How Many Riders Will SMART Really Have?

There has been a great deal of speculation about how SMART will reduce 101 congestion or greenhouse gas emissions. But these claims all pivot on the assumption that SMART will attain a certain number of riders. Previously the author has run figures and worked out that to breakeven on CO2 emissions SMART will need something north of 60 to 80 average riders.

But how many riders will SMART really get? Could this be realistic?

A Look at Other Hybrid Rail Ridership Numbers

2012 is the most recent national data available from the Federal Transit Administration; here is a table showing average train ridership for the four operators that reported “hybrid rail” data for that year.

Average Train Ridership

Average Train Ridership

The New Jersey “River Line”, opened in 2004. This line is 8 years into operation before it attained am average of  as many a 46.8  riders. This line connects Trenton and Camden, going down the East Side of the Delaware River.  There are connections to New York City (long commuter rail) and Philadelphia which is pretty much right across the River. While stations along the River Line do not directly serve a major business district, New Jersey is this most densely populated state in the nation. (i.e. far more dense than Marin, so it would be near impossible for SMART to hit a ridership of 46.8).

North San Diego County doesn’t go into the major city of San Diego, but it does serve the city center of Oceanside, population 172,000 – that’s over 3x the population of San Rafael, along with a number of other smaller cities and college campuses. It commenced operation in 1995 – 17 years before it attained a ridership of 41.2.

Portland’s WES service runs from Wilsonville to Beaverton, where you can get a connection to downtown Portland on MAX, Tri-Met’s light rail service. The line opened in 2009, so 3 years of operation before it hit a ridership of 28.5.

Portland’s WES seems to be the closest comparison to SMART with a ridership of 28.5. When the CO2 from SMART’s declared 1.1mpg is applied to a ridership of 28.5 SMART emits far more CO2 per passenger mile than cars.

Just 357 Daily Average Riders

To assume SMART attains 32.5 riders is highly optimistic given location in a rural/suburban location and lack of proximity or connectivity to major central business districts. But let’s assume SMART hits 32.5 riders. SMART will be running just 11 trains in each direction per day.

32.5 riders x 11 trains = 357 average daily riders

One then has to review how many of those riders are not simply displaced existing transit riders, how many actually were new riders who before had driven. If one analyzes all “new starts” – plans submitted to the FTA between financial year 2000 and financial year 2008 one can start to build a picture.

The weighted average is that 26.6% of SMART’s riders will be new riders (who previously drove). This translates to an average of just 96 average riders per day. Remember SMART so far has cost $427m, or $1.6 billion when bond interest is considered. That’s $16m per rider.

For less than half this amount the author will commit to signing a contract not to drive a car alone on 101 during rush hour in commute times.

How Much Does this Reduce 101 Traffic?

We’ve established that SMART will take 96 car occupants off 101. Assuming peak commute occupancy of 1.13 (US DoT figure) this translates to removing 85 cars.

Consider 101  at Freitas Parkway carries 15,300 cars per hour. Assuming peak commute lasts 3 hours this means there are 45,900 cars on 101 at this time.

So SMART will remove 85 / 45,900 cars. This translates to the almighty figure of 0.185%. That’s right, for a cost of $1.6 billion SMART will not have alleviated even 0.2% of the traffic on 101.

It would have been cheaper to simply ask regular 101 car commuters if they would promise not to drive on 101 during peak commute for 20 years by paying them up to $18m. I suspect we’d find quite a few takers even at a fraction of that amount.

What Does this Mean for Greenhouse Gases

This completely blows the lid on SMART’s claim that they reduce greenhouse gases. A 1.1 mpg diesel train carrying 32.5 people will emit far more than the equivalent number of people driving cars.