Tag: transit

Demonizing Ride Hailing

Last week, a transportation consultant named Bruce Schaller published a report claiming that ride hailing was increasing traffic congestion. Since then, we’ve been innundated with wild claims Uber and Lyft were increasing traffic by 180 percent, and these claims are used to support arguments that that cities should tax companies like Uber and Lyft and use the revenues to compensate transit agencies for the riders lost to ride sharing.

Yet the congestion claims are completely inaccurate. Schaller concluded that, because well under half of ride-hailing trips would otherwise have used private automobiles, ride hailing put “2.8 new vehicle miles on the road for each mile of personal driving removed.” He went on to say that this is “an overall 180 percent increase in driving on city streets,” but that would be true only if ride hailing removed 100 percent of private driving from the streets.

The report also said that ride hailing added “5.7 billion miles of driving annually in the Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington DC metro areas.” That sounds like a lot, but Federal Highway Administration data show that it is only about 1 percent of driving in those metro areas. Since, by Schaller’s estimation, about a third of ride-sharing travel displaced private auto travel, ride hailing added a net of just two-thirds of a percent of driving in those metro areas.

Nor does even that two-thirds of a percent necessarily add to congestion. A disproportionate share of ride hailing takes place during off-peak hours, so only a small portion of that two-thirds of a percent actually contributed to rush-hour congestion.

Aside from being arithmetically challenged, Schaller is an unabashed opponent of auto driving. “Cities need less driving, not more,” he says, claiming that cities that allow too much auto driving will be “drained of the density and diversity which are indispensable to their economic and social well-being.” The reality is that low-density cities that emphasize driving, such as Dallas and Houston, tend to be more affordable and more socially and economically diverse than high-density cities that emphasize transit such as New York and San Francisco.

To promote transit and limit driving, Schaller advocates imposing fees on Uber and Lyft of as much as $50 per hour. Cities that are already charging such fees (though less than $50 an hour) are using them to compensate transit agencies that have lost riders to ride sharing, a policy Schaller would applaud but one that makes as much sense as taxing pocket calculators to save the slide rule industry.

Only transit, says the report, can “make possible dense urban centers with lively, walkable downtowns; a rich selection of jobs, restaurants, entertainment and other activities; diversity of population; and intensive and inventive face-to-face interactions that make cities fertile grounds for business and artistic innovation.” Has New York City resident Schaller ever been to Silicon Valley? It doesn’t have a dense urban center and it’s transit system carries less than 5 percent of commuters to work and only about 1 percent of local passenger travel. Yet it is one of the most creative and innovative places on earth.

The reality is that the ride-hailing industry is threatening the transit industry, and transit advocates are demonizing Uber and Lyft in order to protect their $50 billion in annual subsidies. Schaller’s report estimates that ride-hailing grew by 710 million trips in 2017, the same year that transit ridership declined by 255 million trips. If just 36 percent of ride-hailing trips would otherwise have taken transit–a number Schaller’s report would seem to support–then ride hailing is responsible for 100 percent of the decline in transit.

The truth is that transit was obsolete before Uber and Lyft were invented. Nearly 96 percent of American workers have cars and most of the 4 percent who do not don’t take transit to work. Outside of New York City, transit plays a minor role in urban transport, and outside of New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, Boston, and San Francisco, its role shrinks to insignificance. Given a choice between automobiles and transit, Americans have overwhelmingly chosen the former. Given a choice between ride hailing and transit, policy makers should also side with the mode that is faster, more convenient, and least subsidized.

Transit Death Spiral Continues

Transit ridership has been dropping for four years and increased subsidies won’t fix the problem. Data released by the Federal Transit Administration yesterday show that nationwide ridership was 3.1 percent less in June 2018 than it had been in June 2017. Ridership fell for all major modes of transit, including commuter rail (-2.6%), heavy rail (-2.5%), light rail (-3.3%), and buses (-3.8%). 

June 2018 had one fewer work day than June 2017, which may account for part of the ridership decline. But ridership in the first six months of 2018 was 3.0 percent less than the same months of 2017, and again ridership declined for all major modes of transit.

As in previous months, I’ve posted an enhanced spreadsheet that has all of the raw monthly data from the FTA spreadsheet but includes annual totals from 2002 through 2018 in columns GZ through HP, modal totals in rows 2125 through 2131, transit agency totals in rows 2140 through 3139, and urban area totals for the nation’s 200 largest urban areas in rows 3141 through 3340. The same enhancements are included on the “VRM” or vehicle-revenue miles worksheet.

June 30 is the end of the fiscal year for many if not most transit agencies, so now we can compare transit’s 2018 fiscal year performance against 2017 (see columns HU to HW in the spreadsheet). Nationwide ridership in FY 2018 declined 2.7 percent from 2017 and of course it fell for hundreds of transit agencies.

Of the nation’s 50 largest urban areas, June ridership grew in eleven, January through June ridership grew in ten, and fiscal year ridership grew in just six. Seattle is one of the six, having grown by 1.4 percent, the others being Pittsburgh (0.2%), Providence (1.1%), Nashville (3.5%), Hartford (3.3%), and Raleigh (6.1%). Except Seattle, these urban areas have seen declines in other recent years so this increase is not a great victory and probably won’t be sustained for long in the future. 

As I’ve noted elsewhere, Seattle has enjoyed steady growth in transit ridership not because it built light rail but because it has increased downtown jobs from 216,000 in 2010 to 292,000 in 2017. Downtown jobs are the key to transit ridership because most transit agencies run hub-and-spoke systems focused on central city downtowns. But replicating Seattle’s downtown growth is impossible in most regions, as all but six American cities have far fewer downtown jobs; nor would most people agree to accept the costs Seattle is paying in terms of subsidies to new employers, traffic congestion, and high housing prices resulting from land-use restrictions that prevent jobs and housing from moving to the suburbs.

Fiscal year ridership declines in many urban areas were larger than the increases in the few regions where ridership grew. The worst were Charlotte (-15.1%), Cleveland (-11.7%), Miami (-10.3%), St. Louis (-8.2%), Memphis (-7.7%), Jacksonville (-7.0%), Baltimore (-6.6%), Richmond (-6.6%), Philadelphia (-6.5%), Cincinnati (-6.2%), Virginia Beach (-6.1%), Dallas-Ft. Worth (-5.9%), Phoenix (-5.6%), and Boston (-5.2%). This is in addition to significant declines in all of these urban areas between 2014 and 2017.

Officials at the Charlotte Area Transit System must be proud that the light-rail expansion they opened in March led to a 65 percent increase in June light-rail ridership over June 2017. Yet this was a hollow victory as the agency lost 36,000 more bus riders than it gained in rail riders.

Transit agencies get about a third of their operating funds from fare revenues, and the decline in ridership has forced many to reduce service. The vehicle-revenue miles page shows that nationwide transit service declined by 5.1 percent in June 2018 vs. 2017. While some people blame the ridership declines on the service reductions, at least one study says it is the other way around: service has declined because riders abandoned transit, forcing agencies to cut back on spending.

Transit ridership has declined in many urban areas despite increasing service. Among many others, Phoenix increased 2018 service by 11.0 percent yet lost 5.6 percent of its riders; San Jose increased service by 3.1 percent but lost 4.2 percent of its riders; Indianapolis increased service by 4.3 percent yet lost 3.9 percent of its riders; Austin increased service by 6.5 percent yet lost 1.1 percent of its riders.

It appears that ride hailing is the principal factor in ridership declines. A recent study estimates that ride hailing grew by 710 million trips in 2017. If just 36 percent of those trips were people who would otherwise would have taken transit, then ride hailing is responsible for all of the decline in 2017. Declining ridership leads to service reductions, which results in more ridership declines, producing a death spiral of revenue shortfalls followed by service reductions followed by more revenue shortfalls.

Some cities are supplementing transit revenues by taxing ride-hailing companies, which I’ve noted elsewhere is a little like taxing word processors to protect the typewriter industry or pocket calculators to protect the slide rule industry. At least one city is looking at taxing marijuana to subsidize transit.

It doesn’t really matter. The decline in transit ridership is beyond the control of transit agencies, and increasing subsidies to what is already the nation’s most-heavily-subsidized form of transportation won’t make much difference. The only question is when will appropriators realize that it is pointless to continue subsidizing a dying industry and start winding down those subsidies.

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.

Trump Plan Probably Won’t Repair Crumbling Infrastructure

The White House released President Trump’s infrastructure plan today, which calls for spending $200 billion federal dollars as seed money to stimulate a total of $1.5 trillion on “gleaming new infrastructure.” Almost lost in the dozens of pages of documents issued by the administration is that the reason why the federal government supposedly needs a new infrastructure program is that our existing infrastructure is crumbling, and the reason it is crumbling is that politicians would rather spend money on gleaming new projects than on maintaining the old ones.

The White House proposes several new funding programs. The administration could have dedicated one or more of these programs to maintenance and repair of worn-out infrastructure. Instead, all $200 billion can be spent on new projects, and knowing politicians, most of it will be. To make matters worse, funds for most of the programs would be distributed in the form of competitive grants, but experience has proven that competitive grants are highly politicized. 

“In the past, the Federal Government politically allocated funds for projects, leading to waste, mismanagement, and misplaced priorities,” agrees White House economic advisor Gary Cohn. The administration’s solution, Cohn continues, is to “stimulate State, local, and private investment.” In other words, instead of most decisions being made by Washington politicians, they will be made by local politicians. But if local politicians were any better at maintaining infrastructure, then we wouldn’t have tens of thousands of local bridges classed as “structurally deficient” and the New York, Washington, Boston, and other subway systems wouldn’t be falling apart.

The White House says that the federal funds it proposes to allocate to infrastructure may be spent on either new construction or maintenance, which is an advantage over some existing federal programs that can only be spent on new construction. But just because they can be spent on maintenance, doesn’t mean they will be.

The New York subway system is falling apart because the city doesn’t have enough money to maintain it. Yet it has enough money to spend $10 billion on a tunnel between Penn Station and Grand Central Terminal for Long Island Railroad trains, which the New York Times has called “the most expensive subway in the world.” It also has enough money to build the eight-mile Second Avenue subway, which at $2.1 billion a mile must be the second-most expensive subway in the world.

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