Today we introduce our first installment in what is sure to be a very long, drawn-out series of ratpag rating various public transportation systems around the country and, why not, the world. If there exists a transit system that we’re familiar with – no matter how big or small, well known or obscure, decrepit or gleaming – ratpag will be there with final, unwavering judgement.
The first system that we are judging may seem an odd choice – likely because many of ratpag’s newer, wide-reaching readers haven’t heard of both Norfolk, Virginia and its light rail system. Well, ratpag is here to expand your mind. Um, also, some of ratpags founders are originally from Norfolk, Virginia and we weren’t up to the task of reviewing something like the New York City subway, which we’ll likely just do line-by-line.
So, how will we rate these transit systems? Well, without getting into too many details, ratpag has developed a proprietary system combining experience from personal use, extensive surveying, scheduling performance, customer reviews, and, most importantly and most heavily-weighted, something we like to call the ratpag-Ptolemaic-plum pudding Theory of How Things Work.
You may be wondering how we plan on rating these systems. We’ve devised an innovative scoring system to make perfectly clear just how good or bad a transit system is: 0 (bad) to 5 (good) rats. Now, we’re still working out the kinks but the score will always be there and true by being written in number – only the images of rats may change. For instance, if a system were to receive high marks – say 4 out of 5 rats – we would include this final rating:
Adorable. Now, if we were to come across an unusually bad transit system – one of those systems that makes ratpag work overtime – we’d present our final rating in this sort of way:
Ugh. We hope to not get many of these.
So, without further ado, the Norfolk Tide light rail system:
The Tide light rail opened on August 19, 2011 and was projected to see an initial ridership of 2,900 passengers per day. Average monthly ridership exceeded projections by nearly 100% during the summer months of the first year while generally steadying around 5,000 rides per day overall.
Unfortunately, according to the latest data provided by Hampton Roads Transit, average ridership in fiscal year 2014 (starting in July 2013) has dropped in every single month (through March 2014 – the latest month provided). The ugly numbers can be seen in the following table from page 20 of the HRT report:
What a shame.
So what is it about the Tide light rail that is making it slip? Are people really that in love with their cars? Have there been horrible light rail accidents? Roving gangs of hooligans scaring off loyal, hard-working riders? None that ratpag has seen, though we suppose they could have gone unreported (and for good reason).
The Virginian-Pilot noted the drop late last year and wrote that there was a “short-lived surge in boardings in 2012 because of an incentive program that put annual passes in the hands of thousands of college students at no cost to the user.” A “scaled-back version of the 2012 program” now exists but has only been used by “hundreds of students.” ratpag’s conclusion: college students won’t use the Tide light rail unless it’s free. We encourage all area students to begin counterfeiting, or “pirating”, fare cards to get ridership numbers up (as we believe college students are apt to do).
So what’s the deal with the Tide? Well, as you can see from the map above, it’s a small system. It’s what was called a “starter line” when proposed and inaugurated and, three short years later, a starter line is what still remains. It’s 7.4 miles long with 11 stations – many of which are at-grade and follow normal traffic signalization.
Such a system is all well and good as long as it lives up to its tagging as a starter-line; that is, ratpag believes it needs to grow. Expansion to both the naval base and neighboring Virginia Beach has been discussed – though Virginia Beach has begun to involve itself in the questionable idea of creating its own separate, and therefore non-connected, magnetic levitation system (this despite the difficulties the nearby Old Dominion University maglev project has undergone as well as the, well, common-sense-ness of connecting neighboring cities with an interchangeable rail system).
The current system is serving a nice, limited purpose in attracting some away from driving all the way into downtown Norfolk by providing park-and-ride lots just off the interstate. It’s also a useful and effective way of getting around if one is located within walking distance of its 11 stations. Those who actually ride the train seem to like it, at least based off of Yelp reviews of various stations (a special thanks to Daniel H. and his raving reviews. We assure you that Daniel is not affiliated with ratpag, though he probably should be).
A few members of ratpag have used the system ourselves and, from those experiences, we can say that it’s clean, comfortable, and quite convenient if you live or are spending time bouncing around downtown. The MacArthur Square station is only a few blocks from the ferry terminal, which is convenient, and several bus lines connect with various stations.
So what is ratpag’s verdict? Well, we like it for what it is now – a starter-line – but much work is still to be done. We’re not crazy about its at-grade crossings through downtown which slow its travel and give cars equal footing with public transit – something we just don’t believe in. We’re happy that HRT and Norfolk took a chance and constructed the thing in face of vocal and cynical opposition and, for that and all other positives of the systems, we give a final rating of 4.0 out of 5 rats.