Tag: light rail

No, Passenger Trains Don’t Work in Europe & Asia Either

On January 23, the Wall Street Journal reviewed my recent book, Romance of the Rails, calling it an “exhaustively researched exploration of America’s passenger-rail story.” Naturally, this brought a response from a rail enthusiast named Benjamin Turon chiding me for “failing to point out how poorly and unimaginatively trains in the U.S. are run compared with innovative and efficient rail systems in Europe and East Asia.”

If Mr. Turon read the book, he would know that it devotes an entire chapter to looking at passenger service around the world. The sad truth is that passenger trains don’t work much better in Europe or Asia than they do in the United States.

Both Europe and east Asian countries are highly celebrated for building high-speed rail lines. But these efforts have to be judged by their results. Are they making money or at least covering their operating costs? Are they attracting people out of their cars or airplanes? Are doing anything other than putting their countries deeply in debt?

The answers to all of these questions are “No!” Spain and Italy are jeopardizing their entire economies by going so heavily into debt for high-speed rail. A case can be made that Japan’s economic stagnation since 1990 is due to that country’s continued construction of subsidized high-speed rail lines. Despite growing high-speed rail systems, air travel in Europe and auto travel in Asia are both growing much faster than rail travel.

Instead of high-speed rail, Turon’s letter points out that commuter railways “in Japan and Hong Kong are for-profit publicly traded companies.” But this isn’t because they are innovative but because Tokyo and Hong Kong have far higher population densities than any U.S. urban area. With the possible exception of New York City, those results just don’t apply here.

Turon also cites privatized passenger trains in Britain. As I discuss in the book, privatization has certainly made a difference for British passenger trains, as they are the only trains in Europe outside of Switzerland whose market share of travel is growing. But only some of the privatized trains are operationally profitable and all depend on taxpayer subsidies to infrastructure maintenance. The book notes that we could privatize Amtrak, but it is likely that only the Northeast Corridor would survive and only if taxpayers provided more than $50 billion in infrastructure subsidies.

All around the world, rail travel is more expensive than driving or flying. By heavily subsidizing rail, European governments have managed to persuade the average European to ride urban and intercity trains about 500 miles per year more than the average American. In contrast, Americans chose modes of transport that are less expensive, more convenient, and faster, and the average American travels 10,000 miles a year by air and auto more than the average European. As much as I love passenger trains, I think we chose wisely.

 

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.

Transit Death Watch: April Ridership Declines 2.3 Percent

Nationwide transit ridership continued its downward spiral with April 2018 falling 2.3 percent below the same month in 2017, according to data released yesterday by the Federal Transit Administration. Commuter-rail ridership grew by 3.5 percent, but light-rail, heavy-rail, hybrid rail, streetcar, and bus ridership all declined. The biggest decline was light rail at 5.5 percent.

April’s drop was smaller than the 5.9 percent year-over-year decline experienced in March because April 2018 had one more work day (21 vs. 20) than April 2017, while March 2018 had one less work day. As a result, 16 of the fifty largest urban areas saw transit ridership grow in April 2018, compared with just four in March. Considering that most transit ridership takes place on work days, anything less than a 5 percent growth is not something to be proud of. Only Pittsburgh, Providence, Nashville, and Raleigh saw ridership grow by more than 5 percent.

The most catastrophic losses were in Boston (24.4%), Cleveland (14.4%), and Milwaukee (10.8%). Ridership fell by more than 5 percent in Miami-Ft. Lauderdale, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Atlanta, Tampa-St. Petersburg, St. Louis, Orlando, Charlotte, and Richmond. These losses follow steady declines since 2014 and, in some urban areas, as far back as 2009.

To help people understand the numbers, I’ve posted an enhanced data file that includes all the raw, month-to-month data in columns A through GW and rows 1 through 2116. The enhancements include summing the monthly data into annual data in columns GX through HN, then comparisons of percentage changes from 2017 to 2018 for January-April and April alone in columns HR and HS. The enhanced spreadsheet also has totals by major modes in rows 2118 through 2124; by transit agency in rows 2131-3129; and by the 200 largest urbanized areas in rows 3131 through 3330. All these summaries are done on both the transit ridership (UPT) worksheet and the vehicle revenue miles (VRM) worksheet.

In attempting to explain away recent declines, some transit advocates claimed it was just buses that were losing riders – the implication being that more cities should built rail transit, which requires both higher taxes and increasing debt. But the claim that only bus ridership was falling wasn’t true when they made that claim and it isn’t true today.

More recently, transit advocates have claimed that the reason ridership is falling is because transit agencies have been offering less service. A study from the urban planners at McGill University concluded that a reduction in bus miles “likely explains the reduction in ridership observed in recent years in many North American cities.” Again, the implication is that agencies need to spend more money.

In fact, I’ve been saying for years that reduced service is an important factor in declining ridership. But what the transit advocates haven’t admitted is that this is mainly a problem in cities with expensive rail transit: the cost of building and maintaining rail systems often forces agencies to cut back on bus service. Significantly, the McGill study only looked at 22 urban areas in the United States, all of which have rail transit. They left out, for example, San Antonio, which increased revenues miles of bus service by 2.7 percent in the first four months of 2018 yet saw a 3.1 percent decline in ridership.

The real problem with transit finances is not that agencies don’t have enough money but that they have too much money and spend it the wrong way, namely on fixed infrastructure improvements such as light rail or dedicated bus lanes that look good politically but do little or nothing for transit riders. For example, the CEO of Dallas Area Rapid Transit likes to brag that Dallas has “the longest light-rail system in North America.” But building a rail empire didn’t prevent – and probably accelerated – the decline in transit’s regional share of commuting from 2.8 percent (according to the 1990 Census) before they build light rail to 1.7 percent in 2016 (according to the American Community Survey).

At least some of the decline in transit ridership has different causes in different cities. Deteriorating service in regions with older rail systems – New York, Chicago, Washington, Philadelphia, Boston, and San Francisco-Oakland – has cost those systems ridership. Decisions to cut bus service in order to build rail in Los Angeles and many other urban areas has cost riders in those areas.

The one thing almost all urban areas have in common, however, is the growth of ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft since 2012. If, as surveys suggest, a third of ride-hailing users would have otherwise used transit, then these services account for well over half the losses in transit ridership. Those ride-hailing services aren’t going to go away; in fact, their advantage over transit will be multiplied many times as they substitute driverless cars for human-driven cars.

The transit industry is dying because the alternatives to transit are increasingly superior. More money won’t save the industry, and the last thing a dying industry needs to do is go more heavily into debt to try to save itself. In the short run, agencies can experiment with low-cost improvements in bus service so that their systems better serve the needs of transit riders. In the long run, however, they need to back out of transit services that fewer and fewer people are using without leaving a legacy of debt and unfunded pension and health-care obligations; in short, to die with dignity.

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.

Transit in Turmoil

Last week’s resignation of Michael Melaniphy as CEO of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) is a sign that more people are seeing that America’s transit-industrial complex has no clothes. Melaniphy’s departure comes on the heels of the withdrawal of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) from APTA membership.

MTA’s complaint is that APTA has failed to help the seven “legacy” transit systems, that is, rail systems that are more than 40 years old, that are suffering from severe maintenance backlogs. These transit systems, which are in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland, carry nearly two-third of the nation’s transit riders yet–thanks in part to APTA lobbying–a disproportionate share of federal transit dollars go to smaller cities that are building new rail systems that they won’t be able to afford to maintain.

In 2010, the Federal Transit Administration estimated that the legacy rail systems (plus Washington and Atlanta) needed nearly $60 billion to restore them to a state of good repair. Yet little was done, and the latest estimate is that the maintenance backlog has grown to more than $93 billion. Meanwhile, with APTA’s encouragement, Congress has spent something like $15 billion supporting the construction of new rail systems in places like Los Angeles, Seattle, and Portland.

Even the transit systems that suffer from maintenance backlogs are spending precious resources building new rail lines because that is what Congress will fund, not maintenance. Thus, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is spending $3 billion on a light-rail line to Medford even as it let its maintenance backlog grow to $7.3 billion. The Chicago Transit Authority is spending $2.3 billion extending its Red Line even as its maintenance backlog exceeds $22 billion. The San Francisco BART system is suffering frequent breakdowns and has a $9.7 billion maintenance backlog, yet is spending $6.3 billion on a line to San Jose that partly duplicates existing commuter rail service.

Meanwhile, other cities seem to be racing to see who can spend the most on their own rail transit expansions. Having just finished spending $1.5 billion on a seven-mile light-rail line, Portland wants to spend $2 billion on a new 12-mile line. Seattle just spend $1.9 billion on a three-mile light-rail line and is now spending $3.7 billion on a fourteen-mile line to Bellevue. The Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority wants to spend $120 billion on new transit lines, including the construction of a nine-mile light-rail tunnel to the San Fernando Valley that will cost nearly $1 billion per mile. 

Despite their expense, none of these light-rail lines are anything like the Washington or other subway systems. The “light” in light rail refers to capacity, not weight: light rail is, by definition, low-capacity transit, capable of carrying only about a quarter as many people per hour as a subway or elevated line. In 1981, San Diego opened the nation’s first modern light-rail line at a cost of $5.6 million per mile (about $12.5 million in today’s money); the cost of the average line being built today is $163 million per mile, yet those new lines won’t be able to carry any more people than the San Diego line.

These new rail lines do little good for transit riders, mainly because their high cost eventually forces most transit agencies that build them to cannibalize their bus systems. For example, construction of new light-rail lines forced San Jose’s Valley Transportation Authority to reduce bus service by 22 percent since 2001, leading to a 32 percent decline in ridership

It’s no surprise that APTA sheepishly reported last month that the nation’s overall transit ridership declined in 2015. While APTA blamed the decline on low gas prices, the truth is (as noted here last year), if you don’t count the New York subway system (whose ridership has been growing in response to rising Manhattan employment), nationwide ridership has declined for the past several years. 

Why are we spending so much money building new rail lines when it doesn’t help, and often hurts, transit riders? Part of the answer is Congress likes shiny new projects more than maintenance. But part of the answer is that APTA’s membership is stacked with manufacturers and suppliersconsultantscontractors, and land developers who build subsidized projects next to rail stations. Although New York’s MTA carries nearly 37 percent of all transit riders in the country, its membership dues covered less than 2 percent of APTA’s budget because APTA gets most of its money from non-transit agencies. Thus, like Congress, APTA is biased towards new construction.

For example, APTA claims to be an educational organization, yet it hasn’t done much to educate Congress or the public about the long-term costs of rail transit and the need to almost completely and expensively rebuild those rail lines every 30 years or so. After all, this message could undermine support for building new rail transit lines in cities that don’t need them.

People who support the needs of actual transit riders, rather than rail snobs (people who say they’ll ride a train but not a bus) or contractors, should use these facts to persuade Congress to stop funding obsolete rail transit systems when cities desperately need things that will truly relieve traffic congestion and cost-effectively improve everyone’s mobility.

Red Light for Red Line, Yellow Light for Purple Line

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan announced today that he was canceling Baltimore’s Red light-rail line while approving suburban Washington’s Purple Line. However, that approval comes with some caveats that could still mean the wasteful transit project will never be built.

The latest cost estimate for the Purple Line is nearly $2.5 billion for a project that, if done with buses, would cost less than 2 percent as much. The Purple Line finance plan calls for the federal government to put up $900 million, the state to immediately add $738 million, and then for the state to borrow another $810 million.

Instead, Governor Hogan says Maryland will contribute only $168 million to the project, and that local governments–meaning, mainly, Montgomery County but also Prince Georges County–will have to come up with the rest. It isn’t clear from press reports whether Hogan is willing to commit Maryland taxpayers to repay $810 million worth of loans, but it is clear that local taxpayers will have to pay at least half a billion dollars more than they were expecting.