — but that put an extra burden on low income riders who would then have a hard time finding a place to add money to their cards so the plan was dropped.

Read the report “Who’s On Board 2016”

“Who’s On Board 2016: What Today’s Riders Teach Us About Transit That Works” comes from the TransitCenter. The New York-based research and advocacy group studies mobility and the report is an attempt to examine what it is that transit and policy leaders need to keep in mind as they manage, build and expand systems. And imagine this: It focuses on riders as a way to understand who uses transit and why.

As the study notes:

In 2015, transit ridership dipped slightly, thanks in part to plunging gasoline prices. Even so, the demographic and attitudinal shifts we identified two years ago, suggest that Americans are more open to transit than they have been in years past. But to take advantage of these shifts, transit decision makers must build useful transit.

To that end, it encourages transit agencies to focus on improving service in neighborhoods that are already considered walkable. Areas that have sidewalks and a critical mass of people offer the most potential for riders. The report’s authors cite the three-mile extension of the light-rail system in Seattle, which extended service into densely populated neighborhoods such as Capitol Hill and the University of Washington campus as an example. The result? Ridership jumped from 35,000 to 57,000. This is where agencies are likely to get the most bang for their buck.

By contrast, it notes the downside of building in areas that lack both population density and pedestrian infrastructure. The first phase of Metro’s  Silver Line, added five stations to the existing rail system, but they are in areas– Reston and Tysons– that are still primarily suburban car-orientated. Despite an initial burst of excitement, ridership at the new stations has been below projections– 17,000 in the first full year of service versus a projected 25,000. The Silver Line, the report says is an example of a place with “access to frequent, useful transit but compromised walkability.”

“Improving walkability is going to be a serious uphill climb,” Higashide said. “But it does appear that county officials are willing to make that climb.”

Is the Silver Line the cause of Metro’s woes?

It’s not all bad news. As the report’s authors and many of the project’s boosters have noted, Silver Line ridership should grow as more of Tysons’ anticipated high-density development and pedestrian improvements come online.

Policymakers also should be careful not to get carried away with technology. Sure, riders might appreciate sleek new buses or streetcars or features like USB charging ports and free Wifi — but again, it’s about the basics: good service to places they want to go. The report’s authors cite the popularity of streetcars which have popped up here in D.C. and in other cities including Atlanta, Dallas and Charlotte as an example of a policy misfire.

Many of the new streetcar projects offer a cautionary tale: Modern vehicles and an “image of comfort and charm” are not enough to overcome poor project design.

D.C.’s tortured quest to bring back the streetcar

That’s not to say all streetcar projects have failed. Tucson’s Sun Link has been successful in part because it was built with some dedicated right-of-way sections that allow it to move more quickly than traffic. The line’s service area also includes the University of Arizona, home to a critical mass of potential streetcar riders.

It’s possible that D.C.’s streetcar could still be improved, Higashide said. Carving out places where it could travel unencumbered by traffic could improve speeds and might make it a more viable option for users.

Higashide and his colleague Jake Anbinder, however, see potential in another D.C. area transit project — Maryland’s Purple Line, which would provide a east-west connection between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

“There’s a lot of potential for that line to make part of the transit network work better,” Higashide said. Even though it is not part of the Metro system,  “It could turn the Metro into less of a hub and spoke system into more of a connected transit network.”

For his part, Anbinder said there is always opportunity to make a community more transit friendly. He cites Arlington as an example of a suburb that re-imagined itself and is now considered a prime example of walkability and transit-oriented development.

The study is based on a survey of 3,000 people who ride transit in 17 regions, along with focus group discussions with riders in three cities — Raleigh, Denver and New York City.