Tag: heavy rail

May Transit Ridership Down 3.3 Percent

Nationwide transit ridership in May 2018 was 3.3 percent less than in the same month of 2017. May transit ridership fell in 36 of the nation’s 50 largest urban areas. Ridership in the first five months of 2018 was lower than the same months of 2017 in 41 of the 50 largest urban areas. Buses, light rail, heavy rail, and streetcars all lost riders. 

These numbers are from the Federal Transit Administration’s monthly data report. I’ve posted an enhanced spreadsheet that has annual totals in columns GY through HO, mode totals for major modes in rows 2123 through 2129, agency totals in rows 2120 through 3129, and urban area totals for the nation’s 200 largest urban areas in rows 3131 through 3330.

Declines in 2018 continue a trend that began in 2014. Year-on-year monthly ridership has fallen in 21 of the last 24 months and all of the last seven months. The principle cause is likely the growth of Uber, Lyft, and other ride-hailing services, but whatever the cause, there seems to be no positive future for public transit.

Of the urban areas that saw ridership increase, ridership grew by 1.2 percent in Houston, 2.2 percent in Seattle, 2.4 percent in Denver, 1.2 percent in Portland, 5.0 percent in Indianapolis, 7.8 percent in Providence, 7.2 percent in Nashville, and an incredible 63.1 percent in Raleigh. Most of the growth in Raleigh was students carried by North Carolina State University’s bus system.

On a percentage basis, the biggest losers were Miami, Boston, Cleveland, Kansas City, and Milwaukee, all of which saw about 11 percent fewer riders in May 2018 than May 2017. Ridership fell 9.2 percent in Phoenix, 8.0 percent in Jacksonville, 7.2 percent in Virginia Beach-Norfolk, 6.4 percent in Dallas-Fort Worth, 5.9 percent in Atlanta, and 5.6 percent in Philadelphia.

Numerically, the biggest losses were in New York, whose transit systems carried 12.7 million fewer riders in May 2018 than 2017; Boston, -4.1 million; Los Angeles, -2.4 million; Philadelphia, -1.7 million; and Miami, -1.4 million. Chicago, Washington, Atlanta, and Phoenix all lost more than half a million monthly riders.

Some people have argued that ridership is declining because of cuts to transit services. Others have concluded that the cuts to transit service “mostly followed, and not led falling ridership.” The posted spreadsheet includes data for vehicle-revenue miles of service that could support either view.

Transit service in both Houston and Seattle grew by 2.6 percent, supporting Houston’s 1.2 percent and Seattle’s 2.2 percent ridership gains. Indianapolis’ 5.0 percent increase in ridership was supported by a 9.9 percent increase in service. Service declined 2.0 percent in New York and 3.7 percent in Los Angeles, either reflecting or contributing to falling ridership in those urban areas.

However, ridership declined 2.5 percent in San Diego despite a 10.9 percent increase in service. Ridership in San Jose fell by 4.2 percent despite a 2.4 percent increase in service. Jacksonville’s 8.0 percent loss of riders came in spite of a 2.6 percent increase in service.

It seems clear that service levels are only one of the factors influencing transit ridership. Moreover, there appear to be rapidly diminishing returns to service: large service increases are needed to get small ridership gains. On the other hand, ridership declines reduce agency revenues forcing reductions in service, leading to further ridership declines: a classic death spiral.

Transit industry leaders must be hoping for some kind of catastrophe that will send gasoline prices above $4 a gallon, for that is probably the only thing that could save the industry from its current trajectory. That is unlikely, and the industry is not worth saving any other way.

The Case for Neglecting Transit

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) has just published a paper on the economic cost of failing to modernize transit, referring to the roughly $100 billion maintenance backlog built up by U.S. transit agencies, mostly for rail transit. In fact, a strong case can be made that—with the possible exception of New York—American cities shouldn’t restore deteriorating rail transit systems and instead should shut them down as they wear out and replace them with buses where demand for transit still exists.

APTA claims that not restoring older rail systems will reduce “business sales” by $57 billion a year and reduce gross national product by $30 billion a year over the next six years. Reaching this conclusion requires APTA to make all sorts of wild assumptions about transit. For example, it states that a recent New Orleans streetcar line stimulated $2.7 billion in new infrastructure. In fact, that new infrastructure received hundreds of millions of dollars of subsidies and low-interest loans from Louisiana and New Orleans. In any case, APTA fails to make clear how rehabilitation of existing infrastructure could generate the same economic development benefits as building new infrastructure.

American taxpayers already pay more than $50 billion a year to subsidize transit. Essentially, APTA wants taxpayers to give transit agencies an additional $100 billion to keep transit systems running. I would argue that federal, state, and local governments should provide none of that money. Instead, the best policy towards them is benign neglect.

How Bad Does It Have to Be?

The transit industry loses $50 billion a year. It’s customer base is dwindling. Business in many regions has declined by 20 to 40 percent. Yet Bloomberg, one of the nation’s leading business publications, says, “The outlook for public transit isn’t all that bad.”

Sheesh. Just how bad does it have to be to be “that bad”?

According to Bloomberg columnist Noah Smith, light-rail and commuter-rail ridership “are at all-time highs.” Although his chart appears to show ridership increasing through 2017, according to the source of data in his chart, ridership reports from the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), both light rail and commuter rail declined in 2017 and light rail (which APTA equates with streetcars) was much higher before 1955 than it is today.

It is true that both light- and commuter-rail ridership in 2017 were higher than 2014, a time period during which, Smith claims, heavy rail (subways and elevateds) was “down only slightly.” The different scales on Smith’s charts disguise the fact that heavy rail lost almost nine times as many riders during that period as were gained by light and commuter rail together.

Moreover, the only reason light rail grew at all was the opening of new lines, and all of that growth was offset by declining bus ridership in the cities that opened the new lines. Between 2014 and 2017, buses nationwide lost 35 riders for every one gained by light and commuter rail.

Based on the charts, Smith concludes that “the decline in U.S. transit comes almost entirely from buses” and that “trains will still be a good bet.” It’s true that about 80 percent of the decline is from buses. But buses are the backbone of the industry, providing 100 percent of transit ridership in most regions and, until the recent decline, more than 50 percent nationwide, so a loss in bus ridership can’t be dismissed as irrelevant.

Smith’s presumption is that bus and rail ridership aren’t connected. In fact, one reason bus ridership is plummeting is that too many cities bet on trains and the resulting construction cost overruns, the high costs of rail maintenance, and debt service on rail bonds forced them to cut bus service.

Here are some hard facts. According to data just released by the Federal Transit Administration, nationwide transit ridership in the first two months of 2018 was 2.2 percent less than the same two months of 2017. In turn, 2017 ridership was 4.9 percent less than 2016 and 11.5 percent less than 2014. Nearly all forms of transit are declining.

If an 11.5 percent nationwide loss since 2014 doesn’t sound “that bad,” how about a 31 percent loss in Cleveland? Or 20 to 26 percent losses in Charlotte, Columbus, Miami-Ft. Lauderdale, St. Louis, Tampa-St. Petersburg, Virginia Beach-Norfolk, and Washington DC? Or 15 to 20 percent losses in Atlanta, Boston, Dallas-Fort Worth, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia, among many other regions? Since 2010, Memphis is down 40 percent!

These regions are all very different – some large, some small; some growing rapidly, some slowly; some with trains, some with only buses – but the trend is downward everywhere except Seattle. And Seattle’s upward trend may have more to do with the confluence of Millennials, university students, and Pacific Northwest weirdness than the kind of transit Seattle is offering, so should not be construed as an example for other cities to follow.

Trains are an especially bad bet because they represent an expensive 30- to 50-year investment, so if the bet proves wrong, cities will be stuck paying the mortgage on empty railcars and tracks for decades. Outside of Manhattan, buses can move more people than trains at a far lower cost, and in Manhattan, new rail construction is ridiculously expensive.

A Poster Child for Government Waste

The Maryland Transit Administration suddenly shut down the Baltimore Metro last week, forcing commuters and other riders to find alternatives with less than 24 hours’ notice. The state said an inspection had found unexpectedly excessive wear on the rails that could have caused a derailment, and it plans to keep the line closed for a month while it fixes the problem – and then to close it again this summer for further work.

The coincidence that the shut-down took place the same day the White House announced its infrastructure plan led the Washington Post to call the metro the latest poster child for the need for more infrastructure spending. In fact, it is a poster child for less infrastructure spending, as it should never have been built in the first place.

 Productivity of United States Metro Systems

Thousands of Trips Per Year

  Trips/mile Trips/station Subsidy/Trip
New York Subway 3,211 5,699 $1.64
NY-NJ Path 2,049 6,794 1.60
Boston 1,615 3,231 2.66
Los Angeles 1,349 2,875 7.82
Philadelphia-SEPTA 1,020 1,358 16.05
Washington 852 2,738 1.96
Chicago 900 1,645 4.56
Atlanta 693 1,893 6.08
Oakland 510 3,105 3.48
Miami 368 933 5.18
Baltimore 359 872 6.92
San Juan 322 513 9.17
Staten Island 271 391 2.34
Philadelphia-PATCO 277 819 3.23
Cleveland 168 356 3.11

“Subsidies” equal operations & maintenance divided by fares. Source: 2016 National Transit Database.

As the above table shows, Baltimore’s metro is one of the least-productive and most subsidized heavy-rail lines in the country. It’s even worse when stacked up against metro’s worldwide. Of 158 metros for which data is available, Baltimore’s ranked 150th in trips per station and 152nd in trips per mile.

A 1990 US DOT report found that the first 7.6-mile segment was supposed to cost $800 million to build but actually cost $1.3 billion (about $1.5 and $2.4 billion in today’s dollars). It was supposed to carry 103,000 riders per weekday, but in its early years it only carried about 43,000. Maryland has since extended the line to 17 miles, yet weekday ridership in 2016 was less than 41,000, effectively meaning the extensions attracted no new riders.

To make matters worse, Baltimore bus ridership declined from 106.1 million trips the year the Metro opened to 75.6 million trips in 2016. Since Baltimore light-rail and Metro lines together carried less than 20 million trips in 2016, transit ridership would have done better if the state had put a much smaller amount of money into bus improvements.

Baltimore Metro cars have 76 seats yet carry an average of just 11.5 riders over the course of a day, which is fewer than the 13.5 passengers carried by Maryland Transit buses. Buses also cost less to operate: in 2016, MTA spent $15.73 per vehicle-revenue mile on operations and maintenance for its buses but $17.60 per mile for its Metro railcars.

In other words, buses could have performed the job of the metro for a lot less money. Now that the line is more than 30 years old and worn out, it should be replaced with buses. Instead, they are going to spend millions of dollars making token fixes and let passengers suffer increasing reliability problems.

Naturally, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan blames previous administrations for underfunding maintenance. Yet he has been in office now for more than three years, so he can’t really blame the problems on previous administrations. Why didn’t the transit authority detect the track wear sooner? Why weren’t they able to fix the problem when they were recently single-tracking the line for maintenance work?

One answer is that Hogan and his Department of Transportation have been focused on new projects rather than maintaining old ones. He was the one who decided to build the Purple Line, which will cost more than $2 billion and make congestion worse. He is also pushing for a ridiculously expensive mag-lev line from Baltimore to Washington.

This is what politicians, even supposedly fiscally conservative ones like Hogan, do: go for the glory rather than the mundane. That’s why Trump’s infrastructure plan should, but doesn’t, dedicate funds to maintenance rather than new construction. That’s why infrastructure should be funded out of user fees rather than taxes. Unfortunately, for too many the only lesson of the Baltimore Metro line is that someone else ought to pay more money to keep it running.

Does DC Need Metro Rail?

Yesterday’s shutdown of the Washington Metro rail system was supposed to result in horrible congestion. In fact, as reported in the Washington Post, congestion was “normal,” with a little heavier traffic than usual in some places and lighter in others.

A few people hadn’t gotten the word, but most made other plans. Some people took the bus, but many buses had empty seats. Some people took taxis, but some taxi drivers reported no more business than usual. Pedestrian and bike traffic across the Key Bridge doubled, but that just meant 1,150 more than usual. Capital Bikeshare parking slots downtown were full, indicating more people used them to commute to work than usual. 

Uber, Lyft, and ZipCar all had good days, showing that private enterprise is alive and well. Some commuters vowed to buy a car and stop taking the Metro, more because it was generally unreliable than this particular shutdown. 

The Washington Post’s architecture critic claims that the shutdown happened because “we decided to let our cities decay.” In fact, it’s because politicians decided that spending money on new construction projects, such as the Silver and Purple lines, would benefit their political careers more than spending it maintaining the existing system.

Before that, it’s because politicians decided to saddle Washington with an expensive, obsolete technology that the region can’t afford to maintain. Metro needs to spend $1.1 billion a year on maintenance to keep the system from deteriorating; it spent about a third of that in 2014, so it’s getting worse every year.

Yesterday’s lack of chaos suggests that Washington can get along without the rail system. It certainly can’t afford to keep it. It’s time to think about alternatives.

Metro Flunks Snowstorm 101

For the past several years, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (Metro) has vied with San Jose’s Valley Transportation Authority for the non-coveted title of “Worst-Managed Transit System in America.” It is still only January, but with its performance, or rather non-performance, during snowstorm Jonas, Metro appears to have already clinched the title for 2016.

 This is what it takes to shut down Metro subways. Flickr photo taken Sunday morning after the storm by Ted Eyten.

To start with, rather than try to provide transportation for people who needed to travel over the weekend, Metro pre-emptively shut down, ending all bus service at 5 pm Friday (well before the worst of the snow fell) and ending rail service for the weekend at 11 pm. By comparison, New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA)–serving an area that received much more snow than the district–kept its subways running throughout the weekend and kept its above-ground trains and buses going for as long as it could into the storm.

Metro could have followed MTA’s example by keeping the underground portion of its subways running–Ballston to Eastern Market, Medical Center to Union Station, and Fort Totten to Anacostia–all weekend, but chose not to do so. These lines cover much of the length and breadth of the district and could have provided vital transportation for many people. 

Metro’s excuses for shutting down were rather thin. It claimed that passenger safety was more important than the convenience of having service. But how safe is it to be out in a blizzard compared with riding on a subway? Metro also said it needed to put its employees to work to put it back in service on Monday. But the people who operate trains are not maintenance workers and union rules probably prohibited Metro from putting them to work shoveling snow.

Besides, Metro didn’t do a very good job of putting the system back into operation. Most of MTA’s above-ground trains were running by Sunday afternoon. MTA also put most of its bus lines back into service on Monday. Metro was content to open the subway portions of its lines on Monday, leaving its above-ground lines still closed, and to run just 22 out of its 325 bus lines.

Metro might argue that federal offices were closed Monday anyway, so the demand for its services was lower. But if Metro had been more on the ball, federal offices might not have had to close.

In short, MTA passes but Metro flunks Snowstorm 101. But Metro puts itself well ahead of the pack in the race to being the worst-managed transit agency of 2016.