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!

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.

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: