A Note on the Importance of Frequency in Regional Transit

Itinerant Urbanist looks at how high frequency service makes PATCO an entirely different beast from SEPTA Regional Rail, even with very old data. One note to add; the recent PATCO debacles with the bridge construction schedules can be interpreted as PATCO being forced to give up its major attraction, its high frequency. And in that light, the PR nightmare that ensued was entirely predictable.

Itinerant Urbanist

Apologies for the long periods between posts. I’ve been caught up with school, work, and the Jewish holidays, so time for blogging has been infrequent. That being said, here’s a short post on something that caught my eye as I was doing research for a paper.

Anyone interested in planning, economic, or transportation issues should be aware of a series of papers authored by Richard Voith, a former economic advisor to the Philadelphia Fed, Wharton School professor, and member of the SEPTA board. His writing covers topics like capitalization of transit access, urban-suburban real estate dynamics, and transit efficiencies. The last topic is the subject of a 1994 paper titled “Public transit: Realizing its potential,” published in the Philadelphia Fed Business Review. The paper is a general argument, but it also includes some interesting data on Philly transit systems circa 1994, which I thought it would be interesting to…

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11 thoughts on “A Note on the Importance of Frequency in Regional Transit”

  1. What about the possibility that the relative success of PATCO, in addition to the factors he goes into, is related to the briefer trip time? The longest ride you can take on it, one end to the other, is 28 minutes according to the current schedule; the average rider would be on for shorter times, maybe 15-20 minutes. Is there some psychological effect where that’s brief enough that people don’t think of it as a time-expenditure, while they do (however rationally or irrationally) think that of a 30+ minute train ride, and are unwilling to commit to it?

    I don’t actually have data on what the average ride time is on SEPTA trains, but given that some end-to-hub trips are an hour, I’m pretty sure it’s significantly longer than PATCO’s…

      1. That has a lot to do with cost. Zone 1 and Zone 2 contain a lot of outer urban neighborhoods and inner suburbs where people are less wealthy. Regional Rail is an expensive service; lower income people are more likely to take a combination of buses and the subway. In zones 3 and 4, Regional Rail is pretty much their only commuting option, and those are wealthier suburbs where they can afford the $5 or $6 fare each way every day.

        PATCO is cheaper. Fares run from $1.40 to $3. That is almost certainly a factor in its popularity.

        1. The socioeconomic theory where richer suburbanites can afford to pay more is compelling, but fails to explain why the higher ridership effect persists in less affluent outer suburbs like Marcus Hook, and in more affluent city neighborhoods like Mount Airy or Chestnut Hill.

          PATCO is cheaper than SEPTA, but not that much cheaper. If the assumption is that someone only uses SEPTA RRD or PATCO to go to Center City and back 20 workdays per month, then the SEPTA rider is paying $4.78 per ride at most. For trips of similar length to Lindenwold, $4.08. Most months have more business days than that, and so will have a lower cost per ride, even before considering discretionary trips on weekends or after work, which cost the PATCO rider but are free to the SEPTA rider. I think the effect of the relatively small difference in cost between SEPTA and PATCO, is overwhelmed by the effect of PATCO competing against the alternative of tolled bridges, while SEPTA competes against free-at-point-of-use roads.

          1. A trip from Philadelphia to Lindenwold (or vice-versa) on PATCO is exactly $3, not $4.08. The most expensive Regional Rail ticket, a Zone 4 bought on-board, is $8. There is no ticket that cost $4.78, and that would be awkward change for the conductor (and passengers) to carry around. PATCO is cheaper than even SEPTA subway or bus if you are only going between Philadelphia and Camden ($1.40!). I would definitely consider it a cheaper service than Regional Rail.

            I think the case for Marcus Hook is that it has limited bus service and lower than average car ownership for a suburb. Marcus Hook is a small borough that is mostly walkable to the train station, so the train is probably the most practical option for most residents commuting to Center City. Obviously an exception compared to most of Philly’s suburbs.

            1. You misread: the figure $4.08 (actually $4.075) is the $163 cost of a SEPTA Zone 3 monthly Trailpass, divided by 40 one-way trips, to make the costs of commuting with each agency directly comparable. 40 one-way trips, is, of course, an approximation of actual commuting, but a fairly standard one.

              1. Huh, you didn’t mention anything about passes. You did mention “the assumption that someone uses SEPTA/PATCO to commute 20 days per month,” which doesn’t directly mention passes. I think you’re making yourself harder to understand in an attempt to be more verbose.

                Also, I want to go back to this line: “The socioeconomic theory where richer suburbanites can afford to pay more is compelling.”

                Theory? It’s fact. People with more money can afford to spend more. I’m just giving you a hard time; I think you’re thinking too far into this.

              2. Yeah, I am not really on my game when it comes to writing; you’ve caught two pretty bad mis-edits here. Mea culpa.

                I’m just trying to tease apart whether the ridership effect is mostly driven by income or location. That’s hard because, for now, suburban living and higher incomes are correlated. Exceptions to the general rule that the suburbs are wealthy and the city is poor are a natural experiment. I’m just saying that the results of that experiment point to distance, not income, as being the dominant factor. Going back to the root of this thread, that disproves the hypothesis that PATCO’s ridership is higher because its station-to-station travel times are shorter.

  2. How much frequency can we get on Regional Rail? I know that some of the tracks (only the Trenton, Wilmington, and Paoli lines, right?) are shared with Amtrak, but are there any shared with freight?

    Philadelphia really has fantastic commuter rail infrastructure. Maybe even the best in the country. It’s such a shame it’s so underused.

    1. Peak hour is a little problematic (unused slots exist, but not in great abundance), but the disparity between abundant peak service and sparse off-peak service should speak for itself.

      Chestnut Hill West, Cynwyd, and Airport all run over Amtrak tracks for relatively short distances.

      The answer to the freight question is getting long, so I’m making that a full post.

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