02 June 2012

Is Demand-Based Planning a Myth?

Original photo by qviri
With over 80% of riders using Caltrain to commute to their jobs during rush hour, one would think that the service would be planned around where people live and where people work, using cold hard numbers from the census.  That's known as traditional demand-based planning: provide service where the most people will use it.  It's not rocket science, and demand-based planning is used all around the world to plan excellent rail service.

But not here on the peninsula.

In a contrarian argument made circa 2005, Caltrain's operations staff claimed that demand-based planning is a myth. (14 Mb PDF file)   At the time, Caltrain was crowing to its industry peers about the success of the Baby Bullet.  The keys to success included "Questioning Traditional Planning Processes" and "Trusting Your Intuition".  Numbers don't matter, just go with your gut!

In the years since, there has been plenty of hard evidence that the Baby Bullet has severely reduced ridership at many locations, especially in Santa Clara County.  Indeed, data from the 2010 census can be correlated to the latest Caltrain ridership data without ever looking at a timetable to reflect quite accurately which Caltrain stops are under-served and falling short of their ridership potential.

Maybe demand-based planning isn't such a myth after all.  Maybe numbers don't lie.  Here's hoping that objective, quantitative metrics will play a central role in planning future blended operation scenarios with high-speed rail.  This stuff is too important to trust anybody's intuition.