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U.S. cities are building commuter rail, so where are the riders?

Posting in Cities

Last year, demand for public transportation was the second highest since 1957 as Americans took 10.5 billion trips. Every mode of transportation -- from buses to subways to light rail -- saw ridership increases last year. But there's one mode that lags behind the rest, despite cities increasingly investing in them.

Commuter rail -- which connects city centers with suburbs -- had the smallest growth of any transit system in the U.S. at 0.5 percent., with 10 out of 28 systems actually losing riders. And it's not like there isn't room to grow as it's the least used transit option behind only trolleys. Plus, as Governing's Tod Newcombe points out, cities are building new commuter rail with a number of new lines opening in the last 10 years. Even some of the newer systems -- like Albuquerque, Dallas, and Nashville are struggling to get riders. So what's the problem? Newcombe reports:

The biggest problem commuter rail faces is that its customer base lives in far-flung suburbs where cars are used for just about everything. “You are trying to attract people who are the least likely to use transit in the first place,” says Yonah Freemark, editor of The Transport Politic. Furthermore, service is mostly limited to a not-so-frequent hourly schedule and the final destination is often not the central business district. It all adds up, says Freemark, to a series of impediments to growth.

The key? More service.

Why would a suburbanite take the train into the city if it's only running hourly? When you have the option to drive to work -- as many who live in suburbs do -- it doesn't make sense to give up that flexibility, even if you have to sit in some traffic. So cities need to give those commuters even more options.

It seems as though cities are willing to make the initial investment in commuter rail, it's just not clear that they're making the same investment into making sure that commuter rail is successful. And if a city isn't going to (or can't) make that investment in having regular service, why build the train in the first place?

Commuter Rail Ridership Declining Despite Increase in Lines [Governing]

Photo: Flickr/tracktwentynine

— By on June 19, 2013, 6:36 AM PST

Tyler Falk

Contributing Editor

Tyler Falk freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was with Smart Growth America and Grist. He holds a degree from Goshen College. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure