Analysis: What Does the Princeton Dinky Ridership Data Really Tell Us?

A TigerPaWW shuttle to Princeton Junction on a weekday just after 10 a.m.
A TigerPaWW shuttle to Princeton Junction on a weekday just after 10 a.m. The writer was the only passenger on the shuttle.

Two recent stories in the local news came to opposite conclusions regarding the changes in mass transit ridership in Princeton since the Dinky station was relocated. Both stories were overly simplistic in their analysis of ridership trends when comparing ridership at the old station on University Place with ridership at the new temporary station on Alexander Road.

The Princeton Packet reported last month that Dinky train ridership is down 13 percent when September and October of 2012 are compared with the same two months in 2013. Members of the group Save the Dinky had pointed out the lower ridership figures in a public forum attended by the new president of Princeton University a few weeks earlier.

But the story by the Packet reporter failed to account for the ridership on the free shuttle that Princeton University has provided (called the Tiger PaWW) between the old Dinky station on University Place and Princeton Junction.

According to data supplied by Princeton University officials, if Dinky train and Tiger PaWW ridership are combined, there was a net increase of 665 one-way “trips” when September of 2012 is compared with September of 2013.

September 2012 NJT passenger trips:             49,939
September 2013 NJT passenger trips:             43,223
Decrease of 6,716 passenger trips
TigerPaWW trips in September, 2013                7,381
Trip net increase                                                    665

According to data for October, if Dinky train and Tiger PaWW ridership are combined, there was a net increase of 1,703 one-way “trips” when October of 2012 is compared with October of 2013.

October 2012 NJT passenger trips:                   58,597
October 2013 NJT passenger trips:                   50,759
Decrease of 7,838 trips
TigerPaWW trips in October of 2013                   9,541
Trip net increase                                                  1,703

Yesterday the student newspaper at Princeton University, the Daily Princetonian, ran a story with the headline “Mass transit users up by 15 percent despite fall in Dinky ridership.”

The story attributes the increase in ridership possibly to people not wanting to drive to the Princeton Junction station in West Windsor to park, but does not offer any concrete data regarding parking figures at the Princeton station or the Princeton Junction station to back up the theory.

The story does not account for the fact that Hurricane Sandy happened on Oct. 29 of 2012. Ridership dropped significantly ahead of the storm that Monday as the winds picked up speed and people hunkered down in their homes. The New Jersey Transit system was shut down at midnight and did not operate the last two days of the month. The storm affected the last three days of the month, all weekdays, which is almost 10 percent of the month and 13 percent of the weekdays the train was scheduled to operate in October of 2012.

The story also does not account for the fact that some people take both the Dinky shuttle and the bus, and thus are possibly double-counted.

One also has to look at the number of trips the TigerPaWW makes to measure its success. On weekdays in the fall, the Tiger PaWW made 80 trips between the temporary Dinky station and Princeton Junction, according to the fall schedule. On weekends the Tiger PaWW made 56 trips a day.

Based on that schedule, for September of 2013 the Tiger PaWW made 1,680 weekday trips between Princeton and Princeton Junction, and 504 weekend trips, for a total of 2,184 trips. That is an average of 3.37 passengers per bus trip.

For October of 2013, the Tiger PaWW made 1,840 weekday trips between Princeton and Princeton Junction according to the bus schedule posted online, and 448 weekend trips, for a total of 2,288 trips. That is an average of 4.17 passengers per bus trip.

During peak times like Sunday nights when students are returning to campus, it is common to see 10 people riding the shuttle. During weekend and weekday daytime hours, it is common to see one or two people riding the shuttle.

The municipal FreeB shuttle commuter service suffers from the same low average ridership-per-trip problem. The shuttle travels between several points in Princeton and the new temporary Dinky station between 5:15 and 8:30 in the morning and evening.

The shuttle makes 322 trips a month. In October, 891 passengers took a one-way trip on the shuttle. That averages out to 2.8 passengers per trip. It would probably be cheaper for the municipality to pay for a taxi ride for each passenger than to run the shuttle service.

The daytime FreeB, which makes seven one-hour loops through town, fares a little better. In October the shuttle made 189 loops and logged 1,659 passenger trips, for an average of 8.7 passengers per trip.