Tag: transit

Celebrate, Don’t Mourn, the Decline of Public Transit

An article in last week’s New York Times joins others in asking us to sympathize with the beleaguered transit industry, whose ridership has dropped every year since Uber and Lyft arrived on the scene. The article notes that Uber and Lyft subsidized the 5.6 billion rides they carried last year to the tune of $2.7 billion, or almost 50 cents a ride.

“The risks of [transit] privatization are grave,” the Times article warns. Uber and Lyft are taking “a privileged subset of passengers away from public transit systems” which “undermines support for public transportation.”

What the article doesn’t say is that, in order to carry 9.6 billion riders last year, public transit demanded more than $50 billion in subsidies from taxpayers, or more than $5 per ride. In other words, transit subsidies per rider are more than ten times greater than Uber and Lyft subsidies.

I shouldn’t have to say this, but there is also a crucial difference between ride-hailing subsidies and transit subsidies: the money Uber and Lyft are spending is voluntarily given to them by investors who hope to eventually make a profit. Tax subsidies are taken involuntarily from taxpayers to support systems that, as long as they are publicly owned, will never come close to making a profit.

Instead of bemoaning the loss of transit riders to ride-hailing services, we should be celebrating the fact that a fast, convenient, and affordable service is taking away the need to subsidize slow, inconvenient, and expensive transit systems. It’s worth adding that Uber and Lyft might not be losing $2.7 billion a year if they didn’t have to compete with a transit industry that gets $50 billion in annual subsidies.

Further, the argument that ride hailing is stealing well-off passengers away from transit doesn’t stand up to the facts. As I’ve shown elsewhere, census data reveal that low-income people are buying cars and reducing their use of transit for commuting. The biggest growth market for transit is among people who earn more than $75,000 per year. They don’t need other taxpayers to subsidize their rides to work.

Congress will revisit these issues next year when it has to reauthorize federal highway and transit spending. Today, the Cato Institute published my new report urging Congress to put transportation programs on a pay-as-you-go basis, with funding mainly out of user fees rather than tax dollars.

For those who are interested in finding out what is happening to transit in your urban area, I’ve created a spreadsheet that has charts showing key variables for transit systems in more than 100 urban areas. As described in the instructions for this spreadsheet, all users have to do is find the number of the urban area they are interested in on the spreadsheet, enter that number in cell F1, and it will automatically make eleven charts for that area.

Is This Infrastructure Really Necessary?

The United States has “at least $232 billion in critical public transportation” needs, claims the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). Among the “critically needed” infrastructure on APTA’s list are a streetcar in downtown Los Angeles, another one in downtown Sacramento (which local voters have rejected), one in Tempe, and streetcar extensions in Tampa and Kansas City.

Get real: even ardent transit advocates admit that streetcars are stupid. The economic development benefits that supposedly come from streetcars are purely imaginary, and even if they weren’t, it would be hard to describe streetcars – whose average speed, APTA admits, is less than 7.5 miles per hour – as “critically needed.”

Much of the nation’s transit infrastructure is falling apart, and the Department of Transportation has identified $100 billion of infrastructure backlog needs. (Page l – that is, Roman numeral 50 – of the report indicates a backlog of $89.9 billion in 2012 dollars. Converting to 2019 dollars brings this up to $100 billion.) Yet APTA’s “critical needs” list includes only $24 billion worth of “state of good repair” projects. Just about all of the other “needs” listed – $142 billion worth – are new projects or extensions of existing projects.

In fact, few if any of these new projects are “needed” – they are simply transit agency wish lists. For example, it includes $6 billion for phase 2 of New York’s Second Avenue Subway, but no money for rehabilitating New York’s existing, and rapidly deteriorating, subway system. Similarly, it includes $140 million for a new transitway in Alexandria, Virginia, but no money for rehabilitating the DC area’s also rapidly deteriorating Metrorail system. (In case anyone is interested, I’ve converted APTA’s project list into a spreadsheet for easy review and calculations.)

The $166 billion total on APTA’s “Project Examples” list is less than the $232 billion APTA says is needed, but even if all of the difference is “state of good repair” projects, that difference plus the $24 billion on APTA’s list doesn’t add up to what the DOT says is needed to restore transit infrastructure. This shows that even APTA doesn’t take public safety and “crumbling infrastructure” seriously.

I’ve previously pointed out that the best-maintained infrastructure is funded out of user fees. For example, Federal Highway Administration data show that only 2.9 percent of toll bridges are “structurally deficient,” compared with 5.5 percent of state-owned bridges funded mainly out of gas taxes and 12.2 percent of locally-owned bridges that are funded mainly out of general tax dollars. Gas taxes are a user fee, so state bridges are better maintained than local bridges, but tolls are an even better user fee so toll-funded bridges are in the best shape.

Politicians allow infrastructure funded out of tax dollars to deteriorate because they would rather spend money on new projects than maintain old ones. APTA’s list simply confirms this: APTA is trying to entice politicians into funding all sorts of new projects rather than maintain the existing ones that are falling apart.

To justify this spending, APTA claims that transit produces $4 in economic benefits for every $1 spent. This is based on a report prepared for APTA in 2009. This report includes two kinds of benefits from transit spending.

First, when anyone spends money on anything, the recipients of that money turn around and spends it again. That’s called “indirect” or “secondary” benefits. Spending money on digging holes and filling them up would produce similar secondary spending. That doesn’t mean the government should pay people to dig holes and fill them up (although that’s really what it’s doing for many rail transit projects). For one thing, if government didn’t spend that money, there would be more money in the hands of taxpayers, who would spend it, generating just as many secondary benefits.

Second, the study counts cost savings to transit riders and other travelers, such as the savings from not having to own a car, from getting to destinations faster, or from congestion relief. But transit costs far more and travels far slower than automobiles; there is no cost or time savings from substituting expensive, slow methods of transportation for inexpensive, fast methods of transportation. Transit also does not provide a significant amount of congestion relief; in fact, large buses, streetcars, light rail, and commuter trains that have many grade crossings often do more to increase congestion than reduce it.

The study’s arguments are even less plausible today, when transit ridership is shrinking, than they were in 2009, when transit ridership had been growing. Charlotte, Los Angeles, and Portland recently spent hundreds of millions or billions on new light-rail lines or light-rail extensions, yet transit ridership in those regions dropped after the new lines opened. There is no way that can that be good for transit riders or other travelers.

APTA’s wish-list is just one more reason why Congress should only pass an infrastructure bill if it is one that is funded exclusively out of user fees. An infrastructure bill funded out of tax dollars or deficit spending would impose huge costs on taxpayers in order to build unnecessary projects that we won’t be able to afford to maintain. 

Census Data Detail Transit’s Decline

Transit ridership has been declining now for four years, and the latest census data, released last week, reveal that the biggest declines are among the groups that you might least expect: young people and low-income people. These results come from the American Community Survey, a survey of more than 3 million households a year conducted by the Census Bureau. Here are some of the key findings revealed by the data.

Young People Are Deserting Transit

Those who subscribe to the popular belief that Millennials and other young people prefer to  transit over owning and driving a car were shocked last week when the Washington Post published an article indicating that “a Millennial exodus” was “behind [Washington] Metro’s diving ridership.” This was based on a study that found that, from 2016 to 2018, young people had reduced their use of transit for commuting by 20 percent, while older people had reduced it by smaller amounts or not at all. The study used cell phone records from one of the nation’s largest wireless carriers, probably Verizon or AT&T.

Young people seem to be deserting transit more than older commuters.

Although the census data only go as far as 2017, they seem to confirm this finding. As shown in the above chart, the largest declines in transit commuting, both nationally and in the Washington DC urban area, are among younger people. Commuting forms only a part of transit ridership, but to the extent that declining ridership is due to ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft, those services disproportionately used by people the age of 35. For more information about transit declines by age class, including links to data files for 2017 going back to 2005, see my longer post on the subject. In addition to national data, the files show how people in various age classes commuted to work in each state and each major county, city, and urban area.

2. Low-Income People Are Deserting Transit

Although transit subsidies are often justified by the need to provide mobility to low-income people, the reality is that transit commuting by people in the lowest income classes is shrinking while transit commuting is growing fastest among people in the highest income classes.

Transit commuting in the lowest income classes is shrinking faster than the total size of those classes while in the highest classes it is growing faster than the total size of those classes.

Transit commuting is increasingly skewed to people who earn more than $75,000 a year. Even though only 19 percent of American workers were in this income class in 2017, they made up 26 percent of transit commuters, an increase from just 14 percent in 2005. Both the average and the median income of transit commuters are higher than those of all workers. For more information on transit commuting and income, including links to data files from 2006 through 2017, see my more detailed post on the subject.

3. Vehicle Ownership Continues to Rise

While ride hailing is probably responsible for much of the decline in transit ridership among young people, increasing auto ownership is responsible for much of the decline among low-income people. Between 2014 and 2017, the share of households that lacked access to a motor vehicle declined from 9.1 to 8.6 percent. Moreover, the share of workers who live in households with no vehicles declined from 4.6 to 4.2 percent.

In 1960, more than 20 percent of American households had no motor vehicles while only a small percentage owned three or more, figures that have practically reversed themselves today.

While a few tenths of a percent may not sound like much, remember that in all but a handful of urban areas more than 90 percent of commuters get to work by car while less than 2 percent take transit. Thus, a small increase in auto ownership can lead to a large percentage decrease in transit usage.

Curiously, most American workers who live in households without cars don’t take transit to work. In fact, in most states and urban areas, more workers who live in households without cars nevertheless drive alone to work than take transit to work. How do they drive alone if they don’t have a car? Probably in employer-supplied vehicles. In any case, this is just one more indicator of transit’s declining relevance. For more information on increasing auto ownership, including data files, see my detailed post on the subject.

4. Transit Is Increasingly Irrelevant

Transit agencies and their supporters act as though transit is somehow vital to the national and local economies. That may still be true in New York City, but it is only marginally true in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington, and not at all true elsewhere. The decline in transit ridership among young people who were supposed to love transit the most, and among low-income people who were supposed to need transit the most just reinforces this declining relevance and argues against any further subsidies to this obsolete industry.

Commuting in 2017

The total number of American workers who usually commute by transit declined from 7.65 million in 2016 to 7.64 million in 2017. This continues a downward trend from 2015, when there were 7.76 million transit commuters. Meanwhile, the number of people who drove alone to work grew by nearly 2 million, from 114.77 million in 2016 to 116.74 million in 2017.

These figures are from table B08301 of the 2017 American Community Survey, which the Census Bureau posted on line on September 13. According to the table, the total number of workers in America grew from 150.4 million in 2016 to 152.8 million in 2017. Virtually all new workers drove to work, took a taxi-ride hailing service, or worked at home, as most other forms of commuting, including walking and bicycling as well as transit, declined.

Transit commuting has fallen so low that more people work at home now than take transit to work. Work-at-homes reported for 2017 total to nearly 8.0 million, up from just under 7.6 million in 2016. 

Two other tables, B08119 and B08121, reveal incomes and median incomes of American workers by how they get to work. A decade ago, the average income of transit riders was almost exactly the same as the average for all workers. Today it is 5 percent more as the number of low-income transit riders has declined but the number of high-income – $60,000 or more – has rapidly grown. Median incomes are usually a little lower than average incomes as very high-income people increase the average. In 2017, the median income of transit riders exceeded the median income of all workers for the first time.

For those interested in commuting numbers in their states, cities, or regions, I’ve posted a file showing commute data for every state, about 390 counties, 259 major cities, and 220 urbanized areas. The Census Bureau didn’t report data from smaller counties, cities, and urbanized areas because it deemed the results for those areas to be less statistically reliable. 

The file includes the raw numbers plus calculations showing the percentage of commuters (leaving out people who work at home) who drive alone, carpooled, took transit, (with rail and bus transit broken out separately), bicycled, and walked to work. A separate column shows the percentage of the total who worked at home. The last column estimates the number of cars used for commuting including drive alones and carpoolers.

I’ve also posted similar files for 20162015201420102007 and 2006. The formats of these files may differ slightly as I’ve posted them at various times in the past. Soon, I’ll post more files for commuting by income and other pertinent topics. 

Commuting in 2017

The total number of American workers who usually commute by transit declined from 7.65 million in 2016 to 7.64 million in 2017. This continues a downward trend from 2015, when there were 7.76 million transit commuters. Meanwhile, the number of people who drove alone to work grew by nearly 2 million, from 114.77 million in 2016 to 116.74 million in 2017.

These figures are from table B08301 of the 2017 American Community Survey, which the Census Bureau posted on line on September 13. According to the table, the total number of workers in America grew from 150.4 million in 2016 to 152.8 million in 2017. Virtually all new workers drove to work, took a taxi-ride hailing service, or worked at home, as most other forms of commuting, including walking and bicycling as well as transit, declined.

Transit commuting has fallen so low that more people work at home now than take transit to work. Work-at-homes reported for 2017 total to nearly 8.0 million, up from just under 7.6 million in 2016. 

Two other tables, B08119 and B08121, reveal incomes and median incomes of American workers by how they get to work. A decade ago, the average income of transit riders was almost exactly the same as the average for all workers. Today it is 5 percent more as the number of low-income transit riders has declined but the number of high-income – $60,000 or more – has rapidly grown. Median incomes are usually a little lower than average incomes as very high-income people increase the average. In 2017, the median income of transit riders exceeded the median income of all workers for the first time.

For those interested in commuting numbers in their states, cities, or regions, I’ve posted a file showing commute data for every state, about 390 counties, 259 major cities, and 220 urbanized areas. The Census Bureau didn’t report data from smaller counties, cities, and urbanized areas because it deemed the results for those areas to be less statistically reliable. 

The file includes the raw numbers plus calculations showing the percentage of commuters (leaving out people who work at home) who drive alone, carpooled, took transit, (with rail and bus transit broken out separately), bicycled, and walked to work. A separate column shows the percentage of the total who worked at home. The last column estimates the number of cars used for commuting including drive alones and carpoolers.

For comparison, you can download similar files for 2016, 2015, 2014, 2010, 2007 and 2006. The formats of these files may differ slightly as I’ve posted them at various times in the past. Soon, I’ll post similar files for commuting by income and other pertinent topics.

Commuting in 2017

The total number of American workers who usually commute by transit declined from 7.65 million in 2016 to 7.64 million in 2017. This continues a downward trend from 2015, when there were 7.76 million transit commuters. Meanwhile, the number of people who drove alone to work grew by nearly 2 million, from 114.77 million in 2016 to 116.74 million in 2017.

These figures are from table B08301 of the 2017 American Community Survey, which the Census Bureau posted on line on September 13. According to the table, the total number of workers in America grew from 150.4 million in 2016 to 152.8 million in 2017. Virtually all new workers drove to work, took a taxi-ride hailing service, or worked at home, as most other forms of commuting, including walking and bicycling as well as transit, declined.

Transit commuting has fallen so low that more people work at home now than take transit to work. Work-at-homes reported for 2017 total to nearly 8.0 million, up from just under 7.6 million in 2016. 

Two other tables, B08119 and B08121, reveal incomes and median incomes of American workers by how they get to work. A decade ago, the average income of transit riders was almost exactly the same as the average for all workers. Today it is 5 percent more as the number of low-income transit riders has declined but the number of high-income – $60,000 or more – has rapidly grown. Median incomes are usually a little lower than average incomes as very high-income people increase the average. In 2017, the median income of transit riders exceeded the median income of all workers for the first time.

For those interested in commuting numbers in their states, cities, or regions, I’ve posted a file showing commute data for every state, about 390 counties, 259 major cities, and 220 urbanized areas. The Census Bureau didn’t report data from smaller counties, cities, and urbanized areas because it deemed the results for those areas to be less statistically reliable. 

The file includes the raw numbers plus calculations showing the percentage of commuters (leaving out people who work at home) who drive alone, carpooled, took transit, (with rail and bus transit broken out separately), bicycled, and walked to work. A separate column shows the percentage of the total who worked at home. The last column estimates the number of cars used for commuting including drive alones and carpoolers.

For comparison, you can download similar files for 20162015201420102007 and 2006. The formats of these files may differ slightly as I’ve posted them at various times in the past. Soon, I’ll post similar files for commuting by income and other pertinent topics.

Transit Industry Claims That Correlation Proves Causation

A new report from the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) comes out firmly in support of the belief that correlation proves causation. The report observes that traffic fatality rates are lower in urban areas with high rates of transit ridership, and claims that this proves “that modest increases in public transit mode share can provide disproportionally larger traffic safety benefits.”


Here is one of the charts that APTA claims proves that modest increases in transit ridership will reduce traffic fatalities. Note that, in urban areas with fewer than 25 annual transit trips per capita – which is the vast majority of them – the relationship between transit and traffic fatalities is virtually nil. You can click the image for a larger view or go to APTA’s document from which this chart was taken.

In fact, APTA’s data show no such thing. New York has the nation’s highest per capita transit ridership and a low traffic fatality rate. But there are urban areas with very low ridership rates that had even lower fatality rates in 2012, while there are other urban areas with fairly high ridership rates that also had high fatality rates. APTA claims the correlation between transit and traffic fatalities is a high 0.71 (where 1.0 is a perfect correlation), but that’s only when you include New York and a few other large urban areas: among urban areas of 2 million people or less, APTA admits the correlation is a low 0.28.

The United States has two kinds of urban areas: New York and everything else. Including New York in any analysis of urban areas will always bias any statistical correlations in ways that have no application to other urban areas.

In most urban areas outside of New York, transit ridership is so low that it has no real impact on urban travel. Among major urban areas other than New York, APTA’s data show 2012 ridership ranging from 55 trips per person per year in Los Angeles to 105 in Washington DC to 133 in San Francisco-Oakland. From the 2012 National Transit Database, transit passenger miles per capita ranged from 287 in Los Angeles to 544 in Washington to 817 in San Francisco.

Since these urban areas typically see around 14,000 passenger miles of per capita travel on highways and streets per year, the 530-mile difference in transit usage between Los Angeles and San Francisco is pretty much irrelevant. Thus, even if there is a weak correlation between transit ridership and traffic fatalities, transit isn’t the cause of that correlation.

San Francisco and Washington actually saw slightly more per capita driving than Los Angeles in 2012, yet APTA says they had significantly lower fatality rates (3.7 fatalities per 100,000 residents in San Francisco and 3.6 in Washington vs. 6.4 in Los Angeles). Clearly, some other factor must be influencing both transit ridership and traffic fatalities.

With transit ridership declining almost everywhere, this is just a desperate attempt by APTA to make transit appear more relevant than it really is. In reality, contrary to APTA’s unsupported conclusion, modest rates in transit ridership will have zero measurable effect on traffic fatality rates.

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