Stadiums, Airports, and Transit

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.

16 thoughts on “Stadiums, Airports, and Transit

  1. Kenny Easwaran

    Can you explain a bit about why buses are better for travel demand that is concentrated in time and direction? I would have thought that this sort of demand puts a greater premium on people per square foot of right-of-way than diffuse demand, and that would seem to call for rail rather than bus. The one countervailing force I can think of is that it’s relatively easy to have a busway that serves the high demand time and direction, but is open to car traffic at other times, while a railway is difficult to re-purpose.

    The other thought I’ve had about this issue is that a substantial number of people who are traveling to an airport have luggage. One of the things that cars (both private and taxi) do better than all forms of public transportation is that they allow you to carry a lot more physical objects along with you. For ordinary daily travel that’s a hassle, because it means you need somewhere to store the car, but for airport travel (and certain types of shopping trips, especially for large household goods) it’s a major advantage.

    One last thought – there seems to be growing demand for some general sort of “services” trip. Do you want to count restaurants, bars, gyms, yoga studios, etc. as “shopping” destinations? It seems to me that there are some important differences between these trips and other shopping trips, but perhaps those differences are smaller than the differences between shopping trips and (on the one hand) special event travel or (on the other hand) home/work/school travel.

    1. letsgola Post author

      To clarify, it’s not just the concentration in time and direction, but the sporadic nature of the demand. Demand for travel to Grand Central in NYC is pretty concentrated in time and very directionally biased (though obviously not as much as stadium demand), but it happens every day, and there’s still a lot of demand outside peak periods.

      If we take Dodger Stadium, for example, there’s a ton of travel demand for a few hours on 81 days (or hopefully a few more!) every year, and basically zero demand the other 284 days. It doesn’t make sense to invest in the high capital costs of rail if it’s not going to be used all the time. If the stadium happens to be on the way, like Staples Center on Blue/Expo Lines, that’s great and you can run extras, but you may find your everyday riders get annoyed that event attendees are taking up all their capacity. (When I lived in Boston, a general rule was that you didn’t go anywhere near the Green Line if you could avoid it when the Red Sox were playing.) With buses, as you note, you can do all kinds of temporary infrastructure – for example, LA should really think about doing game-day bus only lanes between Union Station and Dodger Stadium. In short, high capacity is the natural advantage of rail, and flexibility is the natural advantage of buses. IMHO, rail investment should be saved for corridors where high capacity is warranted all the time, and buses should be used for flexible service for events.

      I’m counting everything like bars, restaurants, etc as “shopping”, more or less.

      1. Kenny Easwaran

        That makes sense. Also, didn’t they just put in game day bus lanes from Union Station to Dodgers Stadium? The new peak hour bus lanes along Cesar Chavez, and Sunset, have the “LA” logo on them, and seem to be intended for this purpose.

  2. Rob Durchola

    On Airports: For large airports, such as LAX, the transportation network focus needs to be on the employee transportation needs. LAX employs huge numbers of people with a variety of shifts 24/7. Providing a solid transit network to get these employees to their numerous on-airport job sites is important. If travelers can benefit from this transit network (bus and rail), that is a plus.

    On stadiums: In theory, buses traveling to/from stadiums should be more beneficial than rail transit. But even buses have problems:

    1. FTA regulations are restrictive in how public transit networks can establish special event bus services. This alone can snuff out bus networks.

    2. For bus service to be effective, one would need a variety of collection points along the various bus routes (generally park-rides) in order to offer more than a single bus trip to/from the event in each corridor.

    3. If the event is on a weekday, the transit system may not have either the buses or the manpower to operate an extensive network of event services.

    4. If the event is on a weekend, the transit system will have the buses; but either will not have operators willing to work overtime or enough operators who would not exceed FTA hours of service rules and still be able to provide the regular weekday service levels.

    5. Buses can get stuck in event traffic unless there are special lanes or other forms of preferential treatment.

    Ideally, all major event locations should be located along an existing or planned rail/light rail transit route (ideally not at an end point) where additional trains can be added on nights/weekends at a lower labor cost exposure. This can then be supplemented with additional bus service, also on existing routes near the facility. (Thus, Staples Center – Good; Dodgers Stadium – bad.)

    Light rail/heavy rail should not be built exclusively to serve a major event location; though it has been done for political reasons. (Example: Met Life Stadium in the New Jersey Meadowlands.)

      1. Rob Durchola

        For bus service only (does not apply to rail) – Let’s assume an event site/promoter/sports team (the asker) wants to encourage public transit usage to their venue. They look at their ticketholder data base and develop a series of special event routes. They approach the public transit agency and ask the public transit agency to offer special event service on these routes.

        If the transit agency says they have not budgeted for the service and the asker offers to pay for the service in some fashion to cover whatever fares do not cover (including fares at a special event rate that might be higher or lower than regular fares), the transit agency cannot offer the service UNLESS the right to operate the service is offered to all charter bus operators in the jurisdiction and the charter bus operators pass on the offer. In other words, the FTA considers such service more like a charter and public agencies receiving federal funding cannot operate charters (with some very small exceptions mainly related to very small agencies where there may not be charter operators based in the area).

        If the transit agency simply operates the unique event service with no subsidy from the asker, it is probably legal; especially if regular fares (established fares including premium express bus fares, if they exist and are appropriate) are charged. But, if special premium fares unique to the special event or venue are charged, the service is open to challenge from private charter operators.

        There are a number of interesting points here. The rule also applies to school service. The local transit agency cannot operate a unique route specifically for school children. That is a charter. The agency can operate extra service at school opening and closing times based on demand and they can operate unique routes or branches of regular routes on school days provided the trips are open to the public at large and there is a public timetable that makes the service known to all.

        In the same fashion, extra service can be offered on existing routes to serve events along the route. This service may be at times the route normally does not operate (such as at 11 PM or on a Sunday); so long as there is public notification of the service and the service is open to all along the route (not only event attendees).

        There is an interesting question of equity here. Most transit agencies are perpetually short of operating funds. If an agency is devoting a part of its budget to special event services that do not recoup their costs, is this a fair usage of those funds? And it is not a black and white issue. For example, extra service at school times limits overcrowding and bypassing of non-students traveling at the same time and also encourages students to use transit; but should the educational facility pay for the service? Extra service to accommodate mall expanded hours during holiday periods is a major benefit to mall employees who use transit and have to work during those extended hours. Otherwise, those employees might not be able to hold onto their jobs. But should the mall pay? And extra service to special events exposes people to the benefits of transit who might then try it for more mundane trips. (It is legal for a non-public source to help pay for regular route service; so long as the service is open to all along the entire route.)

      2. letsgola Post author

        Thanks for the detailed explanation. The equity issue is definitely real, and in that light, spending capital & operating funds on a line that exclusively serves a stadium doesn’t make sense either. Jarrett Walker has written about school service funding and operational challenges as well. In a sense, service for public schools is just a matter of accounting, since the government is paying for it either way. For special event service, I think it would be reasonable to charge a fare high enough to cover operating costs, and if private operators want to bid on the service and run some of it, so be it. For many cities, the fare would still be less than the cost of parking at the stadium.

    1. Zmapper

      Until last year when the West line opened, the C/E branch of the RTD Denver LRT network was primarily for special events. Sure, it ended at Union Station, which gave it some regular ridership, but the main advantage of the C/E lines was the stops at Mile High Stadium (football), the Pepsi Center (basketball, hockey, concerts), and Coors Field (baseball). As expected, when annualized the “special events” stops were dead last in ridership, but the cheap cost of the branch, combined with the high usage on event days gave the branch value in mitigating event traffic.

  3. calwatch

    We had this discussion over on the Harbor Subdivision bike lane thread on Streetsblog. The agitators who want the direct LAX-LA Union Station route are nuts if they think spending hundreds of millions of dollars on upgrading 20 mph track to 79 mph to run trains to somewhere near the airport (no closer than what the Crenshaw line would give us) is a good idea. The example is the SEPTA Airport Line, which does quite poorly (7,000 boardings a day) despite excellent connections to all of the extensive Regional Rail system.

    The one benefit of rail stations at stadiums is their giant parking lots used as park and rides. When Qualcomm Stadium was at the end of the line for the San Diego Trolley, it would get decent usage for that purpose, although the route towards downtown was cumbersome.

    1. letsgola Post author

      And in the case of SEPTA, downtown Philadelphia is a pretty significant destination unto itself, where as LA Union Station is a major transfer point more than anything else. Airport transit is just one of those things that aren’t as important as they seem at first look.

  4. Pingback: LAX Transit Intro | Let's Go LA

  5. Eric

    I want to disagree somewhat about your assessment of stadiums. I don’t see a stadium that has events 250 days a year as much different from a business district where people work 250 days a year. Both attract people who make one trip per day (what do we care if the trip lasts 3 hours or 9?) at highly peaked hours. And the absolute number of people traveling, tens of thousands, is enough to justify rail. Of course, I’m assuming the stadium is used on a majority of the days of the year. If you’re talking about an NFL stadium which is only used 8 days a year, then you’re correct, there’s no way it deserves a rail line.

    1. letsgola Post author

      The Staples Center is probably pretty close to what you’re describing. At a minimum, it hosts about 130 pro sports events every year. Throw in concerts and things like that, and you’re in range.

      1. Alex Brideau III

        Also, the Staples Center served as the catalyst for LA Live and subsequent adjacent developments. I guess what will be key is whether the same effect will be seen with Rams Stadium and the announced mixed-use development that will be constructed with it.

        That said, on the subject of shuttle buses, I’ve found that the Dodger Stadium Express has been relatively effective now that it not only uses dedicated lanes on game days, but that those lanes are pretty strictly enforced (compared to regular rush hour bus lanes). The fact that the shuttle is included in one’s game ticket also helps immensely as putting a charge on the service would probably drive a number of riders back to their cars (since “free” and “faster” are the two main selling points of the service).

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