As a long-time Central Florida resident and lawyer who has worked in downtown Orlando for my entire career, I was personally very excited about the approval of SunRail. I have always enjoyed using public transportation when visiting New York City, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and San Francisco, and have often wondered whether public transportation would work in my hometown. I’ve even experimented with the concept by riding the Lynx bus system for a week, and wrote about it in this blog. But I am a realist when it comes to Orlando and mass transportation. I believe that, although SunRail has the potential for great success over the long term, there are several factors that may keep it from gathering the ridership it needs to be successful in the short term.
First, the factors that have the potential to quickly increase public acceptance and ridership:
Predictability and Convenience. SunRail, if run well, could provide a predictable and convenient way to get to and from downtown Orlando (and, of course, other important locations). SunRail offers more predictability and shorter travel times than riding the Lynx bus system. SunRail could be a “fancier ride” than Lynx. Most importantly, SunRail appears to be the best opportunity to gather riders who have a choice of riding or driving their own car (Lynx CEO John Lewis calls these people “Choice Riders”). One has only to look at the success of Lynx’s Lymmo system to see how predictability, visibility and convenience gathers riders – even attorneys from my office and many other law firms regularly use the Lymmo to get to the Orange County Courthouse for court hearings. And Lymmo is looking to expand its routes, making a larger part of downtown Orlando area more connected to predictable, reliable public transit, and increasing the ridership potential of SunRail. So if SunRail runs frequently, predictably, and most importantly, on time, ridership should increase.
SunRail is a great choice if you don’t need your car during the day. Those workers who are not near Lynx bus routes but who don’t need a car for work should be highly motivated to ride SunRail to avoid parking rental fees and traffic gridlock. It is a huge plus, in my opinion, that SunRail will stop at Florida Hospital, adding the potential for many hospital workers as riders, none of whom need their cars during the workday. The addition of, say, a shuttle bus from the Amtrak Station to ORMC, could have the same positive effect on ridership. The Orlando Business Journal recently reported that several large employers, including Florida Hospital and Tupperware, plan to incentivize their employees to use SunRail.
Operating for special events allow riders to try SunRail. It has been reported that SunRail may operate for special events, such as Magic games, Amway Arena events, Citrus Bowl games or Lake Eola events. I believe this could be a game changer for ridership, because it encourages ridership by “Choice Riders”, at a time where work schedules are not at risk. As an example, my wife and I (with one of our sons) rode the Lynx bus to downtown Orlando for the Fourth of July celebration and fireworks at Lake Eola last month. We arrived at the Lynx Central Station, then took the Lymmo to Central Avenue and walked the rest of the way to Lake Eola. There were thousands of people at the event, and we were able to avoid gridlock, fighting for a parking spot, etc. While many of my fellow professionals might not choose Lynx for a special event, they might well choose SunRail.
Now, the reasons why growth of SunRail numbers will take some time:
Professionals and a lot of others need (or believe they need) their cars during the day. It should not be a surprise that a large percentage of downtown workers are professionals – lawyers, planners and engineers, real estate brokers, for example – whose clients and contacts are located all over Central Florida. Even though I conduct much of my work in my own office or in someone else’s downtown office, there are many times (some of which are not predictable) when I need to go to a meeting or a client’s office in Winter Park, Longwood, near UCF, etc. The most efficient way (and sometimes the only way) of getting there and back is by car, so until more businesses locate around one of the SunRail stops (years and years away) or move downtown (probably not going to happen), then professionals will drive their cars to work.
SunRail’s hours of operation will prevent some riders from riding. With the last trips at approximately 6:30 pm, SunRail will lose many professionals whose schedules are not so predictable. Many days, I could leave work by 6:30 pm, but there are times when the 5:55 pm client phone call runs until 6:45 pm. What would I do then, with my car at the station in Maitland?
Operating SunRail for some special events but not all will be confusing. Again on the theme of the need for predictability, how far in advance will the public know that SunRail will run (and what the schedule will be) for special events? There is a huge potential that the public will just give up on understanding when SunRail will operate for special events.
There may be a few enterprising companies who figure out ways to get around the negatives for their employees, thus encouraging SunRail ridership. For example, having ZipCars (www.zipcar.com) near the SunRail stations might cure the professionals’ phobia of missing the last SunRail departure. Perhaps employers could save money on parking garage rental fees by having a fleet car available for business use during the day for, say, fifteen or twenty employees. If I were a part of the SunRail planning staff, I’d be dreaming up all the reasons why people would choose not to ride, and then finding a logical and suitable alternative such as the ones I have suggested.