transportation

Should Cities Spend More on Transit?

Transit ridership is plummeting almost everywhere, yet officials in many cities are still devising hugely expensive plans for transit projects. One such city is Austin, whose leaders are talking about spending between $6 billion and $10.5 billion on new transit lines (and the final cost always ends up being more than the projections).

The need for these plans is contradicted by the rapid decline in transit ridership in Austin. Census data show that, despite a 59 percent increase in the number of workers in the last decade, the number of Austin-area employees who rely on transit to get to work has declined by more than 10 percent.

This post will take a close look at these census data and show how you can find similar data for your region. This is the first of two posts on this subject; the next one will look at Department of Transportation data.

Since 2005, the Census Bureau has sent an annual questionnaire to about 3.5 million households a year asking, among other things, how those who have jobs in those households get to work. Known as the American Community Survey, these data can be downloaded for just about any geographic area – state, county, city, metropolitan area, urban area, congressional district, or zip code, though the Census Bureau doesn’t post data for smaller areas since they may not be statistically accurate.

Data from every year from 2005 to 2017 can be downloaded from the American FactFinder web site. However, starting in July, the agency is transitioning to a new web site called data.census.gov. I’ve already downloaded all of the tables that will be mentioned in this post and posted them, with some enhancements such as calculations of percentages, for you to use.

Transit’s Share of Commuting

The first question is how many people in the Austin urban area commute to work by transit and whether that number is growing or shrinking. This can be answered with table B08103, “means of transportation to work.” I’ve downloaded these data for the nation, states, counties, cities (or, in Census Bureau nomenclature, “places”), and urbanized areas and put them in one file for 2017 and, for comparison, a second file for 2007.

Between 2007 and 2017, transit’s share of commuting decline by more than 40 percent, and the number of commuters using transit fell by more than 11 percent.

Transit Continues Its Death Spiral

Nationwide transit ridership in the first quarter of 2019 was 2.6 percent below the same quarter in 2018, according to data released by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) last week. Transit’s most recent downward spiral began in 2014, and ridership over the twelve months prior to March 31 was 8.6 percent below the same twelve months four years ago.

Ridership is declining for all major forms of transit travel. First quarter bus ridership was 2.1 percent below 2018 while first quarter rail ridership declined by 3.2 percent. Commuter rail, light rail, heavy rail, and streetcars all lost riders.

Since transit agencies depend on fare revenues to cover part of their operating costs, declining ridership can force them to cut service or raise fares, either of which is likely to lose them more riders. This is known in the industry as the “transit death spiral,” and even major agencies such as the Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) are worried about it.

The FTA data show that first quarter ridership had fallen in all but twelve of the nation’s fifty largest urban areas. It even fell in Seattle, the one urban area that has, up until 2019, consistently shown ridership growth.

Ridership over the past four years has declined in every state except Washington.

Thanks to Seattle’s previous ridership growth, Washington is the only state that saw more transit riders in the year prior to April 2019 than the same period four years ago. To understand why ridership in Seattle was growing, it is first necessary to look at where ridership has declined the most.

150 Years of Boondoggles

Today is the 150th anniversary of the pounding of the gold spike that represented completion of the first transcontinental railroad. Union Pacific, which now owns the complete route, plans to bring its newly restored Big Boy steam locomotive to Ogden to recreate, with 4-8-4 locomotive 844, the joining of the UP and Central Pacific in 1869. Numerous museums and history societies are planning exhibits and meetings.

While it would be fascinating to watch the Big Boy operate, you’ll have to excuse me for otherwise being unenthused about this event. As I see it, the first transcontinental railroad was the biggest boondoggle in nineteenth-century America, and one that – as later railroads proved – we could have lived without. Unfortunately, it is still being cited as an example of why twenty-first century America should do even more foolish things like build high-speed rail.

Railroads were the high-tech industry of the mid-1800s. They revolutionized both passenger travel and freight movement and mode it possible to farm and extract resources in remote locations. Yet, like today’s high-tech industries, many planned and some actual railroads were little more than securities schemes to separate naive investors from their money. The first transcontinental railroad did so on a grand scale, relying not on naive investors but a gullible Congress willing to give away tax dollars and resources.

The story is told in detail in Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America by Stanford University historian Richard White. To entice investors into building a continuous line from the Mississippi River to the Pacific shore, Congress agreed to give the railroads 10 square miles of land for every mile of track. In addition, it would loan builders $16,000 a mile for construction on flat lands and $48,000 a mile in the mountains.

The leaders of the Central Pacific (which built from California) and Union Pacific (which built from the Mississippi) quickly realized that immediate profits could be made by contracting construction out to themselves. They created separate companies that built the railroads as cheaply as possible, then billed the government the full amount of the available loans. The railroads were committed to eventually repaying the loans, but that responsibility belonged to a different set of investors, while a narrow inner circle of each railroad’s leaders owned the highly profitable construction companies.

The Central Pacific even went so far as to hire a geologist who claimed that the Sierra Nevada Mountains started just outside of Sacramento, many miles away from the real mountains, so they could collect the full $48,000 a mile for that segment. Using techniques like this, the people who owned the construction companies earned millions of dollars in profits before the railroads were even completed.

A Tale of Two Train Disasters

In 2004, Denver-area voters approved a sale tax increase to pay for “FasTracks,” a plan to build 119 miles of rail transit lines in the metropolitan area. In 2008, California voters approved the sale of bonds to pay for the construction of a 520-mile high-speed rail line between Los Angeles/Anaheim and San Francisco/San Jose. FasTracks is within a metropolitan area and high-speed rail is supposed to connect several metropolitan areas, yet there are a lot of similarities between these two projects.

Both rely on technologies that were rendered obsolete years before they received voter approval. The agencies sponsoring both projects ignored early warning signals that the projects were not cost effective. Both had large cost overruns. Advocates of both lied to voters about the benefits and costs of the projects. Due to poor planning, both projects remain incomplete. Despite the failure of the projects to date, both have adherents who hope to complete them.

My 2004 paper, Great Rail Disasters, chronicled the failure of recent rail transit projects to significantly enhance transit or transportation in their regions. Since then, there have been several new disasters, but RTD’s FasTracks and California’s high-speed rail project are two of the biggest.

Obsolete Technologies

In 1927, the Twin Coach company designed the first bus that cost less to operate, as well as to buy, than any railcar. Within 10 years, more than 500 American cities replaced their rail transit lines with buses, and by 1974 only eight urban areas still had some form of rail transit. 

The Twin Coach Model 40 bus was first used in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Buses are not only less expensive, they have the added benefit of being able to move more people per hour than most rail lines in the same amount of land. A railcar may hold more people than a bus, but for safety reasons the frequency of trains is restricted to 20 to 30 per hour, while a dedicated bus lane can move several hundred buses per hour.

“Actual” for RTD means actual capacity based on the train lengths and frequencies used; for Istanbul it means actual ridership.

The Istanbul Metrobus, for example, has a theoretical capacity of 30,000 people per hour and actually moves up to 20,000 people per hour. The 32-mile line carries twice as many people per day as all of RTD’s buses and trains combined. The theoretical capacity of Denver’s light rail is 12,000 people per hour, and Denver’s commuter rail is less than 14,000 people per hour. Neither operate anywhere close to those numbers, so buses could have been a viable low-cost substitute.

Istanbul Metrobus dedicated lanes move as many as one bus every 14 seconds. Photo by Myrat.

Buses are also potentially faster. RTD’s one bus-rapid transit line averages speeds comparable to its commuter train and more than twice as fast as its light rail. Plus buses, unlike trains, can leave dedicated lanes and fan out to many destinations.

Transit’s Growing Costs Drive Away Low-Income Commuters

The Census Bureau’s 2017 American Community Survey revealed that, for the first time since the Census Bureau began keeping track of such data in 1960, the median income of transit commuters has risen above the median income of all American workers. 

One reason transit commuter incomes have risen is that low-income transit riders are giving up on transit. Thanks to a growing economy, the number of people who earn less than $15,000 a year has declined, but the number of transit commuters who are in that income bracket has declined even faster, so that low-income commuters are 8 percent less likely to use transit than they were a decade ago. Meanwhile, people earning more than $75,000 a year were 10 percent more likely to commute by transit in 2017 than in 2007.

By 2017, people who earned more than $75,000 a year were considerably more likely to take transit to work than people in any other income bracket.

Transit ridership has been declining since 2014, mostly because of the rise of ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft. But few low-income commuters are likely to substitute Uber or Lyft for transit.

Source: Census Bureau

Instead, they are buying cars. Census data show that auto ownership continues to grow and now 96 percent of American workers live in a household with at least one car. Since so few workers lack cars, a small increase in auto ownership can mean a large decrease in the share of people who are dependent on transit.

A major reason low-income workers are turning away from transit is rising fares. In the last decade, average fares have risen from $1.09 to $1.56, growing 2.1 percent faster than inflation each year.

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.

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.

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