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How do the More MARTA projects stack up?

Ridership forecasts are an important means of comparing different planned transit services. Forecasts are most useful when used to compare projects against one another, rather than evaluating than merit of a standalone project, as they give analysts and decision-makers an idea of where transit is more likely to be used or needed.

The forecasts in the More MARTA analysis were derived from the Atlanta Regional Commission’s (ARC) activity-based model and NEPA studies. Activity-based models predict where and when people commute to work, go out for dinner, or take trips for errands and other activities. This method of modeling is state-of-the-art in terms of transportation planning, predicated on how people actually move around rather than simply matching residences and job centers. And as activity-based models go, ARC’s is excellent.


First, some context before I jump into the ridership forecasts. MARTA serves about 380,800 on an average weekday. About 54% (206,100) are using heavy rail, 45% are using the bus system (172,300), and the remaining 1% are using Demand-Response services. About The streetcar on the other hand, serves about 800 people each day. All these stats are available from APTA here: https://www.apta.com/resources/statistics/Documents/Ridership/2018-Q1-Ridership-APTA.pdf. Most transit agencies, including MARTA, do not release data on ridership for specific routes. But, the More MARTA technical analysis does note boardings at specific stations. Five Points is the most popular station to board at, with about 12,000 daily trips. Most other heavy rail stations are in the 2,000-3,000 range. Note that these are unlinked passenger trips.


According to the More MARTA analysis, the proposed transit projects will account for 138,160 passenger trips each day. The forecasts for each project were split into one of 4 categories based on estimated ridership:

· 0-5,000 trips

· 5,000-10,000 trips

· 10,000-20,000 trips

· 20,000+ trips

Overall, three projects account for close to 60% of these trips: Clifton Corridor, Peachtree Arterial Rapid Transit, and Metropolitan Arterial Rapid Transit. The Clifton Corridor and Peachtree ART were the only 2 projects in the highest category. I'll detail these projects as well as BeltLine rail and Campbellton Road below.


Taking a look at the analysis, there are three long-overdue projects: Peachtree and Metropolitan Parkway ART, and network level bus service improvements. MARTA’s analysis places Peachtree into the highest category with 20,000+ riders, and Metropolitan Parkway project in the second highest tier with 10,000-20,000 riders. The system-wide frequency improvements are forecasted to result in 14,700 trips. It is unclear if these are additional trips related to the improvements, or total trips on improved routes.


The forecasted ridership numbers suggest that there is very high demand for transit in these areas. It’s difficult to overstate how large those projections are. New York City has the highest bus ridership of any city in America, and most bus routes there have fewer than 20,000 riders. Frankly, it’s unlikely that these buses would transport 20,000+ people per day in mixed traffic, but MARTA’s forecasts suggest that these areas are in dire need of better transit service.


I have concerns that ridership on these routes will be hampered by the lack of dedicated lanes. If you have to sit in the same traffic as other cars, the utility of taking transit rapidly decreases, regardless of how many buses are arriving. For Metropolitan Parkway, this is less of an issue. There is a proposed BRT route on Metropolitan and Northside Drive, which will overlap with the Metropolitan Parkway ART for most of the route. If we are serious about serving Atlantans on this corridor, space must be set aside to allow buses to run on-time at regular and consistent intervals.


Peachtree on the other hand, is not slated for a higher capacity service. The neighborhoods adjacent to Peachtree could not stomach space for bicycles, and City Councilor Howard Shook thus requested that Peachtree be taken off the Streetcar System Plan as a result. Unfortunately buses on this route will be stuck in traffic and not nearly as useful as they could or should be.


The proposed rail projects are the topic of intense debate and public interest. Considering the cost of these projects and the likelihood that they will shape Atlanta over the next several decades, this should come as no surprise. I’ll treat the rail projects as 3 separate entities: Clifton Corridor, BeltLine Loop projects, and Campbellton Road.

BeltLine Loop


The More MARTA analysis forecasts that there will be 14,500 daily riders on the full BeltLine, and that those riders will be split evenly between each quadrant. This assumption is almost certainly incorrect. The beauty of the BeltLine, is that every segment of it is different and unique in it’s own right. Transit ridership will reflect the land use, population, demographics, and culture of the adjacent neighborhoods. It is disappointing that there are no comprehensive forecasts for the BeltLine.


I did a lot of digging to find ridership estimates on the BeltLine. Atlanta BeltLine Inc. has a plethora of information related to the planning and design of transit in the corridor, but no forecasts. I searched extensively for an estimate of the number of riders on the BeltLine Loop, including the Tier 1 NEPA report, but was unsuccessful.


The Atlanta Streetcar System Plan does include estimates for different segments of the BeltLine Loop (In Technical Memorandum 3: Ridership Modeling Methodology and Results). However, those estimates are only for BeltLine transit integrated into a larger streetcar system within the City of Atlanta, and do not consider BeltLine segments alone. For what it’s worth, the Downtown East extension of the streetcar to Ponce City Market is included, and suggests that ridership will be about 5,520 riders per day. That’s pretty good, and would bump that project up from the lowest tier to the next highest.


All that being said, More MARTA’s BeltLine rail forecasts are likely coming from an existing source (ideally a run of the ARC Activity-Based Model). Taking the MARTA estimates at face value, the NE and SW segments are projected to have about 3,625 trips per day, respectively. This puts these routes somewhere in the middle of the pack in terms of forecasted ridership. My best guess is that these segments would actually fall somewhere in the 5,000-10,000 range if better estimates were available. It would be enormously helpful if MARTA published the source of its estimates, and why ridership on the BeltLine is assumed equivalent across all segments.


Campbellton Road


This proposed LRT does not have any specific ridership forecasts in the analysis. The segment proposed in the More MARTA program is part of the Atlanta Streetcar System Plan, approved by City Council in 2015. Unfortunately, the technical memorandum does not include forecasts for the segment running from Oakland City Station to Greenbriar Mall.


However, other projects on the list provides some clues as to what might be a reasonable estimate. The ART route on Campbellton is projected to have 4,350 riders per day. If one assumes that ridership will increase by 40% with LRT or BRT, ridership would be about 6,000. Considering that the proposed, but not selected Peachtree-Ft. MacPherson-Barge Road line would attact an estimated 6,800 riders, it is probably reasonable to assume that the forecast for this corridor would be around 6,000-7,000 riders. This suggests that the Campbellton project would be in the 5,000-10,000 trip tier.


Clifton Corridor


The Clifton Corridor is the most expensive project per mile on this list. However, the forecasted ridership is greater than 25,000 per day. It is easily the most promising project on this list in terms of ridership. Notably, the More MARTA analysis uses forecasted ridership for the full alignment. This is not proposed as part of the More MARTA program. It’s important to note that should the full alignment not be constructed, ridership may not be the same. Fortunately, the Clifton Corridor New Starts Assessment contains information on the proposed alignment.


The proposed segment in the More MARTA program is the “Minimum Operable Segment” (MOS) in the Clifton Corridor NEPA documents. The MOS segment begins at Lindbergh and terminates at North Decatur. ARC’s modeling suggest that this alignment would attract 14,300 daily boardings. About 40% of those boardings would come from Lindbergh Station, most likely connecting from other places in the MARTA heavy rail system. Two stations are not in the City of Atlanta; Briarcliff and North Decatur. These two stations account for 3,290 boardings, or about 23% of those forecasted.


Clifton Corridor Transit Initiative Project Development and NEPA Phase 1. Environmental Review and Alternative Refinement New Starts Assessment. Page 42.

In addition, the New Starts assessment estimates that most ridership on the corridor would be from new riders, as detailed in Table 4-15 below. With the revised estimates, the Clifton Corridor would be in the second highest tier of ridership forecasts in the analysis (10,000-20,000).


Clifton Corridor Transit Initiative Project Development and NEPA Phase 1. Environmental Review and Alternative Refinement New Starts Assessment. Page 42.

So what should we make of this information?


Forecasts are not, and should not be the only criteria for decision-making. Rather, forecasts are a means of assessing different transit projects against one another. They shed some light on whether or not a particular transit line will be useful and used. MARTA’s analysis suggests that Metropolitan Parkway and Peachtree need improved transit service. Further, the Clifton Corridor alignment as it stands will have the likely highest ridership of the rail projects, and the highest ridership per mile of any project under consideration on the More MARTA list. Campbellton Road already has one of the busiest bus routes in the city, and stands to benefit from improved service at increased frequency.


The BeltLine segments are less clear. The ridership forecasts presented by MARTA are unlikely to reflect what forecasted ridership might be. This is likely the result of the fact that BeltLine rail was never planned without crosstown routes, and thus there is no estimate for what ridership without those connections might be. MARTA notes that the ridership estimates are based on the ARC ABM. MARTA should consider releasing more details on the ridership estimates for the BeltLine, and note ridership on each segment.


Understanding whether or not people are likely to actually use a transit system is critical to making decisions about that system. MARTA’s technical analysis reveals some information about the proposed routes, but there are many unanswered questions about how these projects might serve Atlantans.

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© 2018 by Dave Ederer.