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Portland: Light Rail Ridership Skyrockets

Special Report by Light Rail Progress

© Light Rail Progress – August 2000

Portland's transit agency, Tri-Met, has reported that ridership on Portland's MAX light rail transit (LRT) system has now exceeded 70,000 rider-trips per day.

That is an increase of nearly 10,000 trips per day since Sept. 1999 – a monthly ridership gain of approximately 1,000 rides/day in 10 months. Let's analyze just part of the impact of that ridership gain.

Each month – over 300 more cars a day removed!

Let's assume that, of the 1,000 new daily riders, 75% had a car available which they could have used for the trip instead (that's the average for MAX, according to Tri-Met). That's an additional 750 more new trips a day diverted each month from Portland's crowded streets and freeways.

If we assume each trip was made in the same car (one way and back), that's 375 round trips. We will generously assume occupancy of 1.2 persons per car (generous, because peak work trip occupancy on roadways is about 1.1, and it's somewhat more likely that each transit rider would actually have driven alone - an occupancy of 1.0).

375 round trips / 1.2 persons/car = 312 more cars removed each month.

In other words, at the current rate of ridership increase, Portland's MAX LRT appears to be taking more than 300 additional cars a day each month off the street and freeway system – over and above what it's already removing in its base ridership (approximately 22,000 cars each weekday).

Additional savings of $15 million in 10 months

Let's analyze further the impact of removing those additional vehicles from downtown Portland. We will assume that only half of those trips (and cars) were going downtown. That's about 150 more cars removed, each month, from downtown Portland. Now, critics will complain that's a negligible impact – but let's see. Leaving aside the impacts on the freeway and street system, that means that, in 10 months, the MAX LRT service has therefore eliminated the need for 1500 additional parking spaces on expensive, central-city real estate - in addition to what it's already removed with its base ridership.

We'll ignore the implications in terms of tax benefits for the city. The capital cost of providing central-city parking spaces, assuming parking garage construction, is approximately $10,000 per space. in 10 months, therefore, the MAX LRT service has generated additional savings of about $15 million in averted central-city parking construction costs alone –over and above what it's already saved with its 1999 base ridership. (This is a very rough impact analysis – a more thorough analysis would annualize that cost.)

Critics will also argue that car trips could be averted if motorists just took the bus on existing streets and freeways. But the point is that, before MAX, people weren't taking the bus – in fact, they were gradually abandoning transit for their cars. The MAX LRT service has turned that around – it's now pulling passengers back onto both the rail and bus system.

Critics can disparage the impact of removing just a few hundred more cars a month. But, as this analysis indicates, it is significant.

Rev. 2001/07/14

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