Nearly a third of commuters who live or work within walking distance of a SunRail station are using the train for their daily commutes, according to a new study by MetroPlan Orlando and Florida State University.
Even though the study didn't take into account some of the new Transit Oriented Developments that have opened in the last two years, it found that the ridership is meeting projections, according to Elizabeth Whitton, transportation planner for MetroPlan.
"When you look at everything together, it seems like it's really on track to meet those numbers," Whitton said.
She said the team looked at census data to study rider demographics and calculate the number of work-related commutes that originate and end within a 10-minute walk of a SunRail station. They found 4,000 potential daily riders, of which a third are commuting by train.
That's only a fraction of SunRail's riders. It doesn't account for park-and-ride users, or people who take the train for reasons other than work. But it's a significant target customer base that needs to grow for the system to be successful, Whitton said.
"We really need to do this study again after the 2020 census," she said. "It will change significantly in the next couple of years, especially as Creative Village comes online."
Most of the new TOD development occurring in the station areas has been residential. The study recommends local governments find ways to incentivize more commercial and office development around the stations.
"We need to increase the number of jobs around the stations," Whitton said. "If you look at the number of complexes that are being built, the majority of them are residential. So, while people might live there, their job at the other end of the trip is not near a station, or is too far from a station, and that impacts if they’re going to use the train."
Those figures could improve with the opening of Church Street Plaza, which will add 215,000 square feet of Class A office space in its first phase.
SunRail's southern extension into Osceola County this summer also opens up new areas to capture potential commuters.
"There’s lots of employment centers on Phase 2, especially around Tupperware and Kissimmee," Whitton said. In August, Frito-Lay announced plans to open a high-tech service facility with 200 employees across from the Poinciana Station in 2021.
Another recommendation from the study is for local governments to reevaluate their parking policies, and possibly reduce minimum parking requirements in TOD areas, to support transit. That could mean tax breaks for employers who subsidize transit use for their employees or residential developers who charge higher rents based on the number of parking spaces used by the tenant.
Mill Creek's Modera Central in downtown Orlando was an early adopter of that philosophy, charging a monthly fee for each parking space.
"They have different tiers, so if your first car is $25 a month, the second one might be over $100," Whitton said.
The Florida Department of Transportation and FSU are finishing up a companion study that will look at the financial impact of SunRail in the station areas.
"We’ve done pretty well, especially as you compare us to other areas, with having transit as a part of land uses," Whitton said. "If you were to go down to Miami ... their station areas are just now being built, but they’ve had the train for 30 years now. So we’re ahead of the curve."