Tuesday, April 25, 2017

A look at Amtrak California ridership - February 2017

With the news that the San Joaquin line is looking to get a new 8th daily train next year, I felt it was time to take a new look at Amtrak California ridership. This post looks at the most recent Amtrak report, which covers February 2017. Here are some older posts:

Since we last checked in, the San Joaquin received a new 7th daily train. Unfortunately, the addition of a new train has not resulted in higher ridership. In fact, it has gone down a tad.

The entire Amtrak system was down around 3%, compared to last February, which makes sense when you consider that February 2016 had one more day (leap year). Maybe doing these in February wasn't the best idea, woops.

However, the San Joaquin line had the biggest drop in the entire system, 5.7% less than last year, and 10.8% less than projected. Stable ridership would be disappointing with the new frequency, but a decline is worrying. What's going on? Unfortunately, it seems like reliability has taken a huge slide. The San Joaquin Rail Commission blames the wet winter, which created delays. Regardless of who's to blame, the riders aren't having it.

The San Joaquin was on time only 61.4% of the time in February (lowest since May 2014), and 71.2% in January. 

The San Joaquin was showing stable growth over a period of years, and was catching up to the Capitol Corridor.  However, the Capitol Corridor started recovering, while the San Joaquin has entered a slump. The Pacific Surfliner, on the other hand, keeps on growing. This past July it was just shy of hitting 300,000 riders in a single month.

Aside from delays, it is possible the new 7th daily train wasn't scheduled at a time that customers would have liked. The Commission should look into shifting the times based on passenger feedback.

Onto the charts!

We begin with a chart showing all three California lines over the past 15 months. That allows us to see seasonal changes over the course of the year, and get a brief reference of year-on-year progress. Ridership is always highest during the summer.


Now we look as far back as I have data - from October 2008 until February 2017. The Pacific Surfliner especially has huge shifts from winter to summer - maybe international tourists?


And here are individual lines, showing the previous 5 years. The highest ridership month, July, is highlighted.

San Joaquin:


Capitol Corridor:


Pacific Surfliner:


Finally, how these lines compare with other Amtrak lines (no changes in ranking from last year):


I will try and do another one of these showing ridership as of July (so a post in September or October) to see how the San Joaquin did after a full year of 7 daily trains. July is also fun since it tends to be the highest, so we can see if the Pacific Surfliner breaks 300,000. 

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Fresno will finally expand bus service past midnight on weekdays!

With a population of 520,000, Fresno is not a small town. And yet until now, the bus system, FAX, has acted like it serves a population of 50,000. Currently, service ends before 10pm on weekdays - all trips depart their last run around 9pm. On weekends it's even worse - the buses are in their garages by 7pm.

This will finally change in 3 weeks. 
A FAX bus downtown
On May 1, weekday service until approximately 1 a.m. will be launched. Weekend service bus frequencies will improve -- most routes will deliver service every 30 minutes.
FAX Newsletter
The new schedules haven't been released yet, so I am interpreting "until approximately 1 a.m" as the buses will start their final runs around midnight, concluding service at around 1am.

For example, Route 9, which recently received improved 15-minute service, currently starts the final trip eastbound at 9:13pm, ending at 9:56pm, and the last westbound trip departing at 9:14pm and concludes at 10:01pm. FAX (Fresno Area Express) advertises their service as operating until 10pm.

The expansion should mean three extra hours of service every weekday.

Unfortunately weekends are still a disaster. However, the FAQ on the Q bus website (Fresno's upcoming fake BRT), does suggest that weekends will also see some improvements:

Do BRT routes operate longer hours of service than traditional routes?
BRT routes will operate the same hours as traditional routes. Traditional routes will soon be expanding night and weekend services. BRT will also operate those same hours.
Fresno Q

As far as I can tell, there's no way to confirm this with the information they have released publicly. FAX continues to do a poor job of advertising their changes and improvements. They appear to rely on the on-board automated announcements as the primary source of information dissemination, which means non-riders have no way to hear about these improvements.

I've talked in the past about how having such a poor transit system helps Fresno sustain one of the highest unemployment rates in the county. After all, people can't start jobs they can't reach. And in a service economy, most jobs aren't 9 to 5. How do you work at a restaurant that closes at 11pm if your only transportation option closes shop at 10pm? 

Additionally, I've talked about how Fresno's system has seen continuous declines in ridership, which makes sense because a stagnant system in a rapidly growing city becomes less and less useful over time, as it fails to serve new businesses, employment centers, and residential areas.

Hopefully 2017 sees a reverse in these trends. New 10-minute service on Blackstone, 15-minute service on two other lines, and expanded hours will allow people to use FAX to get to work. If expanded weekend service materializes, FAX may finally become a reasonable option. especially if the routes are analyzed to better serve new commercial centers.

After nearly a decade of service cuts and fare increases, it's nice to finally report on some good news at FAX.  

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Amtrak San Joaquin on Track for 8th Daily Train

It was just last June that the Amtrak San Joaquin line received a 7th daily train, and now planning for an 8th daily is well underway. The current target, according to the San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority, is January, but I wouldn't be surprised to see that slip a month or two.

The plan is to offer a "morning express," with service between Fresno and Sacramento. Currently, all trains originate in Bakersfield, with 5 going to Oakland, and 2 to Sacramento. Riders can reach either location the full 7 times thanks to bus transfers.

Currently, to reach Sacramento, Fresno customers can board a 6:18am train, and transfer to a bus in Stockton, arriving in Sacramento at 9:45am. OR, they can board a train at 7:53am, with direct service into Sacramento arriving at 11:20am.

By offering a train that originates in Fresno, the Authority can better accommodate those aiming to reach Sacramento for a morning meeting. While there wouldn't be ridership south of Fresno, an optimized schedule could pump up ridership in the northern half of the valley. The plan is to eventually have trains arriving in both Oakland and Sacramento around 8am. The Oakland early train would be the next phase, a 9th daily train.

This is the current schedule between Bakersfield and Oakland (blue trains continue to Sacramento, passengers arrive in Oakland via bus connection). As you can see, an 8am arrival in Sacramento or Oakland simply doesn't make sense for anyone coming from Bakersfield, as it would require a 2am departure. The full PDF is here.

To add a train from Fresno, they need to spend money to create a place where trains can be stored. The location has been identified as Annadale Avenue, between Chestnut and Willow (Google Maps). This would store two trains, and cost $1.5m.

Additionally, they plan on generating ridership (or accommodating ridership), by expanding the parking areas at various stations.
  • For Fresno, this would mean leasing 50 existing spaces from the city, across from the train station.
  • In Merced, a bus loop would be moved, adding 20 spaces.
  • Turlock would see the existing parking lot expanded into a dirt lot, for 50 new spaces.
  • Modesto would get 77 new spaces in a lot expansion, with the possibility of 124 new spaces to the south.
  • Stockton would get 42 new spaces, followed by 229 new spaces. 

It makes sense that Modesto and Stockton would get the most parking additions. They are closest to Sacramento, so they could see the most commuter use. This model has been successful for the Capitol Corridor line, which runs from Sacramento to San Jose, offering 15 daily trains from Sacramento to Oakland, and 7 from Sacramento to San Jose.

New parking also makes sense because many of the stations are far from residential areas. For example, here is where the new parking would go in Modesto:

modesto amtrak

Additionally, the stations are budgeted for minor enhancements, like new landscaping, way-findings, and lighting. Combined, this would be a little under $2.5m in new expenditures.

One thing that hasn't been discussed is where the return trip will be slotted. Current trains leave Sacramento at 6:15am and 5:10pm. I could see the 5:10pm train moved slightly earlier (4:45pm?) with a new departure at 6:15pm to best serve commuters. The alternative would be a late train, around 9pm, to best serve tourists making the most of their day. A later train would also benefit those in the bay area. Right now, the last train out of Oakland is at 5:55pm. A 9pm Sacramento departure would allow an Oakland bus departure at 6:30pm, so they can meet in Stockton. Of course, a complete overhaul of the schedule would be an option as well.

For reference, I looked into the history of this train line in this post. Here is how service has slowly grown:

Before 1971 - Two daily trains (one by each freight railroad)
1971-1974 - No service
1974 - One daily Amtrak train
1979 - Amtrak proposes elimination, state steps in to fund a single train
1980 - Second daily train
1989 - Third daily train
1992 - Fourth daily train
1999 - Fifth train, first to serve Sacramento
2002 - Sixth train, second to serve Sacramento
2016 - Seventh train, fifth to Oakland
2018 (predicted) - Eight train, third to Sacramento

I last looked at ridership a year ago. I'll do a post soon seeing if the 7th daily train has resulted in more riders. I'll also take a look at improvements made in Stockton.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Is the "retail apocalypse" only a suburban problem?

There has been a lot of talk in the press recently about brick and mortar retail being on the way out. The culprit, supposedly, is Amazon, and other online retailers, who can offer so much more convenience than physical shops can, and also offer lower prices.

Business Insider is calling it the retail apocalypse. 

Thousands of mall-based stores are shutting down in what's fast becoming one of the biggest waves of retail closures in decades. More than 3,500 stores are expected to close in the next couple of months.

Department stores like JCPenney, Macy's, Sears, and Kmart are among the companies shutting down stores, along with middle-of-the-mall chains like Crocs, BCBG, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Guess.
Some retailers are exiting the brick-and-mortar business altogether and trying to shift to an all-online model.
But hold on a second, the keyword seems to be in their lead sentence: "mall-based."

And that's an important distinction to make, which most of the media seems to be missing. But that's not a surprise: in large parts of the country, "mall-based" retail is all you have. There are the Wal-Mart anchored strip malls, which play host to maybe a dozen barnacle stores like Gamestop and Nails Plus, and then the regional enclosed mall, which has everything else.

Downtown? That's for jury duty, not for shopping.

The list of shops closing confirms this: many are almost exclusively mall-based retailers. This is also key to understanding what convenience actually means.

retail closing

The exception to "mall based" is Payless Shoes, but they're being destroyed by private equity vultures.

On the other hand, it seems to me that places that DO have active, walkable downtowns seem to be doing more than fine: they're thriving. Why is that?

Because online shopping IS more convenient in a suburban or exurban setting - but not more convenient in places where people are already walking.

Let's compare: 

Online shopping is supposedly convenient because you can do it from your couch. However, it is not instant. You have to wait 2-days to up to a week to get your stuff. And while the online browsing can be close to instant if you have one or two items in mind, shopping by browsing, as one would do aimlessly walking around a Macy's or Best Buy, can be tedious (17 tabs isn't fun). The lack of a fitting room means that even free exchanges can result in 2 weeks between logging on and getting a pair of pants that fit.

However, the couch is especially convenient when physical shopping is an ordeal. A separate trip. An entire production. And that's the case in a suburban environment when you have to go to the mall to shop.

It's not on your way, so it's a unique trip. It requires twenty minutes driving (each way!) just to get there, and then some time finding a spot in the enormous parking lot (why is parking such an ordeal even at dying malls?). Then one must walk through the parking lot (not pleasant), and then elbow one's way to the store (why are there people in a dying mall?).

It's not a trip of convenience. It consumes a couple of hours. At the most convenient times - after work on a weekday, or the middle of Saturday - the mall is at its most crowded, and most unpleasant.

So yeah, online shopping is more convenient and more pleasant, in comparison to shopping in a suburb. 

But in an urban, walkable environment, much of that hassle goes away. When walking from job to home (or to and from transit), there are a dozen shopping options which require no deviation or extra trip to reach. Picking up a shirt can be done in five minutes as part of a regular trip. You're just strolling down the sidewalk, oh hey shirts, in and out, and done.

Online shopping simply can't compete against that kind of instant gratification. (Note: Large ticket items like TV's are a different issue in an urban setting, but if you note the list above, all the stores with major closings sell items that fit in a plastic bag).

And even in cases where a specific store might be a bit out of the way, the experience is many times better in an urban setting.

Reaching the suburban mall requires driving on the freeway, navigating endless stop-lights, and dealing with parking lot traffic. No one says that like driving to the mall. Sure, they might like being in the mall, but getting there? Ew.

Compare to an urban shopping experience - something like Newbury Street in Boston, or M Street in Georgetown (which is so popular they remove parking to expand sidewalks). Going a few blocks out of the way isn't a hassle because it's a fun experience (exception: Times Square).

In that regard, indoor shopping malls in truly urban areas seem to be doing just fine as well. The Prudential Center in Boston, for example, is completely ingrained into the urban grid. The mall hallways are open 24/7, and act as any street would in regards to pedestrian transportation.

You can get to and from the red stars inside the Prudential Center and Copley Mall 24/7. Newbury Street is a couple of blocks away.

Indeed, blaming the indoor aspect of malls is silly. Over the past decade, new "lifestyle center" malls have sprung up around the country that attempt to mimic downtowns.

Places like this, near Omaha, Nebraska.


Except, as we zoom out...

This is still 100% auto-dependent - and thus requires a unique trip, making it less convenient than the internet. They've gone and put lipstick on the pig without understand why their portfolio of indoor malls has been failing. Do they really think the good folks of Omaha want nothing more than to drive a long distance to a mall where they have to walk outdoors in the winter?

To highlight this point, I decided to look at the locations of some of the JCPenneys which are closing. I quickly noticed two things: almost all the locations were either in towns that are way too small, OR in a auto-focused region, in a center that requires a special trip to reach. 

Take Lodi, California, both a smaller town AND at the very edge, requiring a special trip.

Palatka Florida, same deal

Peru, Illinois, you guessed it...
peru illinois
Slidell, Louisiana

Faribault, Minnesota

Well, you get the point. 

While there were a couple of exceptions on the list (like Downtown El Paso), the trend, at least for JCPenney was pretty obvious. The locations sucked -out of the way, out of sight, and out of mind.

Looking abroad is another great example on contrasting successful malls with failing malls. If the internet was truly what was killing retail, then we should be seeing the same thing in countries that are highly connected and have dependable post systems.

And yet that doesn't seem to be the case. While I haven't personally been, I've read that enormous malls are still extremely popular in countries such as Japan and South Korea, where the internet infrastructure surpasses anything in the US.

So I decided to look at Brazil, a county that loves malls, and where I lived for a decade.

In Curitiba for example, a city with over a dozen popular indoor malls, almost all are built into the urban fabric. Such as Shopping Mueller, which underwent an expansion that added an architecturally awkward top two floors. The mall is surrounded by apartments, offices, and major transit corridors.


Or Shopping Curitiba, also located on a BRT corridor (and bike lanes which didn't exist when I was there).

shopping curitiba

There is nothing more convenient than a store that is integrated in your daily routine.

American retailers can continue to blame Amazon, or they can ask why people are saying 2-day shipping is more convenient than grabbing and going.

Chains like bebe, Wet Seal, and Abecrombie can't change our land use patterns, but the folks at Simon and General Growth Properties have a lot more power. Maybe it's time they wake up.