Monday, July 30, 2012

Orange Line and the Airport Connection

The first three stations of the Irving section of the Orange Line opened today and unlike Belo Gardens, I don't need to wait for it to be open a while to discuss it. Sadly, due to family commitments during the Saturday celebration and opening day today, the wait for my critique, which will be similar to that of the Green Line, will have to wait a few more days.

However, prompted by a discussion on Unfair Park, I want to discuss the anticipations of the DFW Airport Station's impact on Orange Line ridership. I want to temper what I think are unrealistic expectations.

The first evidence I want to introduce is from other transit systems.

New York's MTA is a national transit leader, with a total ridership over eight million for its metro system and almost 1 million for its commuter rail network, according to the American Public Transportation Association. Airtrain is a separate line connecting the airport to the metro system. There are two transfer stations connecting this line to the rest of the system, Sutphin Boulevard-Archer Avenue-JFK Airport  Station and Howard Beach-JFK Airport Station. The first sees 17,500 daily riders and the second had less than 3,000 daily trips, though the link is from 2009. All told, the roughly 20,000 trips at the airport connection stations (these aren't necessarily airport bound) are only a fraction of a percent of system riders.

Note, that the New York link is to a New York Times multimedia map that shows average daily ridership for every station in the system in 2009. I'm going to make a point later and will use that as a reference point.

Chicago's L carries over 700,000 passenger trips on its heavy rails, and over 300,000 on it commuter system, Metra. The O'Hare Station has about 10,000 rides and the Midway Station sees about 9,000. That's less than two percent of system ridership.

Boston's MBTA, which carries over 500,000 trips on its metro system, almost 250,000 on its light rail system and roughly 130,000 on its commuter rail, sees only 7,000 from its airport connection. That's only .7% of total rail ridership. If we add the Silver Line's airport stop, which is technically an upgraded bus route, round up and don't include its ridership to the system's total, it still only accounts for only 1.1% of the system total.

San Francisco and Oakland's BART system opened an extension to San Francisco International Airport in 2003. Ridership for that four-station segment is 35,000, which includes a connection to the Caltrain commuter line. The station itself sees 5,400 boardings daily. Out of a 380,000 total passenger trips, the airport station accounts for just 1.4 percent of the system.

Even using a system more similar to Dallas doesn't yield any measurable increase in passengers by connecting the system to an airport.

Portland's Max light rail network has as many lines as Dallas, less miles but more stations. The average daily ridership sits right near 125,000. The airport station adds 2,600 to the system, or two percent.

Seattle doesn't publish individual station numbers for its Link light rail system. But the airport station opened in July 2009, with the airport station opening at the end of that year. For the first two quarters, the system didn't have an airport connection and the systems ridership was 14,500 and 18,200. After the airport station opened, ridership for the four quarters of 2010 was 19,500, 24,500, 26,600 and 24,700. Minus a brief up between the first and second quarter, the trend is consistent. As for the "big" increase, it isn't that noticeable compared to a typical station or line opening. Light rail lines will always trend up, even if no new stations are built. Anything around a 50 percent increase would indicate that airport station was different compared to other stations.

There isn't any airport connection in this country that adds a significant amount of riders to the regional rail system. And I am unaware of any system in the world that does, though I would cede I don't know them as well as I do America's.

There are several well established systems that do not have an airport connection. That in-and-of-itself may be proof that airports don't pump up ridership numbers.

So what does? Looking back at that New York map, the higher-ridden stations are those with the greatest density of jobs and residences. As I have said before, for a transit system to be successful, it needs to take people from where they are, to where they want to go in a convenient manner.

Airports and rail systems just aren't that convenient for most people. Passengers, unless they are light packers or on a day trip, just aren't likely to carry luggage from the terminal to the train. Add the fact that two-thirds of DFW Airport's passengers are transferring to another plane, it may not have as many passengers to send to any transportation system, despite the airport consistently being one of the busier airports in the country.

Workers are also unlikely to take the train, because even though there may be a large number of employees within its grounds, it is highly undense and spread out. So unless they work almost directly near the station, they will be highly unlikely to be train commuters.

In fact, I do believe the Orange Line will be the only terminus station that isn't the highest ridden of its own lines outlying stations. That will most likely be Belt Line Station, which isn't far from both the Bush Turnpike and Highway 114. It has all the makings off a highly used commuter station. And similar to what I discussed previously, this is a perfect location for a commuter station.

While these can be useful for the region, airport-to-rail transit doesn't have a huge amount of people using it. Maybe DFW and DART will be different, but I see no reason why it would.

DART is a little more optimistic. In it's Final Environmental Impact Statement for the DFW Station, they predict a daily ridership of 11,200 by 2030, of which 10,500 are airport bound. The others are transfers. I just don't see it. Maybe I am wrong, but I just don't see DART bucking the trend that every other American transit system follows.


IAROBOSS said...

You're saying that an airport station doesn't add many riders to a rail system, right?
Depends on the system.
For Heathrow Express and CAT Vienna, it's virtually 100%!
So the answer to your comment is that, 'It depends on the service'.
Another way is to invert the statistic - what percentage of airport users use the local transit system? Again, same answer, depends on the system. 51%, for London City Airport!

AlexB said...

The strength of airport connections is the ability to connect many transportation modes in one place, reduce the need for expensive cab trips to and from the airport, and provide a reliable way to plan your trip to the airport without worrying about traffic delays. If you thought comments by boosters of these stations meant that all of a sudden system ridership will increase by tens of thousands of people, you misinterpreted them. That being said, DFW is a huge airport and the DART is a relatively low ridership system. Even if the eventual ridership is only 5,000, that will increase overall ridership on the DART by more than 5%, a good number for any transit system. A subway station in New York that got less than 5,000 riders a day would be considered a low performing station. In Dallas, I'd guess it would be among the most used. If station ridership does get closer to the projected 11,000, it would be a very big deal for the system.

Branden said...

IAROBOSS, how can it be 100%? That would mean that every station funnels their passengers to the airport station(s). Highly unlikely. In the U.S., according to USA Today,, 2-5% of American airport riders get their by rail, whereas 20-30% of Europeans do. That means even in a culture where transit is much more mainstream in everyday use, people are not using it in high numbers. I highly doubt these systems are seeing even just 51% of all riders use the airport connections.

AlexB, I get multimodal, but in the end, the number one mark of success or failure of any transit system is ridership. If people don't use it, nothing else matters. In American systems with an airport connection, it is not even close. These make for great press releases and political accomplishements, but in everyday use, aren't even close to the most important pieces of a rail system.

IAROBOSS said...

How can it be 100%? Simple - both these systems only run non-stop trains between city centre and airport! And, incidentally, CAT is owned 50.1% by Vienna International Airport (and the rest by Austrian State Railways): Heathrow Express is 100% owned by Heathrow Airport Limited.
And London City Airport - it's on the Docklands Light Railway (DLR): the published figure I can find on their Travel Plan is 49% of air passengers using it (see page 16 of

Branden said...

Then it isn't on par with a transit system. Two stations do not make it a system. That would be like saying the airtrain system in New York carries 100% of the system riders, when in reality, it carries only a fraction of a percent of total system riders.

Faramir said...

Branden, it's easy to get confused with percentages. You point out that only a fraction of a percent of MTA's total ridership goes to JFK, but that fraction is 20,000 people daily. To handle that many people in taxis or even buses would cause significant congestion at the airport.

My closest airport in Detroit Metro (DTW), which has discouraged public transportation for decades, preferring to have people drive and pay high prices to park in airport-owned parking decks. The resulting traffic is more chaotic than at any other airport I've passed through.

Transit is not at all inconvenient to airport workers, because although airports are physically large, their work sites are actually fairly compact (terminal buildings and hangars). And recall that all employees must pass through a limited number of security screening posts. Every large airport I've been to has some form of employee buses to get them from parking to security, and security to work site. Even if it's only a few thousand people, it makes a significant difference in the amount of parking the airport has to provide for employees. For the employees, it makes commuting much more affordable.

That being said, I have a question for you: since TRE has a stop near DFW with shuttle service, how does DART justify the Orange Line as also being needed...?

Branden said...

Faramir, I put percentages in their because they are fairly consistent in America across every transit system. New York's percentage is similar to San Francisco's who has a similar percentage to Portland who is similar to Boston. It seems in America, regardless of size, a similar amount of people relative to the system itself will ride trains to the airport.

I'm not sure how other airports station are setup directly, but DFW is a sprawling airport. Therefore, riding the train will not be convenient. At DFW, the station will be surrounded by two of the five terminals. So anyone who works at a hangar will have to go through security and go through a terminal to get there, which will be hugely time-consuming, especially when you consider the slowness of the Orange Line heading into Irving.

If someone works at another terminal, they will have to get off the train, go through security, get on the airports people mover and then get where they need to go, another daunting task. I just don't see a huge amount of workers flocking to this mode.

As for the TRE, at Centrepoint Station, passengers have to catch a shuttle to a remote lot, then another to their terminal. It takes two transfers. Odd thing is that maybe the case for some folks using the Orange Line, thanks to the sprawled nature of DFW.

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