A few things in the news lately have me thinking about the relation of transit and special generators, by which I mean all the things in a city that have unusual demand patterns: sports stadiums, concert halls, airports, and so on. It’s all the stuff in a city that you rarely use, as opposed to the things you use daily: homes, schools, employment, retail, etc.
The stories I have in mind are the continued talk about a “direct” rail connection to LAX, and a story that Yonah Freemark tweeted a link to this morning, that only 17% of DC Metrorail trips are non-work trips.
Of course, every city has its own idiosyncrasies, but I doubt that figure varies much among cities. Overwhelmingly, people use transit to go about the normal business of their lives: going to work, school, home, or shopping. That means that more than anything, transit should be designed to serve work, school, home, and shopping trips.
Where does that leave things like airports and stadiums? They should be relatively minor concerns for a transit network. If an airport or stadium happens to be on the way, that’s great, but transit lines shouldn’t be built with an airport or stadium as the primary destination.
Stadiums, in particular, are terrible destinations for transit lines. The Staples Center – a major stadium in a major city serving three major league sports teams – hosts about 250 events a year, which is only a few more than the number of work trips someone with full-time employment makes in a year. Most stadiums serve one sports team and host far fewer events. On a day that there’s no event, there’s no return on the investment in transit infrastructure.
Worse, even when stadiums do host events, the stadium travel demand pattern is terrible for fixed-guideway transit. Home and work trips are distributed through space and time – especially in a polycentric city like LA where the peak direction on some freeways is away from downtown in the morning and towards downtown in the afternoon. But at a stadium, everyone wants to go to the stadium within a few hours before the game, and everyone wants to leave the stadium within an hour or so after the game. The demand is highly concentrated in time, and it’s 100% directionally biased – pretty much the opposite of what you want for rail transit. We have another method of public transit much better suited to this type of demand: buses.
As for airports, how many times a year do you fly? Compare that to how many times you go to work, and that’s an idea of the relative importance of airport transit. Airports are major employment centers, but in the discussions about bringing rail to LAX, that seems to be an afterthought. In terms of convenience, I don’t see how any LAX rail connection will ever beat increased FlyAway service, which offers you a one seat ride right to your terminal. There is a logical front-door stop for LAX rail: a Sepulveda/Century stop on a future line that roughly parallels the 405. I’ll have much more to say about such a line in the near future.