Tag: transit

Lessons from the New Transit Data

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) argues that a 0.7 percent increase in annual transit ridership in 2013 is proof that Americans want more “investments” in transit–by which the group means more federal funding. However, a close look at the actual data reveals something entirely different.

It turns out that all of the increase in transit ridership took place in New York City. New York City subway and bus ridership grew by 120 million trips in 2013; nationally, transit ridership grew by just 115 million trips. Add in New York commuter trains (Long Island Railroad and Metro North) and New York City transit ridership grew by 123 million trips, which means transit in the rest of the nation declined by 8 million trips. As the New York Times observes, the growth in New York City transit ridership resulted from “falling unemployment,” not major capital improvements. 

Meanwhile, light-rail and bus ridership both declined in Portland, which is often considered the model for new transit investments. Light-rail ridership grew in Dallas by about 300,000 trips, but bus ridership declined by 1.7 million trips. Charlotte light rail gained 27,000 new rides in 2013, but Charlotte buses lost 476,000 rides. Declines in bus ridership offset part or all of the gains in rail ridership in Chicago, Denver, Salt Lake City, and other cities. Rail ridership declined in Albuquerque, Baltimore, Minneapolis, Sacramento, and on the San Francisco BART system, among other places. 

APTA wants people to believe that transit is an increasingly important form of transportation. In fact, it is increasingly irrelevant. Although urban driving experienced a downward blip after the 2008 crash, it is now rising again, while transit outside of New York City is declining. Source: Urban driving data from Federal Highway Administration, urban population from the Census Bureau, and transit numbers from APTA. Transit PM = transit passenger miles.

Rail and bus ridership have grown in Seattle and a few other cities, but the point is that construction of expensive transit projects with federal funds is not guaranteed to boost transit ridership. In many cases, overall transit ridership declines because the high costs of running the rail systems forces transit agencies to cut bus service.

APTA wants more federal funding because many of its associate members are rail contractors who depend on federal grants to build obsolete transit systems. Light-rail lines being planned or built today cost an average of more than $100 million per mile, while some cities have built new four-lane freeways for $10 million to $20 million per mile, and each of those freeway lanes will move far more people per day than a light-rail line. 

Congress will be reconsidering federal funding for highways and transit this year, and APTA wants as much money as possible diverted to transit. President Obama has proposed a 250 percent increase in deficit spending on transportation, most of which would go to transit.

Transit only carries about 1 percent of urban travel, yet it already receives more than 20 percent of federal surface transportation dollars. Since most of those federal dollars come out of gas taxes, auto drivers are being forced to subsidize rail contractors, often to the detriment of low-income transit riders whose bus services are cut in order to pay for rail lines into high-income neighborhoods.

The real problem with our transportation system is not a shortage of funds, but too much money being spent in the wrong places. New York City transit was the only major transit system in the country that covered more than half its operating costs out of fares in 2012; the average elsewhere was less than 30 percent. Funding transportation out of user fees, such as mileage-based user fees and transit fares, would give transportation agencies incentives to spend the money where it is needed by transport users, not where it will create the most pork for politicians. 

California Thinks Your Time Is Worthless

California’s S.B. 375 mandates that cities increase the population densities of targeted neighborhoods because everyone knows that people drive less in higher densities and transit-oriented developments relieve congestion. One problem, however, is that transportation models reveal that increased densities actually increase congestion, as measured by “level of service,” which measures traffic as a percent of a roadway’s capacity and which in turn can be used to estimate the hours of delay people suffer.

The California legislature has come up with a solution: S.B. 743, which exempts cities from having to calculate and disclose levels of service in their environmental impact reports for densification projects. Instead, the law requires planners to come up with alternative measures of the impacts of densification.

On Monday, December 30, the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research released a “preliminary evaluation of alternative methods of transportation analysis. The document notes that one problem with trying to measure levels of service is that it is “difficult and expensive to calculate.” Well, boo hoo. Life is complicated, and if you want to centrally plan society, you can either deal with difficult and expensive measurement problems, or you will botch things up even worse than if you do deal with those problems.

The paper also argues that measuring congestion leads people to want projects that might actually relieve congestion, such as increasing roadway capacities. This would be bad, says the paper, because increased capacities might simply “induce” more travel. The fact that such increased travel might actually produce some economic benefits for the state is ignored. Instead, suppressing travel (and therefore suppressing economic productivity) should be the goal.

The document suggests five alternative measures of the impacts of densfication on transportation:

  1. Vehicle miles traveled;
  2. Auto trips generated;
  3. Multi-model level of service;
  4. Auto fuel use; and
  5. Motor vehicle hours traveled.

There are many problems with these alternatives. First, they really aren’t any simpler to reliably calculate than levels of service. Second, they ignore the impact on people’s time and lives: if densification reduces per capita vehicle miles traveled by 1 percent, planners will regard it as a victory even if the other 99 percent of travel is slowed by millions of hours per year. Third, despite the “multi-modal” measure, these measures ignore the environmental impacts of transit. For example, they propose to estimate automotive fuel consumption, but ignore transit energy consumption.

Worst of all, the final “measure” proposed by state planners is to simply presume, without making any estimates, that there is no significant transportation impact from densification. After all, if you add one vehicle to a congested highway and traffic bogs down, can you blame that one vehicle, or is everyone else equally to blame? If the latter, then it seems ridiculous, at least to the planners, to blame densification for increased congestion when the existing residents contribute to the congestion as well. By the same token, if an airplane is full, and one more person wants to take that flight, then the airline should punish everyone who is already on board by simply delaying the plane until someone voluntarily gets off.

The real problem is that planners and planning enthusiasts in the legislature don’t like the results of their own plans, so they simply want to ignore them. What good is an environmental impact report process if the legislature mandates that any impacts it doesn’t like should simply not be evaluated in that process?

All of this is a predictable outcome of attempts to improve peoples’ lives through planning. Planners can’t deal with complexity, so they oversimplify. Planners can’t deal with letting people make their own decisions, so they try to constrict those decisions. Planners can’t imagine that anyone wants to live any way but the way planners think they should live, so they ignore the 80 to 90 percent who drive and want to live in single-family homes as they impose their lifestyle ideologies on as many people as possible. The result is the planning disaster known as California.

Transit Spending Slows Urban Growth

Contrary to the claims of many transit advocates, regions that spend more money on transit seem to grow slower than regions that spend less. The fastest-growing urban areas of the country tend to offer transit service mainly to people who lack access to automobiles. Urban areas that seek to provide high-cost transit services, such as trains, in order to attract people out of their cars, tend to grow far slower.

Transit advocates often argue that a particular city or region must spend more on urban transit in order to support the growth of that region. To test that claim, I downloaded the latest historic data files from the National Transit Database, specifically the capital funding and service data and operating expenses by mode time series. These files list which urbanized area each transit agency primarily serves, so it was easy to compare these data with Census Bureau population data from 1990, 2000, and 2010.

The transit data include capital and operating expenses for all years from 1991 through 2011. I decided to compare the average of 1991 through 2000 per capita expenses with population growth in the 1990s, and the average of 2001 through 2010 per capita expenses with population growth in the 2010s. In case there is a delayed response, I also compared the average of 1990 through 2000 per capita expenses with population growth in the 2000s. Although it shouldn’t matter too much, I used GNP deflators to convert all costs to 2012 dollars.

Transit Ridership Falls Since 2008

The lies begin right in the headline of the American Public Transportation Association’s annual press release patting the industry on the back for carrying heavily subsidized riders last year. “Record 10.5 Billion Trips Taken On U.S. Public Transportation In 2012,” claims the press release headline.

The text reveals that it wasn’t actually a record at all, but merely the “second-highest ridership since 1957.” When was the first highest? In 2008, meaning the headline would have been more accurate if it had read, “Transit Ridership Falls Since 2008.”

Of course, as a lobby group, APTA is paid to promote the transit industry. Reporters are also paid to see through lobbyists’ lies, but unfortunately many of them simply modestly rewrite the press release while others add their own questionable analyses.

Source: Auto driving is from the Federal Highway Administration’s Highway Statistics series, while the transit numbers are from APTA’s own Public Transportation Fact Book.

Anti-auto writers gleefully report that transit ridership is growing faster than driving. While it is true that urban driving has stagnated since the 2008 financial crisis, the chart above shows that transit has a long way to go to catch up with driving. (Note that DC Streets Blog reports on total driving, while I use urban driving, which is a better comparison with urban transit.)

In 2012, transit carried about 1.8 percent of motorized urban passenger miles, which is about what transit’s share of urban passenger miles has been, plus or minus 0.1 percent, since 1993. Before then, it was 2.1 percent in 1990, 3.1 percent in 1980, and 4.7 percent in 1970. The roughly half a trillion dollars spent subsidizing transit since 1970 hasn’t done much good.

Another point APTA carefully neglects to mention is that urban population growth is the main source of transit ridership growth. Transit carried about 44 trips per urban resident in 2012, which is about what it has been, plus or minus 1 trip, since 2005. Prior to that, they grew since 1995, when they were just 38, but steadily shrank before then. In 1990, there were 47 trips per capita and in 1980 there were 51.

The press release also reports that the fastest growing form of transit is light rail. But it neglects to mention that that is mainly because of new construction. In fact, the miles of rail are growing far faster than rail riders.

In 1994, light rail carried more than 500,000 trips per route mile. By 1999 this had fallen below 400,000 trips per mile; by 2012 it was down to 300,000 trips per mile. With rising construction costs and falling ridership per mile, light rail is suffering from some seriously diminishing returns.

It is certainly reasonable to ask whether the stagnation of urban driving is a trend or simply a reflection of the recession and high unemployment rates among young people. But it is not reasonable to think that transit is providing an adequate substitute for urban driving.

According to the Federal Highway Administration’s traffic volume trends, urban driving declined by 11 billion vehicle miles between 2007 and 2012. Considering average occupancy rates, that’s roughly 16 billion passenger miles. In that time period, urban transit gained about 3 billion passenger miles, all of them between 2007 and 2008. To the extent that people really are driving less, it is more because they are traveling less than that they are riding transit more.

Privatize or Contract Out?

The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) spends $50 million more than its peers on employee benefits, says KPMG in an audit of the agency. Reducing benefits to national average levels (easier said than done) and contracting out some services such as cleaning would allow MARTA to erase a $33 million deficit in its annual budget.

Comparing a transit agency’s efficiency to its peers is like criticizing a bank robber for stealing more than home burglars. The fact is that they are both ripping people off, and just because some are a bit less rapacious doesn’t make them any more morally correct.


Private jitney in direct competition with MARTA bus.

So I suggest a more aggressive agenda: complete privatization. Atlanta is one of the few cities that doesn’t outlaw private transit in competition with the public agency, and as a result it has a number of private jitneys that operate without subsidies and often charge riders less than MARTA. The jitneys even stop at MARTA’s bus stops.

Many of the jitneys serve Atlanta’s Hispanic communities. One curiosity: according to one report, most MARTA drivers speak only English while most jitney drivers speak only Spanish.

Given that private operators provide transit service without subsidies, how can MARTA justify spending $400 million a year in taxpayer funds on transit? One reason is that MARTA spent $4 billion building a 52-mile rail system that serves a tiny fraction of the Atlanta metropolitan area. When counting amortized capital costs, this rail system costs about 50 percent more to operate, per vehicle mile, than MARTA buses, which themselves cost far more than private buses.

Construction of the rail system aimed to attract middle-class commuters out of their cars, but was done at the expense of limiting bus service to working-class neighborhoods. Although greater Atlanta’s population has grown by more than 150 percent since it started building rail transit, MARTA has done very little to expand bus service. As a result, transit’s share of Atlanta-area commuting declined from 11.0 percent in 1970 to 4.1 percent in 2010, which is hardly an endorsement of rail transit.

Contracting out and the other actions proposed in the KPMG audit can save a little money, but that savings will probably just be wasted on some other part of the transit system. In the long run, such reforms do little more than rearrange the deck chairs as the boat is sinking. Complete privatization would save Atlanta-area taxpayers more than a billion dollars every four years and still result in decent transit service to Atlanta neighborhoods that want and need it.

Fixing the House Transportation Bill

After catching flack from both fiscal conservatives and the transit lobby, House Speaker John Boehner has postponed consideration of a surface transportation bill. Fiscal conservatives (including my fellow Cato scholar Michael Tanner) objected to the bill’s deficit spending; transit interests (including Republicans from New York and Chicago), objected to the bill’s lack of dedicated funds to public transit.

Here are a few things you need to know about the transportation bill before it comes up again in a couple of weeks. First, the legislation now in effect, which passed in 2005, mandated spending at fixed levels even if gasoline taxes (the source of most federal surface transportation funds) failed to cover that spending. Gas taxes first fell short in 2007 and the program has been running a deficit ever since. Although the 2005 bill expired in 2009, Congress routinely extends such legislation until it passes a replacement bill.

Unlike the 2005 law, the controversial House bill only authorized, but did not mandate, deficit spending. Actual deficit spending would be considered on a year-by-year basis by the House and Senate appropriations committees. Should they decide not to deficit spend, passage of the House bill could potentially save taxpayers more than $60 billion over the next five years. Failure to pass a bill will only lead Congress to continue to deficit spend.

Second, transportation is big-time pork. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is the largest committee in Congressional history because everyone wants a share of that pork. Fiscal conservatives’ dreams of devolving federal transportation spending to the states run into the roadblock made up of members of Congress from both parties who don’t want to give up the thrill of passing out dollars to their constituents.

The highway bill wasn’t always pork. When Congress created the Interstate Highway System in 1956, it directed that gas taxes be distributed to states using formulas based on such factors as each state’s population, land area, and road miles. While Congress tinkered with the formulas from time to time, once the formulas were written neither Congress nor the president had much say in how the states spent the money other than it was spent on highways.

That changed in 1982, when Congress began diverting gas taxes to transit–initially about 11 percent, now about 20 percent. The 1982 bill also saw the first earmarks; the 10 earmarks that year exponentially grew to more than 6,000 earmarks in the 2005 reauthorization.

Ron Paul recently defended earmarks, saying “Congress has an obligation to earmark every penny, not to deliver that power to the executive branch. What happens when you don’t vote for the earmark it goes into the slush fund, the executive branch spends the money.” But the Highway Trust Fund was not a slush fund; because it was distributed to the states by formulas, the executive branch had no say in how it would be spent.

In 1991, however, Congress decided to put billions of dollars of transit’s share of gas taxes into “competitive grant” programs. While competitive grants supposedly supported the best projects, in fact they were mainly slush funds distributed on political grounds either through earmarks or by the president.

The biggest competitive grant program is “New Starts,” which supports construction of new transit lines. Since the main way cities could get more money from this fund was to build the most expensive rail transit lines they could, New Starts gave cities incentives to replace low-cost buses with high-cost trains.

All over the country today, cities are waiting for Congress to pass a pork-laden transportation bill so they can continue to build ridiculously expensive rail transit lines, at least half of whose costs would be covered by the feds. Portland, Oregon, which spent about $200 million building a 17-mile light-rail line in 1986, now wants to build a 7-mile light-rail line at a cost of $1.5 billion. Honolulu wants to build a 20-mile elevated rail line for $5.1 billion.

Baltimore, whose transit ridership has declined by more than 20 percent since it started building rail transit in 1982, wants to spend $2.2 billion on a 15-mile light-rail line, nearly 80 percent of whose riders are expected to be people who were previously riding much more economical buses. San Jose wants to spend more than $5 billion building a 16-mile extension to the San Francisco BART system even though the project’s environmental impact statement says that it will not take enough cars off the road to increase speeds on any highway by even 1 mile per hour.

In 2005, then-Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters attempted to limit such wildly expensive projects by issuing a rule that rail lines could cost no more than $24 per hour that they saved travelers. Congress immediately exempted the San Jose BART line and several other projects from the rule. Planners tinkered with the numbers for other projects so that an amazing number appeared to cost around $23.95 per hour. Of course, after they received funds from the Federal Transit Administration, costs rose and ridership declined.

For example, in 2000 Minneapolis sought federal funds for what was to be an 80-mile commuter-rail line costing $223 million and projected to carry more than 10,500 riders per day in its first year. By 2004, the cost was up to $265 million but the line would only be 40 miles and was projected to carry just 4,000 riders per day. The line actually ended up costing $317 million, half of which was paid for by the feds, and in fact ended up carrying only about 2,200 riders per day in its first full year of operation, and even fewer in its second year.

To keep transit agencies from having to deal with Mary Peters’s pesky cost limit, the Obama administration proposed last month to rewrite the rules for New Starts. The new rules replace Peters’s $24 per hour limit with such subjective criteria as “livability,” “environmental justice,” and “multimodal connectivity.” In other words, cities can justify and the Secretary of Transportation can award grants for fantastically expensive projects based on just about any reason at all.

The House transportation bill addressed all of these issues. In addition to ending the 2005 bill’s mandatory spending, it completely eliminates earmarks and rededicates gas taxes to highways and put them all in formula funds. The deficit spending is almost all for transit, and while the bill still includes a New Starts program, it insists that projects be judged using firm quantitative criteria, not meaningless terms like livability.

Most importantly, the bill provides a path for the devolution that fiscal conservatives want. By taking all of the pork out of the gasoline tax, the bill makes it far more likely that Congress will be willing to devolve the tax to the states in the next go-around in about 2017.

Not surprisingly, the bill raised the ire of not only fiscal conservatives but the powerful transit lobby (which, because contractors can make far more profits building $100-million-per-mile rail lines than $10-million-per-mile highways, is far better funded than the supposedly powerful highway lobby). Transit advocates would prefer to retain transit’s 20-percent share of gas taxes than rely on Congress to fund transit out of deficit spending or some hoped-for oil and gas royalties.

As I see it, the bill’s authorization (but not mandate) for deficit spending was an attempt to get Democrats to support the elimination of earmarks and other pork. Since that has apparently failed, I would suggest another form of compromise.

First, end deficit spending, which means a bill that authorizes about $190 billion instead of $260 billion over the next five years. Second, distribute the money to the states exclusively through formulas with no earmarks and no competitive grants. Third, assuage transit interests by allowing the states to spend the money on either highways or transit, with no set formula for how much can go for either one.

Finally, encourage the states to spend the money as cost-effectively as possible by building user fees (defined as state or local taxes or fees paid by users that go to the facilities those users use) into the formula for allocating federal funds to the states. I have proposed a formula based 50 percent on user fees, 45 percent on population, and 5 percent on land area. This initially results in states getting about the same federal dollars as they receive today but gives states incentives to cater to users rather than politicians by investing their funds in projects the produce the most user fees. Most important, by taking the pork out of the gas tax, this keeps open the path to devolution in the next reauthorization cycle.

High-Speed Federalism Fight

In October, I speculated that the upcoming elections could be the nail in the coffin for the Obama administration’s plan for a nationwide system of high-speed rail. Indeed, some notable gubernatorial candidates who ran, in part, on opposition to federal subsidies for HSR in their states proceeded to win. However, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood made it clear in a recent speech to HSR supporters that the administration intends to push ahead.

LaHood’s message was targeted specifically to incoming governors John Kasich in Ohio and Scott Walker in Wisconsin, who argued that HSR doesn’t make any economic or practical sense for their states.

LaHood said that states rejecting federal HSR subsidies won’t be able to reroute the money to other uses, such as roads. Instead, LaHood said the rejected money will redistributed “in a professional way in places where the money can be well spent” — i.e., other states. And sure enough, other governors were quick to belly up to the Department of Transportation’s bar in order to grab Ohio and Wisconsin’s share.

From the Columbus-Dispatch:

New York Gov.-elect Andrew Cuomo has said he would be happy to take Ohio’s money. Last week, California Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein wrote LaHood saying that California stands ready to take some, too, noting that several states that elected GOP governors this month have said they no longer want to use the rail money for that purpose.

“It has come to our attention that several states plan to cancel their high-speed rail projects. We ask that you withdraw the federal grants to these states and award the funds to states that have made a strong financial commitment to these very important infrastructure projects,” Boxer and Feinstein said in their letter to LaHood.

This is a textbook example of why the Department of Transportation should be eliminated and responsibility for transportation infrastructure returned to state and local governments. If California wishes to pursue a high-speed rail boondoggle, it should do so with its own state taxpayers’ money. Instead, Ohio and Wisconsin taxpayers now face the prospect of being taxed to fund high-speed rail projects in other states.

If California’s beleaguered taxpayers were asked to bear the full cost of financing HSR in their state, they would likely reject it. High-speed rail proponents know this, which is why they agitate to foist a big chunk of the burden onto federal taxpayers. The proponents pretend that HSR is in “the national interest,” but as a Cato essay on high-speed rail explains, “high-speed rail would not likely capture more than about 1 percent of the nation’s market for passenger travel.”