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.

9 Responses

    • Jarret Walker at Human Transit would point out that most people are only prepared to walk up to 400 yards to access transit. There is nowhere in Montgomery where there is a significant density of people who could walk to a bus route within 400 yards. Transit planners would try to deal with this by having the bus drive round a very large route to access potential passengers, making the service infrequent and slow for potential users. The only people who would use it would therefore be users of economic necessity, and it’s not clear that there is a large demographic like that in Montgomery Township.

      Some kind of enhanced bus service between Trenton, L’ville and Princeton on the other hand, might be successful. That was the route of the old trolley, where for a few years private operators actually made a profit from transit before automobiles became commonplace. With congestion as bad as it is now, we could upgrade the existing NJ Transit 606 service into a high-frequency bi-directional loop serving congested Route 1 communities. There are lots of people in these towns, but better transit has to be paid for.

      • Park and Ride with train to City. There is plenty of space to build
        Though frankly i have no idea how many commuters from the surrounding towns use rail transit or even go to the city. I would assume there are a few…

  • I’d like to correct one thing. When the FreeB commuter service was contracted by itself, it cost $5,300 per month. With 891 monthly passengers, the cost per passenger-trip was therefore $5.95. Replacing those trips with taxi rides would probably cost two or three times as much.

    As for Alexander Street transit, moving the Dinky station has made very little difference to transit use. The bigger problem is that the majority of people in Princeton still don’t use the Dinky- or any other form of transit- on a regular basis because it is too inconvenient. Just 1.8% of the people who work in Princeton commute using the Dinky. Twice as many people get to work using a bus, but hardly anybody is talking about what it would take to improve bus service.

  • As a rider of the Dinky, I know some commuters have started taking the PAWW because of inconveniences or issues around the temporary location of the Dinky Station. It’s farther away, it’s harder to drive from, the walking path is not especially nice.
    When I do drive to Princeton Junction, the traffic snarl around the construction area in the WaWa zone is really horrendous. I wouldn’t drive through there if I didn’t have to, it could certainly put people off trying to drive anywhere on the far side of the construction.
    But these are temporary side effects of the Dinky project.
    There are no conclusions from the article, clearly there are no conclusions one can take from the data. A potential change between 1 and 3 percent (amidst an accuracy of what percentage of error). Basically, people are still commuting using the Dinky or Dinky-Like options. With no significant change either way I can interprety the numbers to imply whatever my agenda is.

    • Thanks for your comments. Yes, we have not come to any conclusions and it seems it would be premature to do so, at least not without more data. And yes, we think you are you are right that some people will interpret the numbers based on their agenda.

      • How much was the parking charge at the Princeton station during this time period?
        Princeton U provided bus service between the Junction and the campus last year. Why were those traffic counts not included in the article?

        • Don’t think Princeton U. provided shuttle service in 2012. This is a new line. Will double check but don’t think they did.

  • Excellent analysis, but no conclusion.

    Perhaps the best measure would include departures from Princeton Junction if that data was available. That number would be a control factor in Dinky ridership, a way to compare months.

    The more inconvenient the University makes it to ride the Dinky, the fewer riders there will be. Providing a bus to supplant the Dinky is an obvious attempt to reduce Dinky ridership. Lower ridership bolsters the case to remove the Dinky, which is the University’s stated goal.

Join in the conversation. Share your thoughts on this story.