One Line, Two Very Different Stops: Comparing MetroLink at Grand and the Central West End

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{Grand is one of MetroLink's busiest stations in spite of its isolated location}

The original MetroLink line that opened in 1993 between North Hanley and 5th & Missouri is often praised as one of the most creative uses of existing right-of-way and financing for a light-rail line in the United States. MetroLink planners acquired a significant amount of abandoned railroad r.o.w. and even traded bridges with the TRRA. On the financing side of things, planners managed to fund the line without a single dollar of local funding: planners used the assessed value of the r.o.w. and property that they had acquired as the 25% local match for the $384 million project. It was such a brilliant move that it's no longer allowed.

Given the large amount of reutilized railroad r.o.w., it is amazing just how many activity centers MetroLink manages to hit. The light-rail line passes through the heart of downtown in a tunnel—all three major sports stadia—as well as linking to other destinations and centers such as UMSL, BJC Hospital, and The Loop. That said, the MetroLink alignment misses a few other connections.

Two stations highlight the good and bad of the existing MetroLink alignment:

Grand
Quarter-mile and 1/2 mile distances from the Grand MetroLink station. Grand station is located in the middle of the Mill Creek valley underneath the Grand Ave viaduct that will soon be replaced beginning in March. Metro bills the station as "adjacent to Saint Louis University" and near Grand Center venues such as Powell Symphony Hall and the Fox Theatre. The map on the right, however, shows that while all these places are in the vicinity of the station, they can hardly be called nearby. A new viaduct and station may make the stop more attractive and even functional, but it can't move it closer to area destinations.

To the north, the closest buildings of SLU's main campus are barely within 1/2 mile of the MetroLink station, a distance often considered the limit of walking distance; all of the venues within Grand Center are 2/3 miles or farther. To the south, it's 1/4 mile just to reach the end of the Grand Ave viaduct at Chouteau. SLU's Doisy Research Center is the only academic building within 1/2 mile.

In spite of its poor location, Grand was the fifth busiest station in the MetroLink system with 2,764 boardings per weekday during the month of December 2010. The station's high ridership can be attributed to its connection with the 70 Grand, Metro's busiest bus line. From short observations I made of the station's patronage, it is obvious that the 70 Grand contributes well over 50% of the MetroLink station's riders, perhaps even as high as 80%. I saw only a handful of people walking to or from the station during my observations (admittedly, I was never there for any "student rushes"). Metro, unfortunately, does not have detailed data on the way MetroLink patrons access the system.

Central West End
In contrast to Grand which is seemingly located in the middle of nowhere, the Central West End MetroLink station is located off Euclid Ave in the very heart of the massive BJC Hospital complex. Combined with a transit center serving some of Metro's busiest bus lines on the Taylor Ave side of the station, Central West End is by far the busiest station in the MetroLink system. During the month of December 2010, the station had an average of 4,901 boardings per weekday, 20% more than Forest Park-Debaliviere, the second busiest station.

MetroLink patrons who don't mind walking a bit can reach the beginnings of the Central West End neighborhood with it's collection of restaurants and shops just beyond the BJC medical campus to the north. Maryland Ave, the neighborhood's hub, is located just over 1/2 mile from the MetroLink station. To the south, parts of the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood are about 1/2 mile distant. Even a cursory glance at the station's patrons reveals that there are many CWE and FPSE neighborhood residents and vistors who utilize the station.

Half Mile From Home
Home origin trips to BART's Glen Park station. Credit: BART. In the San Francisco Bay region, BART has performed some fantastic surveys and studies of its riders—a kind of census, almost. The latest Station Profile Study the agency completed was in 2008 and it is a treasure trove of amazingly detailed data.

One fascinating part of the study is the maps of individual stations in the BART system detailing the origins and destinations of each station's riders, one of which is shown at left. The maps show plainly that 1/2 mile is the rough upper limit people are willing to walk to a transit station. Andas interpreted by Transbay Blog, "the data also conveys another idea: while commuters are willing to travel a longer distance from their home to a station, they prefer their place of work to be more immediately located to a station."

The manner in which the 1/2 mile buffer affects a rapid transit station's patronage is very evident when comparing the Grand and Central West End stations. The Central West End station gets lots of walking patrons; Grand station does not. The Grand station would serve SLU much more effectively were it located closer to the university's main campus.

At the same time, the Central West End station is a straight 3-mile shot down St. Louis's central corridor from Union Station, yet there is only one other station in between. The long distance between stations obviously means that MetroLink is passing sources of potential ridership. Would additional stations or even a different alignment have better served the neighborhoods MetroLink passes?

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