January 11th, 2020
COST Commentary: This recent article by Randal O’Tool is summarized in his final conclusion for the article below: “Thus, driving a car or light truck is more greenhouse-gas-friendly than transit in 90 of the nation’s 100 largest urban areas (and all but a handful of the smaller ones).
If transit does not improve traffic congestion or the environment in Texas cities, what is the reason Austin, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio are spending many billions of dollars to increase transit and its ridership. The result has been decreased transit in all four cities over the past 20 years while population has grown a total of approximately 150%. These wasted Taxpayers dollars are subsidizing each average transit rider in Austin with more than 100% of the trip’s costs as reported by Cap Metro. This is due to Transit agencies reporting trip costs without including capital cost of major investments in buses, rail transit equipment and other special transit capital.
Austin has the strongest population growth of 170% in the past 20 years and the largest decline in transit ridership of 20%. It is obvious that our leadership is not serving the greater-good of the citizens of Austin.
Urban Transit Is An Energy Hog
By The Antiplanner | December 24, 2019 | Policy brief
Transit is often touted as a way to save energy. But since 2009 transit has used more energy, per passenger mile, than the average car. Since 2016, transit has used more than the average of cars and light trucks together.
Automobiles and planes are becoming more energy efficient each year. But the annual reports of the National Transit Database reveals that urban transit is moving in the opposite direction, requiring more energy to move a person one mile in each of the last four years.
Transit has been less energy efficient than the average car since 2009. Light trucks (vans, pickups, SUVs) may soon become more efficient than transit as well. 2018 automobile data are not yet available; 2017 numbers are estimated from this report; prior years are from the Transportation Energy Databook.
The reason for this is simple: ridership is declining, but transit agencies aren’t proportionately reducing miles of transit service. As a result, the average occupancies of buses and other transit vehicles has declined in every year since 2013. While transit agencies may be purchasing more fuel-efficient vehicles, the increase in average efficiencies per vehicle mile can’t make up for the loss in passengers.
Transit occupancies have steadily declined since 2013. Bus” includes commuter bus, rapid bus, trolley bus, and conventional bus (which the FTA calls “motor bus”). “Rail” includes commuter, heavy, light, and hybrid rail and streetcars, but not monorail or automated guideways. “All” includes all transit, not just bus and rail.
These numbers are based on the National Transit Database, which reports the number of gallons of Diesel fuel, gasoline, natural gas, and other fuels as well as the number of kilowatt-hours of electricity that are used by transit systems across the country. I’ve converted these numbers to British thermal units (BTUs) using standard factors, such as that a gallon of Diesel fuel has 138,500 BTUs.
For electricity, I also took into account the fact that two-thirds of the energy used in a power plant is lost in generation and transmission. In other words, in order to deliver 1 kilowatt-hour (3,412 BTUs) of energy to a customer, an electrical system must consume the equivalent of 10,236 BTUs of fossil fuels or other energy at the power plant. Electric motors tend to be more efficient than internal combustion engines, but when the losses from generation and transmission are accounted for, the efficiencies are about the same.
Energy Consumption by Mode
The calculations show that ferries and streetcars use huge amounts of energy per passenger mile, as do automated guideways (i.e., people movers), which aren’t shown in the chart but average even more energy per passenger mile than ferries. Buses and light rail are well above the average automobile.
Ironically, the most energy-efficient transit mode–van pools–is the one that is based on conventional automobiles rather than large buses or railcars.
Commuter and subway/elevated trains (heavy rail) appear to be more efficient, but this is largely because commuter- and heavy-rail numbers are dominated by New York where occupancy rates are high. Commuter rail lines in such regions as Dallas-Ft. Worth, Miami, and even Philadelpha use far more than the average amount of energy per passenger mile, as do heavy rail lines in Baltimore, Boston, Los Angeles, and Miami. Perhaps the biggest surprise is the DC Metrorail, the nation’s second-most heavily used rail system, which consumes almost 25 percent more energy per passenger mile than the average light truck used in 2017.
(We apologize for the slight technology format glitch in this display of data. It will be corrected soon.)
Energy Consumption by Urban Area
The numbers for individual urban areas are even worse for transit. Among the largest 100 urban areas, transit is more energy-efficient than cars only in New York, San Francisco-Oakland, and Honolulu. Transit in Atlanta and Portland is less energy-efficient than cars but more than the average light truck. Just about everywhere else, transit is a real energy hog. The adjacent table has numbers for the 54 urban areas. Among smaller urban areas, Stock- ton (which is the 102nd largest area) appears to be more energy efficient than cars, but only because the Altamont Commuter Express is attributed to Stockton.
Even where rail transit appears to be more energy efficient than driving on an operational basis, this doesn’t account for the energy costs of construction. Urban roads carry far more passengers over their lifetimes than rail lines, so the energy cost of construction per passenger mile is much higher for rail transit. Rails must be rebuilt about every 30 years, which also requires large amounts of energy. Heavy use of steel and concrete also has a high greenhouse gas cost.
Though transit is less energy efficient than cars, it emits slightly fewer greenhouse gases per passenger mile than the average car. Transit was actually worse than the average car as recently as 2010, but by 2014 it had reduced its climate footprint by 25 percent.
It accomplished this partly by converting from Diesel to other fuel sources, originally biodiesel but more recently compressed natural gas. In addition, the nation’s electric industry has converted from heavy reliance on coal to heavy reliance on natural gas. Both of these changes reduced greenhouse gas outputs per unit of energy. Since 2014, however, declining transit ridership increased greenhouse gas emissions per passenger mile by about 7 percent.
The main transit energy trend over the last decade has been the replacement of Diesel fuels with compressed natural gas, which paralleled the electric industry’s conversion from coal to natural gas.
Calculations of greenhouse gas emissions are straightforward for most fuels since burning a gallon of gasoline, Diesel, or natural gas results in specific outputs of carbon dioxide. For electricity, I presumed that the electricity used by a transit agency is generated by a the combination of power sources used in the agency’s state, as reported in the Department of Energy’s State Electricity Profiles. Even if a transit company claims that it buys renewable energy, the reality is that electricity is fungible, and renewable energy consumed by a transit agency means less renewable energy for someone else.
While transit scores better than automobiles overall, this is only because of New York, which produces some 44 percent of transit riders and whose electricity profile claims to emit less than half the national average of carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour. However, New York doesn’t generate enough electricity to satisfy its needs and must import some, and the greenhouse gases attributable to imported electricity is unknown.
Two-thirds of all states are net electricity exporters, and some major exporters such as Texas and Wyoming generate most of their electricity with fossil fuels. Many of the importer states, including California and New York, generate most of their electricity from non-fossil-fuel sources, but their imports are probably more dependent on fossil fuels.
For a sensitivity analysis, I assumed that electricity brought into net importer states was generated by the national average of fuel sources. Under this assumption, electric-powered transit generated 22 percent more greenhouse gases in California, 15 percent more in New York, and about 7 percent more in Massachusetts, Maryland, and Virginia, while Washington DC transit generated 17 percent less greenhouse gases. For the most part, these numbers aren’t big enough to fuss about, especially since we can’t accurately estimate the mix of sources of energy that is imported into the various states. The greenhouse gas emissions shown in the adjacent tables are based on state electricity profiles with the caveat that the actual numbers in California and New York are probably higher while DC is probably lower.
Based on the state profiles, transit is more greenhouse-gas-efficient than cars nationwide, but it is more efficient than cars in only seven out of the nation’s 100 largest urban areas. Further, transit is more greenhouse-gas-efficient than light trucks in only three more urban areas. Thus, driving a car or light truck is more greenhouse-gas-friendly than transit in 90 of the nation’s 100 largest urban areas (and all but a handful of the smaller ones).
The results of my calculations of energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions for each transit agency, mode, and urban area are in my 2018 Transit Database summary spreadsheet. For details on how to use this spreadsheet, see last week’s policy brief.
December 24th, 2019
COST Commentary: In a 20 year declining ridership trend, Austin is reporting a slight gain in transit ridership in 2019. This gain is primarily due to the the result of the one-time impact of a major system route revision in mid 2018, called Cap ReMap. This is the first such route revision in many years. It is very unlikely to regain the ridership of 20 years ago based on similar experiences in several major cities. Meanwhile, Austin’s Cap Metro transit operating costs have been on a significant up-trend of about 150% in the past 10 years. This has resulted in increasing taxpayer subsidies for each rider.
Below is an article by Randal O’Toole and posted on his Antiplanner blog. It is a summary of the Nationwide trend of transits’ increasing costs and declining trend in ridership. This is also a period of increasing population. Austin’s four major cities have increased population an average of 150% in the past 20 years and all four cities have less transit ridership today than 20 years ago.
Costs Up, Riders Down: 2018 National Transit Database (NTD)
By The Antiplanner | December 17, 2019 | Policy brief
Taxpayers spent nearly $3.75 billion more subsidizing transit in 2018 than the year before, yet transit carried 215 million fewer riders, according to the latest data released by the Federal Transit Administration. The increase in spending didn’t even translate to an increase in service, as transit agencies provided 44 million fewer vehicle miles of service in 2018.
n percentage terms, subsidies rose by 7.4 percent while ridership fell by 2.1 percent and vehicles miles of service fell by 0.9 percent. These numbers are from the 2018 National Transit Database, a series of 30 spreadsheets summarizing the annual performance of all of the nation’s transit agencies that have received federal support (which is nearly all of them). Numbers in the database are based on each agency’s fiscal year, so may not exactly agree with calendar year numbers calculated from the monthly updates.
Total transit ridership in 2018 was lower than any year since 2006. Bus ridership has plummeted to be lower than any year since 1940, when streetcars still carried almost half of all of the nation’s transit riders.
The industry has not responded to declining ridership by reducing its costs. Instead, operating costs grew by $1.9 billion (4.0%), despite the decline in vehicle miles of service. Expenditures on capital improvements, that is, expansions of existing systems, grew by 7.9 percent or close to $500 million. The vast majority—84 percent—of these capital improvements were for some form of rail transit.
Most of the increase in operating costs was due to labor.
The biggest increase in operating costs was fringe benefits, accounting for nearly $700 million while operator salaries and wages were responsible for $177 million. “Service costs,” defined as “labor and other work provided by outside organizations,” accounted for $282 million of the increase, while the growth in non-operator salaries and wages was $58 million. Fuel costs accounted for $110 million of the increase and utilities almost $90 million. But clearly, labor was responsible for most of the growth in operating costs.
Transit’s State of Poor Repair
The database also keeps track of capital expenditures for existing systems. In the past, I’ve called this “maintenance” but it should more properly be called capital replacement. Changing the oil on your car is maintenance; buying your first car so you don’t have to depend on transit any longer would be a capital improvement; buying a new car to replace one that is worn out is capital replacement.
The Department of Transportation also just released its latest report on the status of the nation’s transportation infrastructure. The report found that the transit industry has deferred capital replacement for so long that it has a $98 billion backlog in 2014 dollars, which would be more than $106 billion in today’s dollars. In order to erase its backlog in twenty years, the report concluded, the industry needed to increase its spending on capital replacement to $18.4 billion a year ($19.6 billion in 2018 dollars).
In fact, the industry spent $14.9 billion in 2018, a $1.4 billion increase over 2017. Most of that increase was probably spent on activities aimed more at slowing the decay of transit infrastructure than at reversing that decay. At the 2018 rate, it will take more than 75 years to bring transit systems to a state of good repair.
Among capital costs (including both improvements and replacement), the biggest increases were for renovations of passenger stations, replacement of signaling systems (which should include positive train control for existing rail lines), and replacement of vehicles. Even though the recent status report says that transit’s fixed guideway systems (meaning, for the most part, rails) have a $23 billion backlog, the transit industry reduced spending on guideway rehabilitation by $131 million, even as it increased spending on construction of new guideways by $217 million.
The biggest increase in capital replacement spending was for stations, not guideways, suggesting the political agencies are more inter- ested in visible improvements, not ones needed for safety.
The industry could eliminate its backlog in less than 20 years if it stopped building new transit lines and spent all of that money, about $6.7 billion in 2018, on capital replacement. But transit agencies are more interested in empire building than in keeping their infrastructure in good repair, an attitude reinforced by Congress’ willingness to spend $2 billion a year providing matching funds for new rail transit lines.
Even better than replacing obsolete rail lines with more obsolete rails would be to replace worn-out rail systems with buses. Buses don’t require dedicated stations, sophisticated dedicated signaling systems, or dedicated guideways. Buses have shorter lifespans than rail vehicles, yet they cost so much less than railcars that the long-run cost per bus seat mile is much lower than for railcars. In some places, such as Manhattan, buses may not be able to replace trains, but in most places buses can move more people per hour than rail lines taking up the same amount of real estate.
We’ve already seen calendar year results from the monthly updates to the National Transit Database. However, those numbers were preliminary (and were missing in a few cases) while the numbers in the final 2018 spreadsheets will become “official” even though the fiscal years of the agencies in the database are not all the same.
The database shows that transit ridership declined in 2018 for almost every major mode of transit. It fell for commuter buses, rapid buses, trolley buses, and regular buses, with buses in total losing more than 99 million rides. Heavy rail alone lost another 92 million riders and light rail lost 38 million. While ridership grew by 0.6 percent for both commuter rail and hybrid rail, those gains were so small that rail transit lost a total of 126 million riders. Rail also lost more than buses in percentage terms, with rail ridership falling 2.6 percent compared to a 2.0 percent decline for buses.
Costs per trip increased for almost all major modes of transit.
Although vehicle miles of service declined, they didn’t decline by as much as ridership, with the result that costs per rider and per passenger mile significantly grew. Costs per trip grew by 7.1 percent by bus and by 9.0 percent for rail, with much of the increase for rail due to the added spending on capital replacement.
Subsidies per passenger mile grew even faster than costs per trip.
Subsidies grew even faster as taxes covered an increasing share of the cost of transit. Subsidies per passenger mile grew by 9.9 percent for rail and 10.8 percent for buses. At a 62 percent increase, subsidies grew fastest for trolley buses, followed by 40 percent for hybrid rail and 31 percent for rapid buses. In the case of trolley buses, most of the increase was for capital replacement, while for hybrid rail and rapid buses most of the increase was for capital improvements.
Urban Area Results
Ridership declined in 2018 in 40 of the nation’s top 50 urban areas. On a percentage basis, the worst hit were San Juan (-29.5%), which was due to Hurricane Maria; Milwaukee (-12.2%), and Cleveland (-10.9%). In numbers, the worst were New York (-60.5 million), Los Angeles (-23.6 million), Chicago (-14.8 million), San Juan (-10.3 million), Boston (-10.2 million), Miami (-8.9 million), Atlanta (-7.8 million), Baltimore (-7.6 million), San Francisco-Oakland (-6.3 million), and Philadelphia (-5.8 million).
Seattle has been celebrated for defying trends and gaining transit riders, but ridership in 2018 was only 0.6 percent more than 2017. Houston, which reformed its bus system, gains 2.5 percent more riders. Ridership gains were also enjoyed by Denver (6.9%), San Antonio (7.2%), Indianapolis (3.2%), and Columbus (2.7%). Pittsburgh and Providence gained less than 1 percent each.
Reliable data on downtown jobs is difficult to obtain as the definitions of downtowns can vary from person to person. Wendell Cox did an inventory of downtown jobs in the nation’s 50 largest cities in 2000 and a second inventory based on 2010 data using a consistent method of defining downtowns. Of the 47 urban areas on both lists, downtown job numbers fell in 29 and grew in 18.
Some of the largest declines were in cities that are losing transit ridership. Cleveland and Milwaukee each lost 15 percent of their downtown jobs. Chicago lost 7.6 percent and Los Angeles 5.0 percent. New York, which enjoyed large gains in transit ridership in the 2000s, gained 14 percent more downtown jobs. It is likely that transit increases and declines in more recent years are also due to changes in downtown job numbers.
Los Angeles Metro blames the loss of transit riders on slowing transit speeds due to congestion. This leads transit advocates to argue that transit buses “deserve their own lanes” in order to boost speeds and increase ridership. This is a ironic considering that the increase in traffic congestion in Los Angeles and many other places is largely due to policies that spent most transportation dollars building rail transit lines rather than improving roadway capacities.
In fact, the database offers some support for the claim that ridership is affected by transit speeds. Average transit speeds can be roughly calculated by dividing vehicle-revenue miles by vehicle-revenue hours. By this measure, transit vehicles average 15.08 miles per hour in 2018, down from 15.16 miles per hour in 2017 and 15.20 miles per hour in 2016. Los Angeles bus speeds averaged 10.4 miles per hour in 2018, down from 10.5 in 2017 and 10.6 in 2016.
With ridership and speed data going back to 1994, the correlation between Los Angeles Metro bus speeds and ridership is a respectable 0.65. Counting all transit in the country, with data going back to 1991, the correlation is even higher at 0.78. Of course, correlation doesn’t prove causation and there may be other factors at work affecting both speeds and ridership. In addition, this measure of transit speeds is crude: if a bus reaches the end of its route waits 10 minutes before starting on the return trip, that ten minutes would be included in the calculation of miles per hour. Thus, speeds could appear to be increased or decreased simply by reducing or increasing the wait or dwell times between vehicle trips.
Average speeds of most modes of transit declined slightly in 2018, but speeds of motor bus (the FTA’s perplexing name for conventional bus service) and light rail both slightly increased.
In any case, rather than make congestion worse for non-bus riders (which means the great majority of people in every American city not named New York) in order to make it better for buses, it would make more sense to fund programs that would relieve congestion for everyone. This is especially true because simply having dedicated lanes doesn’t make buses much faster, as most of their time is spent picking up and dropping off passengers. The 2018 database reveals, for example, that supposedly “rapid buses,” many of which use dedicated lanes, go an average of 10.1 miles per hour, compared with 12.0 miles per hour for regular buses.
The Free-Transit Movement
Due to increases in average transit fares, total fare revenues grew by $44 million or 0.3 percent despite a loss in transit riders. The increase in fare revenues, however, only offset about 1 percent of the total increase in costs. As a result, fares now cover just 23.6 percent of the costs of transit and subsidies to the transit industry grew from $50.5 billion in 2017 to $54.3 billion in 2018.
The decline in the share of transit costs paid by users is a good thing, according to California Senator Scott Wiener. “Transit agencies brag about high fare-box recovery,” Wiener tweeted recently. “High fare-box recovery is bad. It means tax $ isn’t supporting transit. It means high fares that lower ridership & harm low income ppl. The goal is low farebox recovery. Transit is a public good & should have taxpayer support.”
Wiener’s November 21 tweet was written in support of the free transit movement, which was promoting a fare strike a few days later on November 29. Yet this movement in general and Wiener’s tweet in particular is based on numerous fallacies.
Most important, transit is not a public good, at least, not in the economic sense of the term. A true public good meets two requirements: it is non-excludable and non-rivalrous. That is, everyone benefits whether they pay for it or not (non-excludability) and one person’s consumption doesn’t reduce the availability to another person (non-rivalrous). Some economists class public goods as an example of market failure and suggest that government support is needed to supply such goods.
Ironically, the article linked above uses a lighthouse as an example of a public good, but Nobel prize-winning economist Ronald Coase showed that the first lighthouses were provided by private insurance companies. Other articles use public parks as examples of public goods, but parks are both excludable—just build a fence—and rivalrous—they can easily be filled to capacity with people. This shows there is a lot of confusion about what is and is not a public good.
There shouldn’t be any confusion about transit, however. If I sit in a transit seat, you can’t sit there too, showing that it is rivalrous. Putting gates on the entrances to transit stations and doors on the entrances to buses makes transit excludable. Thus, transit doesn’t meet either requirement for being a public good, much less both of them.
Wiener could mean something else when he uses the term “public good,” but the only definition I can think of would be that transit is a public good because it is currently provided by public agencies. But just because something happens to be supported by tax subsidies today doesn’t mean it deserves those subsidies or that they should continue forever.
Some of the respondents to Wiener’s tweet claimed that “everyone benefits” from transit, so everyone (except perhaps the transit riders themselves) should pay for it. On one hand, it is easy to show that many non-transit riders don’t benefit from transit at all. On the other hand, it’s possible to argue that “everyone benefits” from everything, whether they use it or not, but that doesn’t mean that society could work if everything were free. For example, it could be argued that everyone benefits from movies in movie theaters because the people watching the movies aren’t robbing banks or starting arson fires, but if we insisted that movies be free, we’d get a lot lower quality movies.
Wiener’s claim that charging people a significant fraction of the cost of transit would “harm low income ppl” is also specious. If some farmers produce organic food and generously sell it for less than it cost them to grow it, are they actively harming people if the prices they charge are still too high for some to pay? Clearly, the answer is “no.” The “harm” may be that some peoples’ incomes may be too low for them to afford essential goods and services, but the remedy for that is not to target one or two of those goods and services and subsidize them but to find out why those peoples’ incomes are low and to fix those problems.
The important thing that Wiener and the backers of the free-transit movement fail to understand is that prices provide critical signals to both users and producers indicating what something is worth. If prices are low, users will want more but producers will provide less. If prices are high, producers will make more but some users might be discouraged from purchases. If transit ridership is declining even though three-fourths of the cost of transit is subsidized by taxpayers, that’s a signal that transit really isn’t worth much to potential travelers.
The latest data show that ridership is declining despite increased spending on transit. The reason for that is that transit is not capable of competing against other modes of travel. Rather than trying to figure out how to “save transit,” people who care about mobility, low-income people, and the environment should worry about making sure that what replaces transit does so economically, safely, and with environmental sensitivity.
The 2018 National Transit Database includes more than 30 spreadsheets that are sometimes difficult to understand. The Antiplanner has collapsed the most useful data into a single spreadsheet showing ridership, passenger miles, service, fares, costs, and other data. The raw data for every transit agency and mode are in rows 1 through 4320 and columns A through Y.
Columns Z and AA are the Antiplanner’s calculations of energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions that will be discussed in detail in next week’s policy brief. Columns AB through AQ are calculations of such indicators as miles per hour, average vehicle occupancies, fares per trips/passenger mile, and costs per trip, passenger mile, and vehicle revenue mile. Summaries by mode are in rows 4327 through 4368. Summaries by urban area are in rows 4380 through 4870.
One item that is questionable is column Y, the miles of rail transit. The data in the spreadsheet providing this information was entered inconsistently, so check the numbers in this column before quoting them. Fortunately, these numbers aren’t needed for any later calculations.
December 21st, 2019
Cost Commentary: Transit continues to loose ridership throughout the Nation as reported by Randal O’Toole in the article below, from his Antiplanner Blog. As noted, the New York region had 44.2 % of the total U.S. transit ridership in 2019, thru October. As Randal states “transit is simply irrelevant in most of the rest of the country.” This applies to all of Texas where transit ridership in its four major cities is less today than 20 years ago, after spending many tens of billions of dollars to increase transit ridership. Austin has had the most percentage decline in ridership of the for Texas cities, in the past 20 years. Real life’s situation totally contradicts Austin/Cap Metro’s joint effort, called “Project Connect,” which has developed a massive transit upgrade plan. Austin is moving toward a vote on the initial segment of the plan in November 2020. The cost is not yet announced by Austin, but the initial segment could cost up to $10 billion and the total plan could be more than double this, exceeding $20 billion.
As indicated in the next posted article: As ridership has declined over many years, transit costs have continued to increase. This, of course, places a growing burden on all Austin area citizens to highly subsidize the less than 1% of citizens who will use the planned new transit. Many trends in technology, some in current operations and several rapidly advancing, will dramatically change public transit as we know it today. The old concept of “fixed/dedicated” lanes for trains and buses are becoming more obsolete each day and will be totally obsolete before Austin/Cap Metro can complete “Project Connect.” Project Connect can only serve the interest of City Politicians, Transit Executives and Contractors which crave the large expenditure of taxpayer funds to develop ineffective systems.
Austin was one of the few cities to report a transit ridership gain in October, 2019, compared to October 2018. As reported, this 6.6% increase was primarily due to the major route restructuring, called ‘Cap ReMap’ opened in mid 2018. However, facts are not clear on this. About the time Cap Metro opened its new route structure, it implemented a new policy of allowing K-12 school students to ride free. Many students have abandoned school buses to ride free Cap Metro buses. Cap Metro’s own report indicated ridership of over 2 million of these student riders in the first year, from mid-2018 to mid-2019. The question is: How many of these free riders would have ridden Cap Metro anyway. If these new free riders were a major portion of the total K-12 ridership, there is a very small ridership increase due to the Cap ReMap program. These small gains do not compensate for the 20 years of ridership decline of about 20%, the largest, current 20-year decline of the four major Texas Cities. These route updates have been implemented in numerous cities and do achieve short term ridership gains, but do not weaken the numerous reasons that have outdated Cap Metro’s Project Connect. Cap Metro’s reporting of these increases primarily focused on a few routes where more significant gains were accomplished, instead of the total ridership. Cap Metro must communicate with transparency and total integrity, and, eliminate deceptive reporting so citizens can fully understand the broad, likely, devastating implications of this transit path before being asked to support a Proposition of many billions of dollars with a follow-on commitment of many, additional billions of dollars. This is a multi-generation commitment which will dramatically limit the ability of future generation to address key needs of their time resulting in lowering their quality of life.
Please note below that many of the largest transit ridership declines are in cities with much greater density than Austin. Los Angeles is the most dense urban area in the U.S. and is one-third more dense than the New York City region. L.A.’s transit ridership has been in a major decline for many years. If Transit is failing in the most dense urban area, why do our leaders believe transit will succeed in the Austin region which has less than One half the L.A. density and 8-9 times less urban population?
October Transit Ridership Down 1.6% in October, 2019
By The Antiplanner | December 16, 2019
The nation’s transit industry carried 1.6 percent fewer riders in October 2019 than it did in the same month in 2018, according to the latest monthly data release from the Federal Transit Administration. Ridership fell for light rail, hybrid rail, and most kinds of buses, but grew for commuter rail and heavy rail. October had the same number of work days in 2018 and 2019, so the decline in ridership can’t be blamed on a difference in work days.
Ridership declined in 31 of the nation’s 50 largest urban areas. The numbers show an increase for Dallas-Ft. Worth, but that’s due to a change in the method of counting bus riders in Dallas, so in reality ridership probably declined in 32 of the nation’s 50 largest regions.
In terms of percent, the biggest drops were in New Orleans (-17.1%), Louisville (-12.6%), Phoenix (-11.8%), Boston (-10.3%), and Virginia Beach-Norfolk (-9.9%). In actual numbers, the biggest declines were in Boston (-3.6 million riders), Chicago (-2.8 million or -5.2%), Los Angeles (-2.3 million or -4.7%), Philadelphia (-1.4 million or -4.3%), and Atlanta (-1.0 million or -7.9%). Phoenix, San Francisco Oakland, Minneapolis-St. Paul, San Juan, and Cleveland all lost more than 200,000 riders.
New York transit ridership grew by 0.1 percent, which wasn’t enough to offset the declines elsewhere. The decline in most of the rest of the country while ridership grows in New York represents a continuation of a trend since at least 1991. In that year, the New York urban area accounted for 33.5 percent of all transit riders. So far in 2019, the region has accounted for 44.2 percent of all riders. Transit advocates use the growth in New York to justify subsidies everywhere, but the truth is that transit is simply irrelevant in most of the rest of the country.
As usual, you can download my enhanced spreadsheet that provides annual totals in columns HP to IG; modal totals in rows 2163 through 2173; transit agency totals in rows 2180 through 3179; and totals for the 200 largest urban areas in rows 3190 through 3391. The spreadsheet is about 10 megabytes in size.
On the same day that it posted the October update, the Federal Transit Administration also posted the complete 2018 database, which consists of 30 spreadsheets with information on costs, fares, transit vehicles, employees, energy consumption, and more. Tomorrow’s policy brief will analyze the database in detail, while next week’s policy brief will look at energy and greenhouse gas emissions calculated from the database. The FTA also posted the latest annual time series, with operating costs, riders, and other data going back to 1991, capital costs back to 1992, and fares to 2002. The December 31 policy brief will analyze that in detail.
November 30th, 2019
Does Transit Capital Spending Boost Transit Ridership?
By Randal O’Toole, The Antiplanner | November 26, 2019 | Policy brief
Does spending a lot of money on transit improvements boost transit ridership? Since 1992, Dallas-Ft. Worth and Houston have each spent about ten times as much money on transit improvements as San Antonio and Austin. Transit systems in all four urban areas carry fewer riders today than they did in 2000. While Houston ridership has grown since 2012, it is because of a low-cost restructuring of its bus system, not because of transit capital improvements (e.g., new light-rail lines).
To find out whether it is generally true that spending more on transit can generate more riders, I gathered data for more than 100 of the nation’s largest urban areas. The not-so-surprising result is that spending more on transit improvements doesn’t do much to increase ridership. Moreover, the data indicate that urban areas that spend a lot on transit capital improvements don’t grow faster and may grow considerably slower than areas that don’t. Finally, the numbers show that increasing urban densities may have once had an effect on transit ridership, but doesn’t seem to anymore.
Houston and Dallas-Ft. Worth are bigger than San Antonio and Austin and so their transit systems carry more riders, but spending billions on rail transit did not noticeably affect ridership.
The data I used to reach these conclusions come from the Census Bureau and Federal Transit Administration. For each decennial census, the Census Bureau identifies the size and population of each urban area, including the central city or cites in that area, suburbs, and unincorporated areas that have more than about 1,000 people per square mile or are otherwise developed. The Census Bureau also estimates how many people use transit to get to work in each of the urban areas.
Since 2005, the Census Bureau has published annual estimates of population numbers and how people get to work based on the American Community Survey, an annual survey of about 3.5 million households. I gathered population numbers for 1990 through 2010 and estimates for 2018, and transit’s share of commuting from the 1990, and 2000 censuses, and the 2010 and 2018 American Community Surveys.
In addition to measuring the growth of urban areas, the Census Bureau sometimes redefines them, merging some and splitting others. In 2000, the Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach urban areas were merged into one. Seattle and Tacoma urban areas were also merged. The San Francisco urban area lost Concord, Livermore, San Rafael, and Vallejo, though San Rafael was added back in 2010. The Los Angeles urban area lost Mission Viejo, Santa Clarita, and Thousand Oaks. To keep data comparable over time, I added the numbers for urban areas that had been merged or would be separated.
In addition, three urban areas in Colorado–Boulder, Denver, and Longmont–and three in Utah–Ogden, Provo-Orem, and Salt Lake City–are each served by one transit agency. To keep data comparable, I added the numbers for these together.
The Federal Transit Administration’s National Transit Database reports capital expenditures by transit agency and mode for every year from 1992 through 2017. This “capital” spending actually combines capital improvement–that is, construction of new transit facilities–with replacement of existing transit infrastructure and equipment. Since transit agencies that use modes of transit that require lots of infrastructure will need to spend money both building and replacing that infrastructure, I didn’t attempt to separate these numbers.
The FTA numbers sometimes miss spending on early stages of capital improvements. It appears that if an urban area builds a new mode of travel, the FTA sometimes neglects to report capital expenditures until the mode becomes operational. For example, Portland spent $166 million on its commuter-rail line, which opened in 2009, yet only $5.6 million appears in the database, all of which was spent after 2009. This may be a mistake in the database, but it appears to have happened in other cities as well.
In addition, some transit agencies pay other railroads to run commuter trains on their lines. Though the other railroads may use some of this money to make capital improvements or replace existing infrastructure, these costs are counted as operating costs, not capital costs. Thus, capital costs are underreported for commuter rail.
The National Transit Database also has a file showing transit ridership and other operating data for every year from 1991 through 2017. Ridership numbers are based on each agencies’ fiscal years, and a plurality if not a majority of agencies have fiscal years that end September 30. For 2018 numbers, I used October 2017 through September 2018 numbers from the database’s monthly ridership updates. While the latest update also has October 2018 through September 2019 data, i.e., F.Y. 2019, I decided to stop with 2018 so the data would be comparable to the census data and because a few transit agencies were late in reporting the most recent ridership numbers.For 1990 ridership data, I used a spreadsheet from the 1990 National Transit Database that isn’t posted on the FTA web site. This reported transit trips, passenger miles, and other data for each transit agency and urban area. Unfortunately, Winston-Salem’s transit agency neglected to report data that year, so I used 1991 ridership for that urban area.
Naturally, I combined the FTA data for urban areas that had been merged or separated by the Census Bureau in 2000. In addition, if you download the FTA historic database, you need to carefully go through it to ensure that urban areas are assigned the correct identification number. The urban area numbers are based on their population ranking in each decennial census, and if the ranking changes, then the numbers can change. If a transit agency disappears or is absorbed by another agency in one decade, the urban area number assigned to that agency is the number in the decade it disappeared, and the FTA never goes back to fix them.
After reviewing the data, I deleted San Juan, Puerto Rico and McAllen, Texas from the dataset as I don’t have reliable 1990 numbers for the former and McAllen didn’t even have a transit system in 1990. I was also missing some 1990 data for most urban areas with fewer than than 380,000 people in 2018. This left 101 urban areas ranging from New York to Durham, North Carolina.
For those 101 urban areas, I was able to find or calculate:
1. The population of each urban area in 1990, 2000, 2010, and 2018 and the annual population growth rate in the intervening periods;
2. The land area of each urban area in those years (the land area in 2018 will be nearly the same as 2010 as the Census Bureau makes only trivial adjustments between decades);
3. The change in population density between each of those years;
4. Capital expenditures, adjusted for inflation, in each year from 1992 through 2017, which I summed into three groups: 1992 through 2000, 2001 through 2009, and 2010 through 2017;
5. Per capita transit ridership in 1990, 2000, 2010, and 2018 and the annual change in per capita ridership in the intervening periods;
6. Transit’s share of commuting in 1990, 2000, 2010, and 2018 (only available for about 60 urban areas for 1980 and 1990) and the change in transit’s share in the intervening periods.
Per Capita Capital Expenditures
Per capita spending on public transit improvements ranged from $4 a year in Columbia, South Carolina and Augusta, Georgia to $350 a year in the New York urban area. Fifteen urban areas spent more than $100 per year, all of which have extensive and/or expensive rail systems. Eleven other urban areas with some form of rail transit spent between $50 and $100 per year.
Most urban areas that spent less than $50 per person per year have no rail other than a streetcar line (whose capital cost may not be included in the National Transit Database). Exceptions were Nashville, which spent little opening a commuter-rail line, and Orlando, which has spent more than $50 per capita since it started building its commuter-rail line but less than that before it had commuter rail. Norfolk-Virginia Beach and Buffalo both have light-rail lines but also spent less than $50 per year due to the shortness of those lines.
New York transit riders come closer than most to covering operating costs with fares. But the region spent $162 billion on capital costs, mostly capital replacement rather than new construction, over 26 years, none of which was recovered by fares. This made New York the most expensive urban area in terms of per capita capital costs.
To compare capital costs with outputs such as ridership, I used Excel’s correlation function. A correlation of 1.00 is perfect; a correlation of 0.00 means no relationship. In practice, correlations of any two sets of 100 random numbers can frequently be as high as 0.10, so anything below that can also be considered random. Correlation does not prove causation, but lack of correlation indicates lack of causation.
Because New York is so different from other urban areas, with four times as many downtown jobs, much greater central city population density, and the nation’s most extensive rail transit system, much of what is true about New York has no applicability to other urban areas in the United States. I tested correlations both with and without New York, but in most cases did not find a significant difference.
Capital Spending & Ridership
First, I tested the correlation between per capita capital spending in each decade with ridership at the end of that decade (2018 in the case of the most recent partial decade). These correlations turned out to be high at around 0.7 to 0.8.
There is a strong correlation between capital spending (which includes replacement of existing capital equipment) and transit ridership.
This is an example of correlation not proving causation. Instead, the urban areas with the highest per capita ridership were those with large downtown job concentrations and relatively dense residential areas. These include Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington. These urban areas also happen to have legacy rail transit systems that require lots of spending on replacing existing infrastructure and equipment, which the National Transit Database considers a capital cost.
Capital Spending & Ridership Growth
What we really want to know is whether an urban area can increase transit ridership by spending more on transit, which usually means building new rail lines. To answer this question, I compared capital spending in each decade with the growth in transit ridership in that decade. Since there may be a lag period between capital spending on ridership growth, I also compared capital spending in each decade with the growth in ridership in the following decade.
The correlation between capital spending and growth in transit ridership is negligible.
In every case, the correlations were low. In only one case was the correlation greater than 0.10. Subtracting New York from the mix reduced the correlations even further.
Capital Spending & Population Growth
Rail advocates often argue that spending money on rail transit stimulates urban growth. Actually, they argue that it stimulates development along the rail lines, but the implication is that it also stimulates growth. After all, if it doesn’t stimulate growth, then all the rail line is doing is influencing the location of new development that would have taken place without the rail line. The difference is crucial because rail advocates also argue that the increased tax revenues from the new growth can help pay for the rail line, and if there is no net new growth, then there will be no net increase in tax revenues.
If there is a correlation between transit capital improvements and population growth, it is weak and quite possibly negative.
I compared per capita capital spending with population growth in each decade. In case there is a lag effect, I also compared capital spending with population growth in the following decade. The correlations were low, though not as low as between capital spending and ridership growth. However, a majority of the correlations were negative, suggesting that more capital spending slows population growth.
Capital Spending & Transit’s Share
In most urban areas, transit’s share of commuting is low and declining. But the correlation between per capita capital spending and the change in transit’s share of commuting is moderate, between 0.3 and 0.6 in most cases. I suspect this is another case where the two variables–per capita capital spending and the change in transit’s share–are not a causal relationship but are related to a third variable, in this case the growth in downtown jobs.
The correlation between transit capital spending and the growth in transit’s share of commuting seems to be mainly due to a few urban areas with large downtowns and, in most cases, legacy rail transit systems that require much expensive capital replacement.
The positive correlation seems to be mainly due to the older urban areas with high downtown job numbers and legacy rail systems: Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington. They are joined by Seattle, whose downtown has seen amazing job growth in the last decade. However, other urban areas that spent a lot on rail, including Dallas, Houston, and Denver, have seen transit’s share steadily fall, while transit share fell in two out of the three time periods in Baltimore, St. Louis, and San Diego. Interestingly, transit’s share of commuting grew in Phoenix and Orlando until they built rail, when it fell.
It is worth noting that several urban areas, including Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Portland, San Francisco, and San Jose, were able to increase transit’s share of commuting between 2010 and 2018 despite a decline in per capita transit ridership in the same period. This is likely because ride hailing services such as Uber and Lyft are taking more non-commuting trips away from transit than commute trips. This is a continuation of trends that began in the 1920s when automobiles first became affordable to a majority of American families.
Density & Per Capita Ridership
Urban planners fervently believe that they can boost transit ridership by increasing population densities. Since my data set includes populations and land areas, I was able to test this. As usual, I tested changes in density in each decade with changes in per capita ridership in that decade as well as in the next decade.
If increasing population densities ever had an effect on transit ridership, that effect is far weaker today.
The results were mixed. Increasing densities were associated with increasing per capita ridership in the 1990s and 2000s, but negatively associated with them in the 2010s. Further, increasing densities in either the 1990s or 2000s had no effect on the growth of per capita ridership in the 2000s or 2010s. These results suggest that, if it ever was true that increasing densities could increase transit ridership, it isn’t true anymore.
The amount of money transit agencies spend on capital improvements has almost no effect on ridership or regional growth. If anything, regions that spend more on transit improvements grow slower than ones that spend less. Capital improvements may have a small effect on transit’s share of commuting, though the real effect is most likely from the growth of the number of downtown jobs and the fact that regions with growing downtowns have a lot of rail transit that requires capital replacement.
This analysis also found some indications that factors that once influenced transit ridership have less of an influence or no influence today. Urban areas were once able to increase ridership by increasing their population densities, but that no longer appears to be true.
What it really comes down to is that, outside of New York and six other urban areas, transit is a negligible factor in transportation. In six of those seven urban areas (not including Seattle), most money must go to capital replacement, not expansion, which is a side effect of those regions’ reliance on expensive forms of transit.
Transit is in decline in most of the nation. Just spending more money on transit is not going to change this. Transit agencies and cities that want to increase ridership need to find more cost-effective ways of doing so than building expensive transit improvements.
For those who are interested, the data I collected to produce this policy brief is available in a downloadable spreadsheet.
November 27th, 2019
Cost Commentary: This article by Randal O’Toole is the summary of a very thorough analysis of Austin’s transit plan for the 2020 election. It presents further strong evidence that the plan is not responsible because similar plans for public transit have never been achieved by any City in the U.S. and this plan is also contrary to transit trends of reducing ridership throughout the major Texas Cities and other similar cities from coast to coast.
You may review additional articles regarding transit, prior to or after this posting, for additional confirming information.
Planning for an Unattainable Fantasy
By Randal O’Toole in ‘The Antiplanner’ | November 5, 2019 | Policy brief
Austin is one of the fastest-growing cities in America, and the city of Austin and Austin’s transit agency, Capital Metro, have a plan for dealing with all of the traffic that will be generated by that growth: assume that a third of the people who now drive alone to work will switch to transit, bicycling, walking, or telecommuting by 2039. That’s right up there with planning for dinner by assuming that food will magically appear on the table the same way it does in Hogwarts.
Austin planners say that 74 percent of Austin workers drive alone to their jobs. In this, they are already behind the times, as the 2018 American Community Survey found that 75.4 percent of Austin workers drove alone (that’s for the city of Austin; the drive-alone share in the the Austin urban area was 77.0 percent). The 2018 survey was released only a month before Austin’s latest planning document, but even the 2017 survey found that 75 percent of Austin workers drove alone. You have to go back to the 2016 survey to find 74 percent drive-alones. So while Austin planners are assuming they can reduce driving alone from 74 to 50 percent, it is actually moving in the other direction.
Planners also claim that 11 percent of Austin workers carpool to work, an amount they hope to maintain through 2039. They are going to have trouble doing that as carpooling, in fact, only accounted for 8.0 percent of Austin workers in 2018.
“Today” is what Austin planners say today’s commute shares are, which appears to be based on 2016 numbers. 2018 shows commute shares from the 2018 American Community Survey while 2039 shows Austin’s targets.
Planners hope to increase telecommuting from its current 8 percent (which is accurate) to 14 percent. That could be difficult as they have no policy tools that can influence telecommuting.
Planners also hope to increase walking and bicycling from their current 2 and 1 percent to 4 and 5 percent. Walking to work is almost always greater than cycling to work, so it’s difficult to see how they plan to magic cycling to be greater than walking. This is important because cycling trips are longer than walking trips and so have more of a potential impact on driving.
Finally, planners want to increase transit from 4 to 16 percent. In fact, transit carried just 3.24 percent of workers to their jobs in 2018, down from 3.62 percent in 2016. Changing from 4 to 16 percent is a an almost impossible 300 percent increase; changing from 3.24 to 16 is an even more formidable 394 percent increase. Again, reality is moving in the opposite direction from planners’ goals.
When reading this plan, my first question was, “has anyone ever been able to reduce driving alone to work from roughly 75 to 50 percent?” And the second question was, “has anyone ever been able to increase transit’s share by 300 to 390 percent?” Of course, I had similar questions about the projected quintupling of cycling and other parts of the plan, but those were the two big ones. We can answer these questions by looking at changes in commuting in various cities and urban areas between 2000 and 2018, which is approximately the amount of time in Austin’s planning period.
Austin planners offer a list of strategies and projects that are supposed to produce major changes in transportation habits. For the most part, the strategies are similar to those used in many other cities.
For example, the carpooling strategies include Commute Solutions, a web site that allows people to find potential carpoolers; Smart Trips, another web site; Movability, a web site for employers; vanpooling; and similar programs. All of these programs assume that people are actively looking for carpooling partners. The reality is that the vast majority of carpooling is “fampooling,” that is, family members riding together to work. Carpooling has declined because family sizes have declined, so there are fewer opportunities for fampooling.
Austin’s “active transportation” (meaning walking and cycling) strategies include new sidewalks, pedestrian and bike trails, a Safe Route to School program, and similar programs. Again, communities all over the nation are using similar programs. Safe Route to Schools, for example, is a federal grant program that has given money to cities all over the country.
Austin’s transit strategies include adjusting traffic signals to give priority to transit vehicles, transit incentives including discounted transit passes and a frequent-rider program, new park-and-ride stations, and of course Project Connect, Capital Metro’s dream of high-cost, “high-capacity” transit routes. (The term “high-capacity” is in quotes because some modes that Capital Metro calls “high-capacity,” such as light rail, are in fact low-capacity transit.) Again, many other cities have used signal priority systems, discounted transit fares, and high-cost transit systems to attract riders.
To see how well these programs have worked, I looked at journey-to-work data published by the Census Bureau. From 1960 to 2000, the decennial census asked a sampling of people how they got to work. Since 2005, the Census Bureau has done an annual American Community Survey asking people, among other things, how they get to work. The most recent American Community Survey data are from 2018.
Since Austin is proposing to change people’s transportation habits by 2039, or 20 years in the future, I compared data for 2000 with 2018, which is close to 20 years of change. I looked at the data for 262 of the nation’s largest cities and 208 of the nation’s largest urban areas and posted a spreadsheet with these data so you can see what happened in your city or urban area.
I first looked to see which areas saw the biggest declines in the share of workers driving alone to work and/or the biggest increases in the share taking transit to work. Then I tried to determine what caused those changes and whether Austin’s plans are likely to produce similar results.
Reducing Drive-Alone Share
Between 2000 and 2018, the share of workers driving alone to work increased in 53 percent of major cities and 54 percent of urban areas. In most of the places where driving alone declined, it fell by less than 3 percentage points. Among central cities such as Austin, driving alone fell by more than 9 percentage points in only two: Seattle, where it fell by 12 percentage points, and San Francisco, where it fell by 10. It also declined by 19 percentage points in Seattle’s suburb of Bellevue and by 12 percentage points in San Francisco suburbs San Mateo and Mountain View.
In this and the next two charts, “before” is 2016 for Austin and 2000 for the other central cities; “after” is Austin’s 2039 target and 2018 for the other central cities. The other cities shown are the ones that saw the greatest decline of driving alone between 2000 and 2018.
Among major urban areas, driving alone declined by 10 percentage points in Livermore (which is really a suburb of San Francisco but is counted as a separate urban area by the Census Bureau), 6 in Seattle, Concord (another suburb of San Francisco), Danbury, and Ann Arbor, and 5 in Flagstaff, San Francisco-Oakland, Rochester, Albany, and Boston.
The fact that driving alone fell by much more in cities such as Seattle and San Francisco than in their urban areas suggests that a sorting process is taking place, where people who prefer not to drive move to the cities while people who prefer to drive are sorted into the suburbs. The result is that city programs that attempt to reducing driving may have a negligible effect when the urban areas are considered as a whole.
In Seattle, the main factor changing commuting habits has been the tremendous growth of jobs in the downtown area, a result of Amazon, Microsoft, and other high-tech companies building new downtown high-rise office buildings. According to the Downtown Seattle Association, downtown Seattle had 244,000 jobs in 2000 and 314,000 in 2018. Today, Seattle may be the only major city in American that has more than half of its jobs downtown. Since hub-and-spoke transit systems work particularly well for downtown workers, increasing downtown jobs increases transit’s share of commuting. Downtown San Francisco also has the fourth-largest concentration of jobs in the United States.
Only about 20 percent of jobs in the city of Austin (and less than 10 percent in the Austin urban area) are located in downtown Austin. Thus, Austin would have a difficult time replicating Seattle’s results.
Austin’s plan for reducing the share of people driving alone to work involves reducing parking and road diets (converting auto lanes to bike or bus lanes). They call this “managing demand” as in “managing parking supply to reduce demand” or “manage congestion by managing demand.” But creating a shortage of something doesn’t change demand; all it does is create frustrated travelers. Many cities and regions have tried similar programs, yet no city or urban area has been able to reduce driving-alone’s share of travel by 24 to 26 percentage points in the last eighteen years, as Austin hopes to do.
Increasing Transit’s Share
Between 2000 and 2018, transit’s share of commuting grew in 43 percent of the nation’s major cities and 37 percent of the nation’s major urban areas. Among central cities, the biggest increases in transit’s share of commuting took place in Albany (4.6 percentage points), Seattle (4.0), New York (3.5) and San Francisco (3.3).
As with the previous chart, the central cities shown saw the greatest changes in transit’s share between 2000 and 2018, yet none came close to Austin’s target.
On the other hand, transit’s share declined in many cities and urban areas that have invested heavily in transit improvements. Transit’s share declined by 5.0 percentage points in Atlanta, 2.6 in Denver, 2.1 in Houston, and 1.6 in Dallas. Transit’s share also declined in each of these urban areas.
Among cities where transit’s share was about 3.2 percent in 2000, which is what Austin’s was in 2018, only one — Kalamazoo, Michigan — saw a large increase in transit’s share, and that was only 50 percent more than what it was in 2000. Phoenix and Charlotte both had 3.2 percent shares in 2000, invested heavily in light rail, and saw transit’s share nonetheless decline by 2018.
Austin’s dreams are also contradicted by recent ridership trends. Austin, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Houston, and San Antonio are some of the fastest-growing urban areas in the United States, having collectively gained 50 percent more people from 2000 to 2018. Yet the transit systems in all four urban areas have lost 4 to 22 percent of their riders. Per capita ridership has fallen by 33 to 58 percent, with Austin transit suffering the largest losses and per capita losses. Thus, Austin’s assumption that it can increase transit’s share by more than 12 percentage points, or by 394 percent, in the next 20 years appears highly unrealistic.
Many cities have carpooling programs like the ones planned or used by Austin, yet since 2000, carpooling has declined in 92 percent of major American cities and 90 percent of major urban areas. As noted, most carpooling is fampooling, so unless family sizes increase, carpooling is likely to decline.
Increasing Walking and Cycling
A slight majority of cities and urban areas saw cycling’s share of commuting increase, but only a few — 5 percent of cities and 33 percent of urban areas — saw walking increase. Even where increases took place, they tended to be small.
Among central cities, cycling grew by 3.6 percentage points (which is close to Austin’s target) in Portland, 3.1 in Washington, 2.4 in New Orleans, 2.2 in San Francisco, 1.9 in Seattle, 1.6 in Denver, and 1.5 in Minneapolis. In other central cities and most suburbs it grew by less than 1.5 percentage points. Walking increased by 6.2 percentage points in the city of Boston; 2.9 in Portland, Maine; 2.3 in Washington; 1.9 in San Francisco; 1.6 in New York; and 1.0 in Seattle.
When taken together, Austin’s goals for increasing walking and cycling together are the one set of targets that appear to be attainable.
Among major urban areas, cycling increased by 1.9 percentage points in Santa Barbara, 1.4 in Portland and Anchorage, 1.0 in Madison, 0.9 in San Jose, and 0.8 in New Orleans and San Francisco-Oakland. Walking increased by 4.0 percentage points in Flagstaff; 2.8 in Santa Cruz; 1.6 in Portland Maine; 1.4 in Ft. Collins; 1.1 in Seattle; and 1.0 in Boston.
Austin’s goals for walking and cycling appear to be the only ones that seem attainable, yet even they will be difficult. Moreover, a lot of the increase in walking and cycling in various cities seems to be coming out of transit’s share, not the drive-alone share. Notice from the first chart that Austin itself has seen an increase in walking and cycling at the expense of transit, while drive-alone’s share has also increased.
Austin’s numbers are also unrealistic in that planners assume they can increase cycling’s share of travel to be greater than walking’s share. This is significant since, as previously noted, cycling trips tend to be longer than walking trips and so are more likely to have an effect on total driving. Nationwide, cycling’s share of commuting exceeds that of walking in less than 4 percent of major cities and less than 3 percent of major urban areas.
Between 2000 and 2018, people working at home grew in 95 percent of major cities and 98 percent of major urban areas. Most of this growth took place without any city or regional policies promoting it, and the most growth appears to have taken place in high-tech cities and urban areas such as the cities of Berkeley and Palo Alto and the Raleigh and Austin urban areas.
While working at home may increase further, Austin’s assumption that it can increase working at home by 6 percentage points to 14 percent appears unrealistic. Only two suburbs — Highlands Ranch, Colorado and Scottsdale, Arizona — had that high a share of people working at home in 2018. The highest shares in any central cities are Portland and Atlanta, each of which are under 10 percent.
Realistically, only certain jobs are amenable to working at home. Most working-class jobs must be done either in factories or on site. Many office jobs, such as jobs in the banking, insurance, and similar sectors, require regular face-to-face contact. Most education, health care, retail, and wholesale jobs must also be in non-residential locations. The number of people working at home may grow, but the amount of that growth is beyond Austin’s control.
Planners have developed two main approaches to transportation. One is to estimate how people will travel and then provide and maintain the infrastructure to allow them to do so as efficiently and safely as possible. The other is to imagine how you wish people would travel and then provide the infrastructure assuming that to happen. The latter method is likely to lead to misallocation of capital resources, increased congestion, and increased costs to travelers.
Austin’s plan is firmly based on this second approach. The city’s targets of reducing driving alone by a third, maintaining carpooling at an already too-high number, and increasing transit by 394 percent are completely unrealistic. No American city has achieved similar results in the past two decades and none are likely to come close in the next two decades.
As discussed in a previous policy brief, one of the biggest factors in commute patterns is the number of downtown jobs. Many people think population density is a major factor, but among urban areas the correlation between urban population densities and the share of commuters who use transit is only about 0.4. Meanwhile, the correlation between the number of downtown jobs and the share of commuters who use transit is nearly 0.9.
So it is not surprising that the cities that have seen the biggest reductions in driving alone and biggest increases in transit commuting — Seattle and San Francisco — have hundreds of thousands more downtown jobs than Austin. Even they haven’t seen changes as great as Austin is fantasizing for 2039. In short, Austin needs to go back to the drawing board and develop a plan that is based on how people will actually travel in 2039 and not one based on how planners wish they would travel.
October 8th, 2019
COST Commentary: The paper below by Randal O’Toole is an excellent summary of U.S. rail transit, beginning as an early, effective transit mode in Boston in 1838 (19th Century) and ending today as rail transit has become outdated and obsolete as a transit mode in the 21st Century. This is particularly important as Austin and Cap Metro consider the future role of of transit in Austin by their ‘Project Connect’ collaboration. The outdated rail and new technologies that exists now and that are moving rapidly into transportation/mobility considerations will dramatically change the future of human mobility. This all seems to have been given little attention/consideration by the ‘Project Connect’ plans which are being developed between the City and Capital Metro.
I recommend careful reading of the paper below which is only 13 typed pages, excluding references. It encapsulates the strong basis for eliminating rail and dedicated transit lanes as alternatives to address Austin’s future mobility challenges. It can be all summarized in the question: Why should all taxpayers highly subsidize the use of public transit serving less than 1% of the passenger miles traveled, which includes an increasing percentage of higher paid riders. If one truly analyzes and considers this, along with the horrible, resulting tax burden which will limit opportunities for future generations, there is no way the eventual proposed 2020 transit bond will be approved by voters in Austin.
Total U.S. Public transit ridership has declined 6.9% in the past three years and is about equal to ridership in 2005, 13 years ago. This is somewhat similar to the transit ridership in the 4 major Texas Cities (see next earlier post): All four cities had less transit ridership than in 1999, nineteen years ago. This is a profound statement made by almost all citizens throughout the Nation: They have chosen not to ride public transit because it does not meet their mobility needs. Limiting trips to public transit’s access creates a degraded quality-of-life and limits citizen’s access to the region’s opportunities.
Please consider this posting and the ‘Cost Commentary’ content in more recent, previous postings listed below:
Austin’s Major 2020 Transit Bond and “2018 Census Data Show Transit in Decline”
Facts and Data Evaluation of Austin’s Proposed Transit System Indicates Continuing Death Spiral
Austin & Cap Metro’s New Transit Plans Will Result in Huge Wasteful Cost Impacts On All Taxpayers and Increasing Congestion, Reducing Quality-Of-Life For All Citizens
Transit declines as people rapidly increase car ownership
Why Cities Are Abandoning Light Rail Transit In Major Public Transit Decline
Mass Transit is collapsing everywhere
New Austin & Cap Metro Transit Plan will waste billions of taxpayer dollars and totally fail.
There are many prior postings on the COST web site: www.costaustin.org
We will continue to expand content regarding this critical transportation issue. I got extra energy from the this 13 page summary. The number 13 is my “lucky” number, adopted at age 11 in Burnet, Texas after winning a cake-walk. It was also my uniform number in high school sports; Football Captain, All City, All Conference and third-place team in Washington state where I lived at the time.
Six Problems with Rail Transit and Six Myths of Rail Transit
by Randal O’Toole, January 4, 2017
Rail transit has long had a presence in American cities. The first commuter trains served the suburbs of Boston in 1838. The first successful electric streetcar opened in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1886. Chicago opened the first electric elevated train in 1895, while New York opened the first electric heavy-rail subway line in 1904. Electric-powered commuter trains date to 1906.
Through the mid-20th century, private transit companies served the vast majority of American cities. After World War II, these companies operated profitable, if declining, businesses in the face of rising automobile ownership. A handicap was that transit companies were considered public utilities and highly regulated. They had to seek government permission for route changes, fare increases, and other service changes. By 1950, buses were recognized as a less expensive, more flexible, and safer transit mode than streetcars or most other types of rail transit.
The beginning of the end for private transit came in 1964 with the Urban Mass Transit Act. The act promised federal capital grants to public agencies that took over private transit companies. Within a decade, the private transit industry was virtually wiped out, replaced almost completely by tax-subsidized public agencies.
Today, city governments that are frustrated with automobiles and congestion are turning to the 19th century technology of rail transit for relief. But pumping subsidies into rail transit is based on a nostalgic view of the past, and it is not economically or environmentally sound. It will not solve America’s congestion woes.
The Department of Transportation’s Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has an annual budget of $12 billion, most which is spent on subsidies to state and local governments.(1) Through these subsidies and related regulations, federal policymakers play a major role in shaping urban transportation choices.
Transit funding is not a proper function of the federal government, and it distorts state and local decision-making. Federal funding encourages state and local governments to pursue high-cost and less-efficient transportation solutions — in particular, rail transit. Outside of a few hyper-dense cities in the world, rail transit is a luxury for the few paid for by everyone. Commuter trains and subways may be necessary to keep Manhattan moving, but that does not mean that the rest of the nation should subsidize them. Outside of New York City, rail transit makes little economic sense.
The federal government should end its transit subsidies, and American cities should focus on finding economically sound and consumer-driven approaches to easing congestion. Policymakers at all levels should work to revive private transit options for cities, and they should allow consumers to make transportation choices in a neutral and competitive market environment.
History of Urban Transit
Early urban transit ventures were privately financed. However, because many of these ventures used public rights-of-way, companies often had to obtain franchises from city councils. But other than rights-of-way, transit companies received no subsidies or other public support through the end of the 19th century.
The first popular public transit was the omnibus, a horse-drawn wagon with seats for passengers.(2) New York City saw its first omnibus in 1827. Then came the horse-drawn railcar in the 1830s, which would be used in more than 500 American cities. In the same decade, the first steam-powered commuter trains started carrying suburban workers into Boston. The first successful elevated transit line was built in New York in 1871.
Electric streetcars arrived on the scene in the late 1880s. They were much more efficient than previous forms of travel and would be adopted by more than 1,000 American cities and towns. Other innovations included interurban rail lines, electric-powered elevated rail lines, and subway lines, which were first installed in New York City in 1904.
Until this point, urban transit was privately financed and unsubsidized. All this innovation to improve convenience and reduce costs came from private entrepreneurs. But soon after the turn of the century, governments began to intrude. Government-owned streetcar lines were opened in Bismarck, North Dakota, and Monroe, Louisiana. And New York City took over the previously private Staten Island Ferry.
Private transit companies faced several financial difficulties. Many streetcar lines were built by real-estate developers to attract people to their housing projects. A developer would subdivide land on the city fringe, build a streetcar line from the development to downtown, and sell lots and homes. The profits on the real-estate development paid for the capital cost of the streetcar line. Transit fares covered only the operating cost. That worked fine for a few decades; but when the time came to replace the streetcars, rails, and other equipment, the companies often lacked the capital.
One way to raise funds was to increase fares. But governments regulated fares, and proposals to raise fares were regularly rejected by city councils and public utility commissions. This left many transit companies with aging streetcar fleets in precarious financial positions.
Progressive-era politicians saw the public takeover of transit companies as a solution. San Francisco was the first major city to operate its own streetcars starting in 1912. New York City started operating and acquiring subway lines in 1932. In 1938, Chicago obtained the first federal grants to support construction of a publicly owned rail line.
In cities where transit remained private, electric power companies often worked to consolidate streetcar lines under one owner. That gave rise to concerns about monopoly. In 1935 Congress ordered power companies to divest their transit operations. Since transit was already struggling due to the rise of the automobile and the Depression, this mandate put many companies on the brink of bankruptcy.
One solution was to convert streetcar systems to bus systems, which did not require as much infrastructure. Of the hundreds of American cities served by streetcars in 1910, at least 230 either went out of business or converted to buses by the end of 1929. Another 300 converted during the 1930s, and then 100 more in the 1940s.(3)
Fifty American cities still had streetcars in 1949. But by 1967, only Boston, Cleveland, El Paso, New Orleans, Newark, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco still had streetcars, while New York and Chicago were the only other cities to still have other forms of rail transit. The conversions from rail to buses were made for efficiency reasons, not monopolistic reasons, as often claimed.(4)
By the early 1960s, all the rail transit systems except one had been taken over by public agencies, but the vast majority of bus systems were still private. That changed quickly when Congress started to make capital grants available to public agencies — but not private companies — that operated or acquired transit systems. Within a decade, all but a handful of transit systems were taken over by tax-subsidized public agencies.
Congress did not pass the Urban Mass Transit Act of 1964 in order to provide mobility to low-income families who could not afford cars. Rather, Congress was reacting to proposals by various railroads to discontinue interstate commuter trains serving Boston, Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia.(5) At the time, these four urban areas plus San Francisco had the only commuter trains in America. Urban leaders argued that the commuter trains were essential to maintaining jobs in downtown areas.
The Urban Mass Transit Act was designed to provide federal support for interstate commuter trains. But politics quickly broadened that mission to providing federal support to mass transit in every state and metropolitan area. Since then, about $160 billion has been spent on federal rail subsidies, and the result has been a monument to the folly of federal intervention into a properly local and private activity.
Six Problems with Rail Transit
The most important thing to understand about rail transit is that it is very expensive. The Government Accountability Office has shown, for example, that buses running on arterial streets can provide service as fast and frequently as light rail at a lower operating cost and for about two percent of the capital cost.(6) Outside of a few very dense places such as Manhattan, Tokyo, and Hong Kong, there is little that trains can do that buses cannot do faster, better, more flexibly, and at a lower cost.
The typical light-rail project today costs about $160 million per route mile, although one project in Seattle cost well over $600 million per mile. Heavy rail typically costs about twice as much as light rail: A recent extension of the Washington Metrorail system cost almost $300 million per mile, for example. Commuter-rail typically costs $5 to $10 million per mile.
Freeways typically cost much less than rail.(7) The Fort Bend Tollway Authority built a four-lane freeway on the outskirts of Houston, complete with interchanges and over- and underpasses, for $2.4 million per lane mile. The Colorado Department of Transportation widened Interstate 25 through the heart of Denver, which required numerous overpasses, at a cost of $19 million per lane mile. Urban freeways cost more than suburban ones, but counting urban and suburban areas together, the average cost is less than $10 million per lane mile.
Rail advocates claim that rail lines can move as many people as several freeway lanes, but to make that claim they use a double standard: comparing full railcars with the average occupancy of commuter automobiles. In fact, like automobiles, the average transit vehicle carries far fewer people than its capacity. Most rail cars and buses carried an average of less than one-sixth of their capacity in 2014.(8) Even sport utility vehicles do better than that.
When calculated using full automobiles and full trains, a single freeway lane can move more people per hour than most light-rail lines, while four freeway lanes can move more people than most subway or elevated lines. When calculated using automobiles and trains with average occupancy rates, a single freeway lane moves several times as many people as a light-rail line, and two freeway lanes move more people than the busiest subway lines in the United States.(9)
2. Cost Overruns
Rail transit projects are notorious for cost overruns. According to the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), federally subsidized rail projects built between 1980 and 2015 had overruns averaging 50 percent.(10) Moreover, there has been no tendency for estimates to improve, as overruns since 2010 have been greater than in previous decades. By comparison, a study by Danish planning professor Bent Flyvbjerg found that overruns for North American highway projects averaged just 8 percent.(11)
Here are some examples of over-budget rail projects:
• In 1998, Phoenix proposed building a 13-mile light-rail line for $390 million, or $30 million per mile.(12) Completed in 2008, the final cost of the 19.6-mile line was $1.41 billion, or $72 million per mile.(13)
• In 2000, Charlotte, North Carolina, estimated that a light-rail line would cost $331 million.(14) The final cost turned out to be $427 million.(15)
• In 2004, the first 12-mile leg of the Dulles rail project in Virginia was projected to cost $1.5 billion.(16) The final cost when completed was $2.9 billion.(17)
• In 2004, Denver’s Regional Transit District persuaded voters to support a $4.7 billion rail transit system. The later estimate was that the system will cost 68 percent more at $7.9 billion.(18)
While cost projections are not an exact science, Flyvbjerg believes that persistent underestimates of rail construction costs result from “strategic misrepresentation, that is, lying.”(19) Planners deliberately lowball estimates in order to gain project approval. Once the project is approved, they develop more realistic estimates, add expensive bells and whistles, and respond to political pressures to lengthen the proposed project.
Many of the original estimates for transit projects are made by consulting firms that expect to receive contracts for engineering and construction later on. As such, these firms have an incentive to make projections that will gain approval, both by underestimating the costs and overestimating the benefits.
In one example of strategic misrepresentation, Parsons Brinkerhoff (now known as PB) compared a proposal to bring rail transit to Madison, Wisconsin, with improvements to bus service. To its dismay, the company found that bus improvements alone attracted more riders than bus improvements combined with rail transit. Later, PB admitted that it crippled the bus alternative, making it appear that rail transit was needed to boost transit ridership.(20) When the government agency that hired PB presented the results to the public, it never mentioned the bus alternative at all, making it appear that rail transit was the only way to attract people to transit.(21)
Despite the record of cost overruns, transit agencies often claim that they finish their projects “on budget.” For example, after adjusting for inflation, Denver’s Southwest light-rail line cost 28 percent more than its original estimate.(22) The city’s Southeast light-rail line went 59 percent over its original estimate.(23) Yet Denver’s Regional Transit District insisted that both projects were “on budget,” based on the deceptive notion that project costs matched the final budgeted amounts — not the earlier and lower estimates.(24)
Transit agencies generally go heavy into debt to fund rail projects by issuing long-term bonds. But the costs do not end when the bonds are paid off: rail lines must be completely replaced, rebuilt, or rehabilitated about every 30 years. Except for the right-of-way, everything — cars, tracks, roadbed, stations, electrical facilities — must be replaced or upgraded.
The first Washington, D.C., Metrorail line opened in 1976. In 2002, just 26 years later, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority estimated that it needed $12.2 billion — roughly the cost of constructing the original system — to rehabilitate the system.(25) It did not find this money, so the system has suffered frequent breakdowns and service delays.(26) In 2009, an accident due to maintenance failures killed nine people. In 2015, smoke in a subway tunnel caused by maintenance failures killed one more. Although the Metro delayed many trains to undertake maintenance work in 2016, the agency now says that it needs $25 billion to completely restore the system over the next 10 years.(27)
The heavy rail transit systems in Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, and New York also face fiscal crises from high rehabilitation costs. Rehabilitating light-rail lines is also expensive. The first modern light-rail lines, including those in Buffalo, Portland, Sacramento, and San Diego, are now about three decades old and will need major work. Nationwide, the FTA says that urban transit systems have a deferred maintenance backlog of $86 billion.(28)
Rehabilitation costs do not increase the capacities of transit systems, and thus should be considered maintenance costs. But the FTA allows transit agencies to count rehabilitation as a capital cost. The significance is that when rail advocates claim, as they often do, that rail lines cost less to operate and maintain than buses, they are ignoring these long-term maintenance costs.
Many of the same agencies that cannot afford to maintain their existing systems are nonetheless embarking on expansions. New York’s MTA is spending $16.8 billion building an eight-mile Second Avenue Subway. Washington’s Metro is spending $6.8 billion building a rail extension to Dulles airport. San Francisco’s BART is planning to spend more than $6 billion for a line to San Jose. Boston is spending $2.3 billion extending light rail to Medford, Massachusetts. Chicago is extending several of its commuter-rail lines.
The disconnect between planning and budgetary reality has become typical of rail-transit agencies. Rail transit fares do not come close to paying the operating costs of systems, much less the costs of line rehabilitation or new rail construction. If transit agencies cannot afford to maintain their existing lines, it makes no sense for them to build new ones.
To justify spending billions of taxpayer dollars on rail, advocates often claim that middle-class automobile owners will not ride a bus. In fact, transit ridership is more sensitive to frequency and speed than to whether the vehicles run on rubber tires or steel wheels. “When quantifiable service characteristics such as travel time and cost are equal,” say researchers, “there is no evident preference for rail travel over bus.”(29)
The real problem is what happens to overall transit system ridership when agencies face soaring costs and must choose between keeping the trains or buses running. Having built rail, many agencies feel compelled to cut more efficient bus service, which in turn causes overall transit ridership to stagnate or drop.
In the late 1970s, Atlanta began building a heavy-rail system. By 1985 it had 25 route miles and ridership had grown to 155 million trips per year. Since then, the Atlanta urban area population has doubled, rail miles have also doubled, yet ridership has fallen somewhat. In 2014, it was just 137 million. While rail ridership has grown, that growth has been at the expense of bus ridership.(30)
In the early 1980s, Los Angeles maintained low bus fares, and between 1982 and 1985 ridership grew by more than a third. Then it built rail transit, which suffered huge cost overruns. In response, the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) raised bus fares and cut service, leading to a 17 percent drop in bus ridership by 1995. The NAACP sued, arguing that the agency was cutting service to minority neighborhoods in order to finance rail lines to white middle-class neighborhoods. The court ordered the MTA to restore bus service for 10 years, forcing it to curtail its rail plans. Bus ridership rebounded to above its 1985, pre-rail level, while rail ridership stagnated. As soon as the court order expired, MTA cut bus service and started building new rail lines, and ridership has fallen again.
When St. Louis opened its first light-rail line in 1993, it was hailed as a great success because system ridership, which had shrunk by nearly 40 percent in the previous decade, started growing again. But when St. Louis opened a second line in 2001, doubling the length of the rail system, rail ridership remained flat and bus ridership declined. By 2007, total system ridership was no greater than it had been in 1998.
As of 2003, about half of the urban areas with rail transit had ridership declines compared to the mid-1980s. The remaining areas enjoyed increases in ridership, but at rates slower than increases in driving and, in most cases, slower than population growth.(31)
Many areas with bus-only transit systems did far better. From 1983 to 2013, ridership on bus transit systems in Austin, Charlotte, Houston, Las Vegas, Louisville, and Raleigh-Durham all grew as fast, or faster, than automobile driving. The 2010 census revealed that the number of commuters taking transit to work in urban areas with rail transit declined overall, while the number in bus-only urban areas increased.(32)
5. Land Use
Buses are flexible and can be easily rerouted when travel patterns change. Rail lines take years to build and are much harder to re-rout. While bus systems can respond to rider demand, rail systems must generate their own demand. This leads transit agencies to promote intrusive land-use regulations that mandate or subsidize high-density developments close to rail stations, so-called transit-oriented development.
Instead of customizing transit systems to serve American cities as they exist today, transit agencies want to rebuild the cities to suit the kind of transit service the agencies want to provide. There are many problems with this aspiration, not least of which is the fact that transit carries less than 5 percent of travel in all American urban areas except New York, and it seems absurd to design cities around such little-used transportation systems.
Another problem is that land-use policies have, at best, marginal effects on people’s transportation choices. Transportation technologies do influence land uses: cities built before 1890, when most people walked for most of their travel, were much denser than cities built between 1890 and 1930, when streetcars were popular. Those cities, in turn, were denser than cities built after World War II, when autos were dominant. But this process is not reversible: building cities to pre-auto or pre-streetcar designs will not lead people to significantly reduce their driving.
According to Robert Cervero, an enthusiast of transit-oriented development, such developments do increase transit ridership, but this is “due to residential self-selection — i.e., a life-style preference for transit-oriented living.”(33) In other words, people who prefer transit over driving choose to live in such areas, but that does not mean that the urban design has influenced their travel habits.
Also, the market for transit-oriented development is very limited: surveys find that four out of five Americans would prefer to live in single-family, detached houses than townhouses, condominiums, or apartments.(34) Once the one-in-five demand for multifamily is met, cities like Portland and Denver have had to resort to huge subsidies to entice developers to build more high-density developments, and the evidence indicates that the people who live in those developments drive just as much as people elsewhere.
Rail transit is often described as “high-capacity transit.” Yet its capacity is not that high in reality. Heavy-rail lines, such as subways, are the highest capacity transit. If people jam in tightly, the “crush capacity” of a heavy-rail car is about 180 people. An eight-car heavy-rail train can therefore carry about 1,440 people. If rail systems can manage to move one train every minute — and only a few American rail lines can support such traffic — the line can move 86,400 people per hour. This is how rail advocates are able to claim that a rail line can move as many people as several freeway lanes. The capacities of other forms of rail transit are much lower.
However, few places really need such high-capacity transit. People look at the freeway during rush hour and think, “If only we had a rail line, all those people could ride.” But the reality is that all the people in those cars have different origins and destinations. They may all be in this freeway corridor now, but a rail line will only serve a tiny number of them because most do not both live and work near a rail station.
What cities really need is flexible-capacity transit: transit capable of moving large numbers of people where needed while also economically moving small numbers where demand is lower. Rail transit, with its very high fixed costs, cannot qualify. Rail-transit agencies try to provide flexible capacities by having buses feed into rail stations, but transit agencies lose riders every time they ask people to change vehicles.
Buses can provide flexible-capacity transit. They can run on city streets in the suburbs where demand is low, move to high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) or high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes where demand is higher, and if demand warrants, use exclusive bus lanes. While the capacity of exclusive bus lanes may not be quite as high as heavy rail, buses, unlike the trains, can easily start from different origins and diverge to different destinations, allowing more people to make their transit journeys without transfers.
This means that light rail and commuter rail really make no sense anywhere. Cities that need low-, moderate-, or high-capacity transit can meet those needs with buses. Only areas that need ultra-high-capacity transit might need to consider heavy rail, and outside of New York City no place in the United States truly needs such high capacities.
Six Myths of Rail Transit
Rail transit is not cost-efficient, and it generally fails to attract significantly more riders than improvements in bus service. Yet rail advocates have many other arguments for why cities should build rail transit systems. Here are six popular, but erroneous, reasons that are often given for building rail lines — six myths of rail transit.
1. Economic Development
Rail advocates say that rail transit stimulates economic development. They often point to a streetcar line built in downtown Portland, Oregon, that supposedly stimulated $1.5 billion worth of new development. In fact, much of that development was subsidized with hundreds of millions of dollars of tax-increment financing and other developer subsidies. It is not likely that the streetcar alone would have generated the developments without the subsidies.
Does any rail transit stimulate new development? In the mid-1990s, the FTA asked this question of Robert Cervero, who is a strong proponent of transit-oriented developments, and Samuel Seskin, who works for Parsons Brinkerhoff, the consulting firm that has had a hand in many major rail transit projects over the decades. Despite their bias in favor of rail transit, the authors found that “urban rail transit investments rarely ‘create’ new growth,” and at best, it may “redistribute growth that would have taken place without the investment.”(35)
In other words, rail transit is at best a zero-sum game benefiting some property owners at the expense of others. The property owners who mainly benefit are those who own land downtown because most rail systems are hub-and-spoke systems that focus on downtown. That explains some of the political calculus behind rail: downtown property owners benefit a lot, so they lobby for rail. Other property owners each lose a little, so they have little incentive to lobby against it.
2. People Will Not Ride Buses
Rail advocates claim that buses will not entice middle-class automobile drivers out of their cars, but that rail can. In reality, improvements in bus service can attract as many new transit riders as rail construction — and at a far lower cost.
A survey found that the median income of Washington, D.C., Metrorail riders was 47 percent higher than Metrobus riders, and that 98 percent of rail riders owned an automobile compared with only 80 percent of bus riders.(36) For those who want to get middle-class commuters out of their cars, this is a Pyrrhic victory, considering that the fossil-fuel-generated electricity used to power the Metrorail system emits more carbon dioxide per passenger mile than the average SUV. Meanwhile bus riders have faced repeated service cuts so that the transit agency can keep the trains running.(37)
In the late 1990s, the San Francisco Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission — which spends two-thirds of the region’s transportation funds on transit systems which carry only four percent of the region’s passenger travel — was considering where to invest.(38) One possible project was an extension of BART trains to San Jose, a line so expensive that taxpayers would spend nearly $100 per trip. Another project was improved bus service in Richmond, a city with a heavy population of low-income minorities. Bus improvements, planners estimated, would cost just 75 cents per trip.(39) The commission decided to support the rail line and not the bus improvements. In the commission’s judgment, spending $100 to attract one high-tech worker onto a train was more important than spending the $100 to attract 133 low-income workers onto buses.
A factor behind such decisions is that middle-income individuals are more likely to vote than lower-income individuals. Getting voters to support the idea of transit as a daily necessity — rather than something used only by those who cannot afford cars — is part of the rail agenda. Thus, the goal is not so much to get a large number of people out of their cars, but to get enough people out of their cars to create some middle-class transit dependency and generate support for transit funding.
3. Rails Avoid Congestion
Rail advocates say that an advantage of rail is that it is not slowed by congestion, as are cars and buses. But that begs the question why a small number of people deserve a heavily subsidized transit system allowing them to avoid congestion, while everyone else who is paying the subsidies for rail has to sit in traffic.
More importantly, the premise that we need rail because buses cannot avoid congestion is incorrect. Most major urban freeway systems have high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes or high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes. HOT lane tolls are adjusted to ensure that the lanes do not become congested. An urban area with a network of HOV or HOT lanes as a part of every freeway could allow buses to avoid congestion throughout the region.
Such HOV or HOT lanes cost less than rail lines, and the congestion relief they provide benefits everyone. Bus riders benefit because buses traveling at freeway speeds go faster than light rail (which averages about 20 miles per hour) or heavy-rail trains (which generally average no more than 40 miles per hour). The car drivers using HOV or HOT lanes benefit because they also avoid congestion. People who do not use the lanes also benefit: HOT lanes built parallel to a freeway in southern California draw a third of the traffic off the freeway.
In general, rail transit costs more to build and operate and does less to relieve congestion than new HOV or HOT lanes with bus rapid transit. With a well-designed highway system, buses can not only avoid congestion as well as trains, they can do so at a far lower cost and be put into service almost immediately instead of after a decade of planning and construction.
4. Political Equity
Rail advocates sometimes say, “Let’s build one line and see how it works.” But then the construction of one line often creates political momentum for additional lines. Every urban community wants a share of federal rail dollars, no matter how poorly rail might actually serve their community. The federal grant-in-aid system creates major distortions in urban transportation decisions — cities are steered into less efficient transit choices.
Consider the transportation improvements in a corridor between downtown Denver and Denver International Airport in the 1990s. A study showed that rail transit would cost more to build and operate and less to relieve congestion than new freeway or HOV lanes.(40) Nonetheless, planners picked rail transit.
Suburbs in the Denver area agreed to support the Regional Transit District’s multibillion-dollar rail plan if all the rail lines were built at once. Suburban officials realized that the plan would probably suffer major cost overruns (as proved to be the case) and that whatever line was last on the schedule would probably never be built. In response to the cost overruns, the transit agency proposed to build just four of the six planned lines — a proposal that was naturally rejected by officials from the suburbs whose lines would be left out.(41)
Rail advocates have applied the equity argument to neighborhoods as well as cities. San Francisco is spending $1.6 billion on a 1.7-mile transit tunnel as a part of a project to extend light rail to the Bayshore neighborhood.(42) According to the FTA, Bayshore transit ridership is already very high, but a main reason for building this line is “to achieve a goal of equity with other communities currently served by rail.”(43) By the FTA’s reasoning, if one neighborhood is served by an unaffordable transit line, equity demands that every other neighborhood get equally unaffordable service.
5. It Works in Europe
Americans visit Europe and ride the London subway, the Paris metro, or trams in Italy, and come home wishing the United States had more such transit systems. However, the United States is not Europe: our population densities are lower, and our incomes are higher, so fewer people are likely to ride transit even in dense areas.
Also note that rail transit in Europe is not necessarily efficient. As of 2007, at least 150 European urban areas had some form of rail transit, compared with 30 in the United States.(44) Europe spends several times more money subsidizing those rail lines than the United States spends on transit.(45)
European rail lines may be convenient for tourists, but the average European rarely uses them. In 2004, the average American traveled 87 miles on rail transit; the average European just 101 miles.(46) This difference hardly commends Europe as an example of successful rail transit. Moreover, the share of European travel on rail transit declined from 1.4 percent in 1980 to 1.1 percent in 2000. Meanwhile, the share of European travel using automobiles increased from 76.4 to 78.3 percent.(47)
6. Protecting the Environment
Many people take it for granted that rail transit is good for the environment. The reality is that rail transit uses about as much energy and emits about as much pollution per passenger mile as automobiles. Most transit systems are actually brown compared with the latest cars. The Washington Metro rail system, for example, uses more energy per passenger mile than the average car, and generating electricity to power the system emits more greenhouse gases than the average sports utility vehicle.(48) To the extent that rail transit might save any energy at all, the financial cost of getting a few people to ride trains and drive less is huge.
People who sincerely want to save energy and reduce pollution should focus on making automobiles more environmentally friendly, not on trying to get people to ride rail transit. Economist Charles Lave called this the “Law of Large Proportions,” meaning “the biggest components matter most.”(49) In other words, Americans travel 60 times as many passenger miles in urban areas by automobile as by transit, so a small investment in reducing the environmental effects of automobiles will go much further than a large investment in transit.
Private Transit Solutions
Reforms should remove federal subsidies and related regulations from the transit equation. Federal intervention creates numerous perverse incentives for state and local governments, including:
• Cities are encouraged to build inefficient rail lines because more than half of all federal funds are dedicated to rail transit.
• Transit agencies are encouraged to find the most expensive transit solutions because federal rail construction funds are an open bucket — first-come, first-served.
• Innovative solutions are by-passed, and high costs are guaranteed because of the requirement that transit agencies obtain the approval of their unions to be eligible for federal grants.
• Local transit agencies have strong incentives to claim success with their projects no matter how badly they fail because of the requirement that agencies must refund federal grants if projects are cancelled.
• Federal rules impose a transit planning process that is biased in favor of higher-cost transit projects, and the process allows agencies to systematically low-ball cost estimates and overstate potential ridership.
• Federal subsidies have been mainly directed to capital costs of local transit, not operating costs. That has led to agencies to favor expensive rail over less expensive buses and favor larger buses when smaller ones would do the job.
• Federal regulations distort the flow of funding to the most efficient solutions, such as rules that tie the distribution of transportation funds to air quality planning.
These factors and others have promoted less efficient transportation solutions than would have been favored without federal intervention. I have discussed these problems elsewhere at length.(50)
If we removed the federal government from the picture, state and local governments would rethink their urban transit financing. One issue is that the average American transit agency gets only a third of its operating funds, and none of its capital funds, from fares. This means that transit officials are less interested in increasing transit ridership than they are in persuading politicians and taxpayers to give them more money. Increased ridership is actually a burden on transit systems: even though transit vehicles are, on average, only one-sixth full, they tend to be fullest during rush hour, when new riders are most likely to use transit.
Today’s government-owned rail transit systems make no financial or transportation sense. They only work because few people use them and everyone else subsidizes them. Because rail transit costs at least four times as much, per passenger mile, as driving, it means that if everyone rode today’s rail systems instead of automobiles, cities would go bankrupt trying to keep the systems running.
Yet urban transit does not have to be expensive, and it does not even have to be subsidized. The United States has several completely unsubsidized transit systems that work very well. One is the Atlantic City Jitney Association, whose members own their own buses and operate routes scheduled by the association.(51) Rides are $2.25 each and cover all major attractions in the city. Unlike most government-owned transit systems, the jitneys operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and receive no subsidies from any government agency. Such jitney service is illegal in most other American cities because it would compete against government monopoly transit agencies.
Another unsubsidized transit system is the públicos, or public cars, of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Públicos are independently owned and operated buses that typically seat 12 to 15 passengers. At least six companies operate públicos and they provide both urban and intercity service. Fares vary depending on the length of the ride, but in 2014 they averaged less than $1.50. Although públicos compete against a public bus system and a recently built heavy-rail line (whose cost rose from a projected $1.0 billion to $2.2 billion), the públicos carry more riders each year than the public buses and trains combined.(52)
A third unsubsidized transit system is the NY Waterway ferries, which connect multiple points in New Jersey and Manhattan. Founded in 1986 by Arthur Imperatore, NY Waterway offers a service that none of the government transit agencies in the region thought to provide.(53) Passengers arriving in New York City can take NY Waterway buses to and from various points in Manhattan at no extra charge. Although the company accepted a federal subsidy in 2001 to temporarily replace subway service between New Jersey and the World Trade Center after 9/11, it is otherwise funded entirely out of fares.(54)
Public transit agencies encourage people to believe that if their subsidies disappeared, people without cars would lack any mobility. In fact, private transit would spring up to take the place of government transit, and it would be superior to government transit. It would be more likely to offer door-to-door service, operate during more hours of the day, and provide more limited or nonstop services to popular destinations.
American taxpayers can no longer afford costly and inefficient government transit systems, particularly rail transit systems. Federal subsidies ought to be
eliminated and local governments should open transit to private and entrepreneurial solutions to relieving congestion.
Randal O’Toole (@antiplanner) is director of the Transportation Policy Center at the Independence Institute (@i2idotorg), a free market think tank in Denver, and a senior fellow with the Cato Institute (@CatoInstitute) in Washington, D.C. He is author of the book, “Romance of the Rails: Why the Passenger Trains We Love Are Not the Transportation We Need” and many hundreds of previous books, Policy Papers and articles.
1 Budget of the U.S. Government, Fiscal Year 2017, Analytical Perspectives (Washington: Government Printing Office, 2016), Table 29-1.
2 A timeline of early transit history is in 2015 Public Transportation Fact Book(Washington: American Public Transportation Association, 2015), p. 51.
3 “List of Streetcar Systems in the United States,” Wikipedia, tinyurl.com/7za8zb. Accessed December 2016.
4 Randal O’Toole, Gridlock (Washington: Cato Institute, 2009), p. 137.
5 George M. Smerk, The Federal Role in Urban Mass Transportation (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University, 1991), pp. 60–61.
6 Government Accountability Office, “Mass Transit: Bus Transit Shows Promise,” GAO-01-984, September 2001, p. 4.
7 Examples from Randal O’Toole, Gridlock (Washington: Cato Institute, 2009), p. 60.
8 Calculated by dividing passenger miles by vehicle revenue miles from data in 2014 National Transit Database (Washington: Federal Transit Administration, 2016).
9 Passenger miles per track mile calculated from data in 2014 National Transit Database (Washington: Federal Transit Administration, 2016). Passenger miles per freeway lane mile calculated from data in “Highway Statistics 2014,” U.S. Department of Transportation, www.fhwa.dot.gov/policyinformation/statistics/2014, Table HM-72. Freeway occupancies assumed to average 1.67 people per vehicle as estimated in Summary of Travel Trends: 2009 National Household Travel Survey (Washington: U.S. Department of Transportation, June 2011), Table 16.
10 For a summary of the data and links to the FTA reports, see Randal O’Toole, “Rail Transit Cost Overruns,” The Antiplanner, January 19, 2015. And see Randal O’Toole and Michelangelo Landgrave, “Rails and Reauthorization,” Cato Institute Policy Analysis no. 772, April 21, 2015.
11 Bent Flyvbjerg, Mette Skamris Holm, and Søren Buhl, “Underestimating Costs in Public Works Projects: Error or Lie?” Journal of the American Planning Association 68, no. 3 (2002): 285.
12 “Central Phoenix/East Valley Light Rail” (Washington: Federal Transit Administration, 1998), tinyurl.com/837vda.
13 “Central Phoenix/East Valley Light Rail” (Washington: Federal Transit Administration, 2004), p. 1, tinyurl.com/9vsa2o.
14 “South Corridor LRT” (Washington: Federal Transit Administration, 2000), tinyurl.com/7rcxwq.
15 “South Corridor LRT” (Washington: Federal Transit Administration, 2005), tinyurl.com/8x6dwd.
16 Federal Transit Administration, “Baseline Report on Major Project Monitoring of the Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project,” July 27, 2007, Table 1.
17 Paul Duggan and Lori Aratani, “At Last, the Silver Line Is Ready; Metro Says Passenger Service Will Start July 26,” Washington Post, June 23, 2014.
18 “Summary of Changes to FasTracks Program: Attachment 1” (Denver, CO: Regional Transportation District, 2008), p. 2, tinyurl.com/4kodgc.
19 Bent Flyvbjerg, Mette Skamris Holm, and Søren Buhl, “Underestimating Costs in Public Works Projects: Error or Lie?” Journal of the American Planning Association 68, no. 3 (2002).
20 Parsons Brinckerhoff, Transportation Alternatives Analysis for the Dane County/Greater Madison Metropolitan Area (Madison, WI: Transport 2020, 2002), pp. 7-6, 10-2, and 10-22.
21 Transport 2020, Transport 2020 Oversight Advisory Committee (OAC) Summary Report(Madison, WI: Transport 2020, 2002), p. 21.
22 Booz Allen Hamilton, Managing Capital Costs of Major Federally Funded Public Transportation Projects (Washington: Transportation Research Board, 2005), p. 55.
23 Final Report: Southeast Corridor Major Investment Study (Denver, CO: Colorado Department of Transportation, 1997), p. 4-24.
24 “A Message from RTD General Manager, Cal Marsella” (Denver, CO: Regional Transit District, 2005).
25 “America’s Transit System Stands at the Precipice of a Fiscal and Service Crisis” (Washington: Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, 2004), p. 1.
26 Lyndsey Layton and Jo Becker, “Efforts to Repair Aging System Compound Metro’s Problems,” Washington Post, June 5, 2005. And see Lena H. Sun and Joe Holley, “Aging Equipment Blamed in Metro Incidents,” Washington Post, August 28, 2007.
27 Max Smith, “Metro Needs $25 Billion for Basics — And That’s if Everything’s Been Properly Taken Care Of,” WTOP News, November 29, 2016.
28 Statement of Carolyn Flowers, Acting Administrator, Federal Transit Administration, before the U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Subcommittee on Highways and Transit, May 24, 2016.
29 Moshe Ben-Akiva and Takayuki Morikawa, “Comparing Ridership Attraction of Rail and Bus,” Transport Policy Journal 9, no. 2 (2002).
30 All ridership numbers are from the National Transit Database, Federal Transit Administration, various years, www.transit.dot.gov/ntd.
31 Randal O’Toole, “Rail Disasters 2005,” American Dream Coalition, June 2005, p. 6.
32 American Community Survey 2010 (Washington: Census Bureau, 2013), Table B08301. And see 2000 Census of Population and Housing (Washington: Census Bureau, 2002), Table QT-P23.
33 Robert Cervero, “Transit Oriented Development’s Ridership Bonus: A Product of Self-Selection and Public Policies,” University of California Transportation Center, Berkeley, 2006, p. 1.
34 National Association of Realtors, “The 2011 Community Preference Survey,” March 2011.
35 Robert Cervero and Samuel Seskin, An Evaluation of the Relationship between Transit and Urban Form (Washington: Transportation Research Board, 1995), p. 3.
36 Kytja Weir, “Survey: Metrorail Users More Affluent, Better Educated,” Washington Examiner, May 17, 2009.
37 For example, see Kytja Weir, “Area Bus Riders Face Service Cuts,” Washington Examiner, March 31, 2009.
38 Metropolitan Transportation Commission, Final Transportation 2030 Plan (Oakland, CA: MTC, 2005), p. 35.
39 Bob Egelko, “Inequity in Funding Discriminates against AC Transit Riders, Plaintiffs Claim in Suit,” San Francisco Chronicle, April 20, 2005.
40 Kimley-Horn & Associates, East Corridor Major Investment Study Final Report (Denver, CO: Denver Regional Council of Governments, 1997), pp. 37–39.
41 FasTracks Annual Program Evaluation Summary: 2008 (Denver, CO: Regional Transportation District, 2008), p. 3.
42 “Third Avenue Light Rail Phase 2 — Central Subway, San Francisco,” Federal Transit Administration, 2012, pp. 1–2.
43 “Bayshore Corridor,” Federal Transit Administration, 1996.
44 Randal O’Toole, Gridlock (Washington: Cato Institute, 2010), p. 77.
45 Randal O’Toole, Gridlock (Washington: Cato Institute, 2010), p. 77.
46 Randal O’Toole, Gridlock (Washington: Cato Institute, 2010), p. 77.
47 Key Facts and Figures about the European Union (Brussels: European Union, 2004), p. 52.
48 Randal O’Toole, “Does Rail Transit Save Energy or Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions?” Cato Institute Policy Analysis no. 615, April 14, 2008, pp. 4, 8.
49 Randal O’Toole, Gridlock (Washington: Cato Institute, 2010), p. 78.
50 Randal O’Toole, “A Desire Named Streetcar,” Cato Institute Policy Analysis no. 559, January 5, 2006.
52 Randal O’Toole, Gridlock (Washington: Cato Institute, 2010), p. 80.
53 N. R. Kleinfield, “Trucker Turned Builder: Arthur E. Imperatore; Creating Shangri-La on the Hudson,” New York Times, January 4, 1987.
54 Sascha Brodsky, “Many Routes to Ferry King’s Success,” Downtown Express, July 17, 2002.
October 2nd, 2019
COST Commentary: This excellent, factual report by Randal O’Toole again reflects the perilous trend which U.S. public transit is in. This census report and the recent American Public Transportation Association ridership report for the first half of 2019 reflect a continuing overall decline in total transit ridership comprised of declines in both bus and rail modes. As O’Toole’s article indicates, there are other important trends including the taxpayers’ increasing subsidy of higher income people which are the fastest growing segment of transit ridership. Low income ridership is declining faster than transits overall decline.
In each of Texas’s four major cities (Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin), the ridership in 2018 was less than it was in 1999, twenty years earlier. These cities spent almost $25 Billion (1992-2017, adjusted to 2017 dollars) on capital for buses and mostly light rails to increase public transit ridership during this period. As noted, transit ridership has declined in every major Texas city. This is a total failure and wasted $25 Billion of taxpayer funds. Transit leaderships’ answer always seems to be: “We just need to add a little more transit to improve transportation and reduce congestion.” All of these attempts have failed miserably. This is a period when total population increased 6.6 million people, more that 50%. And, the result: Transit has not reduced congestion and, in many cases, has increased congestion. Transit provides less than 1% of the passenger miles traveled in the Austin region, but Austin and Cap Metro are on a path to spend 90% of the transportation funds on transit. This will substantially degrade the quality of life for those making 99+% of the daily passenger mile trips, on the roadways, to serve much less than 1% on public transit dedicated lanes. Taxpayers will pay the huge burden of highly subsidizing the development and operations of this transit to serve less than 1% of the trip miles. The chart below shows the 20 year history of transit ridership in the four major Texas Cities. Note, Austin has the lowest ridership and has lost the highest percentage (20%) of the four cities. Dallas has the longest light rail in the Nation and has 3.5 times the Austin population, but only slightly more than 2 times the Austin ridership. Therefore, Austin’s per-capita ridership is approaching 2 times Dallas’s which has spent 10 times the transit dollars spent by Austin. From 1992 to 2017 Dallas spent $12.6 Billion on transit capital (excluding operating costs) and Austin spent $1.2 Billion on capital. The total ridership, per-capita, for the four cities is down almost 43% in the past 20 years. This is a compelling story regarding citizens’ rejections of a public transit choice for their mobility needs.
The second chart sums the 4 cities’ increasing populations and relates it to the transit ridership decline over 20 years. Critical to taxpayers paying for this ineffective transit, Capital Metro’s transit operating expenses are out-of-control, increasing more than 250% over the past 16 years, in a decreasing transit ridership trend. One of the major cost increases is the Commuter Rail (Red Line) operating expenses which are now more than 10 times Cap Metro’s $2 million projection for the first year of operations. This rail has never achieved projected ridership levels and is declining. This rails low ridership and increasing, high cost are not a responsible solution to traffic congestion and effective mobility. Taxpayers’subsidize about $40 dollars average for each rider. This would pay for a new car for each rider or an Uber ride.
This single transit performance story of all major Texas cities wastefully spending billions of taxpayers funds, for no appreciable overall benefit, should persuade almost all citizens that the current Austin path to a major voter referendum in 2020 to fund massive, long-term spending for transit is ridiculous and a heavy, unnecessary burden for future generations of Austin citizens. The Billion Dollars, plus, wasted Austin taxpayer funds, spent on the “wood burning” electricity generation plant, will pale in comparison with the wasting of many billions on this transit plan. For thousands of year, there has been a direct relationship between human mobility and quality-of-life. This Austin/Cap Metro plan will return citizens to limited, constrained mobility and a lower quality-of-life with reduced ability to access Austin’s many opportunities and offerings. It will not reduce congestion and will prevent Billions of taxpayer dollars from being thoughtfully used to address real solutions and needs in numerous segments of the community. Let’s move forward, applying the vast majority of our taxpayers’ transportation funds to address, real, positive, cost-effective solutions which recognize the future reality.
Those leading this current transit path in Austin are also totally blinded to the fact that current and new technology moving rapidly into operation will dramatically change and further reduce transit’s role in future mobility. Many cities have confirmed that rail transit has been obsolete for some time. On a downward trend, U.S. Light Rail ridership declined 3% last year and Heavy Rail declined 2.6%.
Austin’s Capital Metro adopted one of the most DISHONEST and DECEPTIVE scenarios ever put forth by public officials in Austin: In mid-2018, Cap Metro opened an updated and remodeled bus transit route, designed to improve transit ridership. Then, in mid-2019, Cap Metro and the media “broadly” announced that transit ridership had increased 4.4% (based on published ‘American Public Transportation Association’ data) over mid-2017 to mid-2018 ridership, the year prior to the route update opening in mid-2018. They DID NOT OPENLY DISCLOSE the fact that they had implemented free transit rides for K-12 students, just after they opened the new route structure in mid-2018. Ridership for these students was almost 7% (over 2 million rides) for the year, from mid-2018 to mid-2019. THEREFORE, THE INCREASED TRANSIT RIDERSHIP WAS NOT DUE TO THE ROUTE RESTRUCTURING BUT TO THE FREE STUDENT RIDERS. If you subtract the free student riders, the ridership declined about 1 million paying riders (almost 3%) since the new routes were introduced in mid-2018. Therefore, the declining ridership trend of the past 20 years has continued in 2019. Many of the K-12 students who rode transit, free, were riding public transit instead of their school bus. So, not many cars were removed from the road, as implied by Cap Metro. Did they waste millions of taxpayer dollars, spent in the restructure and free ridership to deceive citizens?
The current, Project Connect (joint Austin City and Cap Metro activity) transit plan is obsolete, ineffective inconvenient, inequitable and irresponsibly expensive for all taxpayers. It will serve less than 1% of the area’s passenger miles traveled. In many ways this plan is a 19th century solution for a 21st century problem. It brings back the 2000 election slogan which defeated a very poor rail plan: “COSTS TOO MUCH – DOES TOO LITTLE.” The proposed bond in the 2020 election will probably be from one to several Billion dollars and will be only the starting segment of Project Connect’s overall master plan which will cost about $30 billion over future years. Cap Metro and the City have never revealed the projections of the total plan’s costs and schedule. There are no budgets in the City or in Cap Metro to fund this plan. The plan will be primarily funded by major property tax increases. These Billions of taxpayer dollars will highly subsidize transit riders, less than 1% of the passenger miles traveled, increase congestion and significantly degrade the mobility of those making 99+% of the daily passenger miles on the roadways. This is even more inequitable considering the national trend discussed in the article below: Low income transit ridership is declining and higher income segments are increasing in an overall declining ridership trend. Why are all taxpayers highly subsidizing a small very segment of higher income people to ride transit?
Project Connect’s plan will eliminate/limit critical options for future generations and lower their quality of life.
We will continue to expand this commentary.
2018 Census Data Show Transit in Decline
by Randal O’Toole in The Antiplanner, October 1, 2019
The Census Bureau released data from the 2018 American Community Survey last week, and the big news is its finding that income inequality has worsened. America’s transit agencies contributed to that problem as they continue to build expensive transit systems into wealthy suburbs while they cut service to low-income neighborhoods.
As a result, people who earned less than $25,000 a year were 6 percent less likely to commute to work by transit in 2018 than people in the same income class in 2010, while people who earned $65,000 a year or more were 7 percent more likely to commute by transit. Moreover, the median income of transit commuters rose above the median income of people who commute in single-occupancy automobiles for the first time since the Census Bureau began keeping track of this information in 1960.
Transit’s real growth market is among higher income people. Between 2010 and 2018, the number of people commuting by transit who earned less than $25,000 a year declined by nearly 383,000, while the number who earned more increased by more than 1.2 million. Just from 2017 to 2018, the number who earned less than $35,000 a year declined by 199,000, while the number who earned more increased by 153,000, 121,000 of whom earned more than $75,000 a year.
Some might say that transit is going where its customers are; since people of all income classes are increasing auto ownership rates, transit is going after higher-income people whose jobs tend to be more centrally located. A cynic would respond that transit is seeking to attract the support of the politically powerful and so is going after wealthy riders. Either way, the real question becomes: why should taxpayers in general support transit systems that are mainly used by the wealthy who can afford to pay for their own transportation?
Journey to Work
Nationwide, the percentages of commuters who drove alone, carpooled, took transit, walked, or bicycled to work in 2018 changed only slightly from 2017, most moving by no more than a tenth of a percent. Even from 2010 the changes are small. Transit’s share of commuting, for example, went from 5.17 percent in 2010 to 5.27 percent in 2017 back down to 5.20 percent in 2018. More worrisome for the transit industry is that the actual number of transit commuters declined nationwide from 2017 as the low-income commuters leaving transit outnumbered high-income commuters taking up transit.
The 2018 survey reported 1.8 million more people working than in 2017. Of those additional workers, 1.2 million drove alone to work while 298,000 carpooled. Transit riders declined by nearly 23,000, but all of that decline was bus riders, which declined by 58,000. Light rail and heavy rail grew by 3,500 while commuter rail grew by 19,000. This doesn’t mean that cities are better off building rail than improving bus transit, as many regions with rail transit saw overall declines in transit commuting.
These urban areas saw at least a 10 percent decline in transit’s share of commuting; that is, if transit’s 2017 share was 10 percent, its 2018 share was 9 percent or less. Source: ACS table B08130 for 2017 and 2018. Data for Salt Lake in this and other charts include Ogden and Provo-Orem as these urban areas have a unified transit system.
Cycling declined by 15,000 and walking fell by 28,000. The number of people working at home rose above the number of transit commuters for the first time in 2017. The former increased another 257,000 in 2018, which means there were 8 percent more people working at home than commuting by transit.
The number of transit commuters in these major urban areas, as well as many more, actually declined between 2017 and 2018. Source: ACS table B08130.
Changes were more significant in certain urban areas. From 2017 to 2018, the share of commuters taking transit declined from 3.5 percent to 2.9 percent in the San Diego urban area, from 5.0 to 4.4 percent in the Denver urban area, from 8.7 to 7.6 percent in the Baltimore urban area, and from 5.3 to 4.3 percent in the San Jose urban area. On the other hand, they increased from 10.3 to 11.3 percent in Philadelphia, 15.7 to 16.2 percent in DC, and 11.7 to 12.4 in the Seattle urban areas. These were exceptions; transit’s share declined in most urban areas, but by smaller amounts than in San Diego and the others mentioned here.
From 2017 to 2018, the actual number of transit commuters declined in about half of the urban areas for which 2018 data are available. These are ominous numbers for the transit industry.
Commuting and Income
Transit commuters’ median income exceeded the median income of all workers for the first time in 2017 and exceeded the median income of drive-alone commuters for the first time in 2018. Source: ACS table B08121 for 2010, 2017, 2018.
The median income of transit commuters in the San Jose urban area is nearly $74,000, compared with just $62,000 for the region as a whole. The median incomes of transit commuters were also above the medians for all workers in the Boston, Chicago, San Francisco-Oakland, Seattle, and Washington urban areas. While transit incomes remain less than those for all workers in most states and urban areas, nationally the median for transit commuters is 6 percent greater than for all workers.
Ever since the Census Bureau began asking people for their incomes and commuting habits in 1960, the median incomes of transit commuters have been lower than those of all workers in general and people who drive alone in particular. That changed in 2017, when transit incomes rose above that of all workers but remained below those who drive alone. In 2018, for the first time, transit incomes are higher than all other groups of commuters. Only people who work at home have higher median incomes than transit commuters.
Low-income transit commuters are declining while high-income commuters are increasing. Source: ACS table B08121.
Less than 21 percent of the nation’s workers earn more than $75,000 a year. But more than 27 percent of the nation’s transit commuters are in this income class. Nearly half of all San Jose transit commuters earn more than $75,000 a year compared with 44 percent of all San Jose workers. People earning more than $75,000 are also disproportionately likely to ride transit in Boston, Chicago, and New York, in each of which they make up about a third of transit commuters. In contrast, transit is still used mainly by lower income people and people earning more than $75,000 make up less than 10 percent of transit commuters in urban areas such as Cleveland, Indianapolis, Kansas City, and San Antonio.
Commuting and Vehicles Available
The share of American workers who live in households with no vehicles increased very slightly, from 4.25 percent in 2017 to 4.26 percent in 2018. Most of the increase was in the states of Pennsylvania and Washington. The increase in three-car households was much greater, from 34.9 percent in 2017 to 35.3 percent in 2018, and such households increased in number in 38 states.
People with jobs who live in households with no cars were nevertheless more likely to commute to work by driving alone than by taking transit in these large urban areas. Source: ACS table B08141.
Transit didn’t benefit much from the growth of vehicle-less households as the share of commuters in such households who took transit to work declined from 41.1 percent in 2017 to 40.3 percent in 2018. Not only did the percent decline, the actual number declined. As of 2018, commuters who live in carless households were more likely to drive alone to work (perhaps in employer-supplied cars) than to take transit in 38 of the 50 states as well as in such major urban areas as Dallas-Ft. Worth, Houston, and Miami. The differences were particularly stark in some smaller urban areas including Indianapolis, Orlando, and Salt Lake/Ogden/Provo. This is not a great testament to the transit systems in those regions.
The differences between driving alone and transit commuting for people in households with no cars are even more stark in these medium-sized urban areas despite (or because of) the fact that several have some form of rail transit. Source: ACS table B08141.
Commuting and Race
Nationwide, Hispanics are twice as likely and blacks are three times more likely to commute by transit as non-Hispanic whites. Notwithstanding the fact that high-income commuters are most likely to ride transit in some areas, whites are less likely to commute by transit than blacks almost everywhere, the main exceptions being San Juan and El Paso. The high rate of black transit commuting may be because a disproportionate share of blacks still live in inner cities where transit service is most intense.
Non-Hispanic whites are more likely to drive alone than other groups, Latinos are more likely to carpool than other groups, and blacks are more likely to ride transit than other groups. Source: ACS tables B08105B, B08105H, and B08105I.
Non-Hispanic whites are more likely to ride transit than Hispanics in a few more areas, including Chicago, Cincinnati, and Omaha urban areas, Alameda, Contra Costa, and Santa Clara counties in California, and several New Jersey counties. This is probably due to the income effect.
The share of blacks driving alone to work is increasing while the share riding transit is decreasing. Source: ACS table B08105B.
Although minorities are slightly less likely to drive and more likely to ride transit than non-Hispanic whites, they are catching up. The share of blacks and Hispanics driving alone to work is steadily increasing while the share riding transit is decreasing.
Commuting and Age
A persistent story is that young people are driving less. A comparison of commute habits by age in 2018 with the same data from 2005 shows that there have been some changes, but they are small.
Driving alone to work has declined in every age class below 60, but only by about 1 percent. The difference wasn’t captured by transit; instead, it was mainly due to an increase in people working at home. This increase was much smaller in the over 60 age classes (which already had the highest rate of people working at home), which helps explain why driving didn’t decline in those classes. People who want to discourage driving to work should focus on finding ways to increase the number of people working at home rather than spending billions on transit.
This shows the differences in how people commuted in 2005 vs. 2018. In other words, if 80 percent of people drove alone in 2005 and 79 percent in 2018, this chart would show a –1 percent. Source: AC table B08101.
Commute Travel Times
A recent report argued that commuting is a major burden and getting worse, so employers need to ease this burden on their employees by encouraging them to use transit. But travel times in 2018 were not significantly different than they were 20 years ago, while the real burden is on transit riders who have to spend almost twice as much time, on average, as people who drive alone. The only place where this isn’t true is Manhattan; even residents of Brooklyn and Queens who commute by transit spend far more time than those who commute by driving.
Transit commute times average 96 percent more than driving alone. Source: Calculated from ACS table B08136 and B08301.
The 2018 American Community Survey data confirms what the data from the National Transit Database has been saying: the outlook for the transit industry is dire. While early indications were that ride hailing was mainly taking non-commuting customers from transit, the 2018 ACS data show that transit commuting is declining as both percentages of all commuters and in actual numbers.
Moreover, this decline appears to be mainly among low-income commuters. The desire to help such commuters is one of the main arguments the industry uses to justify the huge subsidies it receives from taxpayers. Yet today any given transit rider is more likely to earn more than $50,000 a year than under $25,000 a year.
Transit agencies would like taxpayers to believe that they are on a moral crusade to help the poor, save the planet, and generate economic growth. In fact, as I’ve shown elsewhere, in all but a handful of regions transit uses more energy and emits more greenhouse gases per passenger mile than driving an SUV, while the growth-stimulating effects of transit are largely a figment of transit officials’ imaginations. The 2018 American Community Survey data show that transit is also of diminishing importance to low-income people.
Most of the tables below include data for the nation, states, counties, cities, and urban areas. For 2018, the Census Bureau proudly introduced a new web site for downloading data, but unfortunately it does not include an “All urban areas” option. I tried to check of all 437 urban areas one-by-one, but this made the system slow down and seem to freeze. So some the 2018 tables include only the top 50 or 60 urban areas. I’ll update the tables after the Census Bureau fixes this flaw. The tables below include the raw data I downloaded from the Census Bureau and some simple calculations such as the percentages of each mode of transportation.
• B08301: Means of transportation to work for 2010, 2017, and 2018
• B08121: Median income by means of transportation to work for 2010, 2017, and 2018
• B08119: Means of transportation to work by income class for 2010, 2017, and 2018
• B08141: Means of transportation to work by vehicles in household for 2017 and 2018
• B08105B, I, and H: Means of transportation to work in 2017 for blacks, Latinos, and non-Hispanic whites. For 2018, I combined the means of transportation to work for blacks, Latinos, and non-Hispanic whites into one file. Blacks are in rows 1 to 1584, non-Hispanic whites are in rows 1486 to 3168, and Latinos are in rows 3169 to 4752. For comparison, I put the percentages side-by-side in columns K through P for blacks, Q through V for non-Hispanic whites, and W through AB for Latinos.
• B08101: Means of transportation to work by age for 2005 and 2018
• B08136: Aggregate travel times by means of transportation to work for 2018
Randal O’Toole, the Antiplanner, is a land-use and transportation policy analyst and author of Gridlock: Why We’re Stuck in Traﬃc and What to Do About It.
May 21st, 2019
How Vital Is Transit In Your Region? Part 1: Census Data
Transportation Policy Brief Number 4, by Randal O’Toole in The Antiplanner blog, May 21, 2019
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. Using Austin as an example, this policy brief will show how people in any urban area can use census data to find out just how important transit is to their region and whether it makes sense to spend a lot more money on transit. This is the first of two briefs 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. Since the results are based on a sample, the Census Bureau does not publish data for small geographic areas because the margin of error is too high.
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. To avoid having to explain how to use a web site that will disappear in a few months, and to save you time using that site, I’ve already downloaded all of the tables that will be mentioned in this brief and posted them, with some enhancements such as calculations of percentages, for you to use.
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.
“Urbanized areas,” by the way, include all of the urbanized land in and around cities such as Austin, while “metropolitan areas” include all of the land, both urban and rural, in the counties surrounding such cities. I prefer to use urbanized areas since most people in rural areas aren’t going to have access to transit. However, the Census Bureau remaps urbanized areas with each decennial census, so the data from 2007 and 2017 aren’t based on exactly the same land area.
Transit’s Share of Commuting
The 2007 survey found that the Austin urban area (which is on row 684 of the spreadsheet) had about 560,000
workers in 2007, growing to nearly 890,000 by 2017 (row 736). That much growth shouldn’t be surprising because, on a percentage basis, Austin has been the fastest growing major urban area in America.
Of those employees, the 2007 survey found that about 22,000 of them (4.0 percent) usually took transit to work. Despite the nearly 60 percent growth in the total number of workers in the region, the number com- muting by transit shrank to well under 20,000, or just 2.2 percent, by 2017.
Even that number is probably considerably more than the number of people who actually take transit to work on any given workday. According to a 2017 Department of Transportation survey (see p. 78), people who say they “usually” take transit to work actually take transit only about 71 percent of the time while people who say they usually drive to work in fact drive almost all of the time. Correcting for this would require reducing transit’s numbers by almost 25 percent. I’m going to ignore this for the rest of this brief, as the adjustment factors may vary by state and region, but it’s likely that the American Community Survey probably overstates the number of people who commute by transit on any given workday.
Transit Commuting by Income
The American Community Survey also provides information on who rides transit to work. According to table B08119 for 2017, most Austin-area transit riders have low incomes, but their numbers are declining. Since 2007, the number of transit commuters earning under $35,000 a year declined by nearly a third while the number earning more than $50,000 a year nearly tripled.
Austin-area workers who earned less than $50,000 a year were significantly less likely to ride transit in 2017 than in 2007, while those who earned more than $50,000 a year were more likely to ride transit. People who earned more than $75,000 a year were twice as likely to commute by transit in 2017 as in 2007.
Though the number of high-income transit commuters is small—fewer than 7,500 transit commuters in
Between 2007 and 2017, the number of Austin-area transit commuters declined in every income bracket below $35,000, and grew in every bracket above $35,000.
2017 earned more than $35,000 a year—that is the only growth market for Austin transit. As a result, according to table B08121, the median income of transit riders grew by 85 percent between 2007 and 2017, while the median income of the region as a whole grew by only 49 percent.
Transit’s Share by Race
The American Community Survey also breaks down commute habits by race. According to table B08105B, the share of black workers commuting by transit declined from 7.7 percent in 2007 to 4.9 percent in 2017, while the share of non-Hispanic white workers commuting by transit declined from 2.6 percent in 2007 to 1.8 percent in 2017. The biggest change was among Latino workers, whose transit commute share declined from 5.1 percent in 2007 to 1.8 percent in 2017.
Between 2007 and 2017, the share of commuters who relied on transit declined for blacks and whites, but the decline was particularly large for Latinos. In this chart, “white” refers to non-Hispanic whites.
Latino commuting underwent another startling change: a decline in carpooling from 24.4 percent in 2007 to 14.6 percent in 2017. This contributed to an in- crease in the drive-alone share of Latino commuting from 65.1 percent in 2007 to 80.4 percent in 2017. It seems likely that Latinos significantly increased their motor vehicle ownership rates during this period
The Growth of Three-Car Households
While it isn’t broken down by race, table B08141 indicates that the share of Austin-area workers who live in households with no vehicles declined from 3.2 percent in 2007 to 2.7 percent in 2017, while the share who lived in households with three or more vehicles grew from 22.4 percent in 2007 to 29.2 percent in 2017.
Table B08141 also reveals that, as of 2017, little more than a quarter — 26.3 percent — of the people who live in households with no vehicles commuted by transit. This is down from 41.8 percent in 2007. People without cars were almost twice as likely to commute by automobile than by transit in 2017.
Curiously, more people who live in households without cars — 40.0 percent — commuted by driving alone
The number and share of Austin-area workers who live in households with three or more vehicles significantly grew between 2007 and 2017 while the share with no vehicles declined. This left fewer people than ever dependent on transit to get to work.
to work than by transit. How do they drive alone if they don’t have a car? Probably they use an employer-supplied vehicle.
In sum, American Community Survey data show that transit has become all but irrelevant for commuters in the Austin urban area. Less than 5 percent of black workers and less than 2 percent of both Latino and non-Latino white workers commute by transit. The number of low-income workers who rely on transit is rapidly shrinking, while transit’s only real growth market is among high-income workers who don’t need to have their commutes subsidized.
Growing automobile ownership is a likely explanation for transit’s decline. Yet, Transit no longer even works well for most commuters who don’t own cars.
The next policy brief will show how Department of Transportation data can be used to assess the value of transit in Austin and other urban areas. I’ll then make some recommendations for improving Austin’s transit system without spending $6 billion to $10.5 billion.
The Antiplanner, Randal O’Toole, is a transportation policy analyst and author of Gridlock: Why We’re Stuck in Traffic and What to Do About It as well as a review of Austin’s 2014 light-rail transit plan. The header photo on page 1 shows Austin’s Congress Avenue Bridge.
Summary of Downloadable Tables
B08301: Commute to Work 2007 2017
B08119: Commute by Income 2007 2017
B08121: Median Income by Mode 2007 2017
B08105B:Commute, Blacks 2007 2017
B08105L:Commute, Latinos 2007 2017
B08105H:Commute, Non-H. Whites 2007 2017
B08141: Commute by vehicles in H.H. 2007 2017
Transportation Policy Brief #3 http://ti.org/antiplanner/?p=16036
Transit Death Spiral: 1st Quarter Riders Down 2.6%
By The Antiplanner | May 14, 2019 | Policy brief, Transportation
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.
Decentralization of Older Cities
Although the nationwide ridership decline began in 2014, in many places it has been declining for far longer. A recent article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer showed that the number of riders carried by the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority has declined by 73 percent since 1980.
Cleveland has lost nearly three-fourths of its transit riders since 1980.
Cleveland is not the only urban area to have seen such massive declines. Based on 1982 data, the earliest that are available from the FTA, Detroit, St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Milwaukee have all seen declines fo 40 to 70 percent since that year. What all of these urban areas have in common is a massive decentralization of people and jobs from their cores to their suburbs.
At the end of World War II, many of these central cities had dense populations with high levels of multifamily housing. Since 1950, these cities have lost large numbers of people even as most of their urban areas have grown. This represents a preference for single-family housing, but it also was accompanied by a decline of the importance of downtown job centers. Since most transit systems are hub-and-spoke systems focused on downtown, they work for bringing commuters into downtown but not for commuters who work elsewhere.
For example, census data compiled by Wendell Cox shows that, as of 2010, 57 percent of downtown Chicago workers took transit to work. But the area around O’Hare Airport has 210,000 jobs — more than all but seven downtowns in the United States — and only 5.5 percent of those commuters took transit to work.
This shows the change in central city populations from 1980 to 2010 and the change in ridership from 1982 to 2018.
The chart above compares the change in central city populations from 1980 to 2010 with the change in ridership from 1982 to 2018. While the correlation isn’t perfect, it shows that suburbanization has reduced ridership.
Downtown Jobs Key to Ridership
Many people presume that transit ridership has something to do with population densities. But the correlation between urban area densities and transit’s share of commuting is only about 0.4 (where 1 is perfectly correlated and 0 is no correlation). However, the correlation between the number of downtown jobs and transit’s share of commuting is nearly 0.9. As Wendell Cox frequently says, “transit is about downtown.”
New York is not shown on this chart, but it is very close to the trend line with 1.9 million downtown jobs (including midtown Manhattan) and 30 percent transit commute share.
As of 2010, only six downtowns in the United States had more than 240,000 jobs: New York (1.9 million), Chicago (500,000), Washington (380,000), San Francisco (300,000), Boston (242,000), and Philadelphia (240,000). Not coincidentally, those were also the only six urban areas where transit carried more than 10 percent of commuters to work.
Seattle’s ridership has grown because of a huge increase in jobs in its downtown, growing from 216,100 jobs in 2010 to 301,000 jobs in 2018. Seattle may be the only major city in the United States that has more than half its jobs downtown.
At 0.97, the correlation between downtown jobs and transit’s share of commuting in the Seattle urban area is nearly perfect.
As it happens, downtown Seattle reached 240,000 jobs in 2013, the same year transit’s share of Seattle-area commuting reached 10 percent. Over the last decade, the correlation between the number of downtown Seattle jobs and transit’s share of Seattle-area commuting is a remarkable 97 percent.
This doesn’t mean that any urban area can increase transit’s share of commuting to more than 10 percent by attracting more than 240,000 jobs downtown. For one thing, few urban areas are in a position to reach 240,000 downtown jobs. As of 2010, downtown Atlanta and Houston were closest at around 170,000 jobs. Downtown Los Angeles was under 140,000; and downtown Denver 120,000. Other downtowns were under 100,000 jobs.
Even if they could pack more jobs into their downtowns, the share of downtown commuters in those urban areas who are taking transit to work is too low to make much of a difference: around 20 percent in Denver and Los Angeles and 14 percent in Atlanta and Houston, while Seattle’s was closer to 40 percent in 2010.
Seattle’s downtown grew because Amazon and Microsoft decided to move many of their office workers from suburban Bellevue and Redmond into downtown. If any government policy played a role in those decisions, it was the urban-growth boundary that has pushed prices of suburban real estate, making downtown relatively more competitive. But that same policy has increased traffic congestion and made housing far less affordable than it was a few years ago, which in turn has increased homelessness.
Per Capita Ridership Falling
Many urban areas haven’t seen the decentralization experienced by Chicago, Cleveland, and other older cities because they were never very centralized in the first place. Many Sunbelt regions have seen their populations grow primarily after World War II, which high auto ownership rates allowed most people to live in low-density neighborhoods and jobs were similarly decentralized.
Many of these urban areas have seen their long-term ridership grow, but this is often due solely to population growth, while their per capita ridership has often massively declined. In 1985, Atlanta transit carried 83 trips per urban area resident; by 2017, this had fallen to 26. The Miami urban area (including Ft. Lauderdale and West Palm Beach) saw per capita ridership fall from 49 to 22 trips per year.
Even some of the biggest transit regions have seen per capita ridership decline. Chicago dropped from 110 trips per resident in 1985 to 68 in 2017; Washington from 102 to 82; Boston from 106 to 87; Philadelphia from 92 to 62; and San Francisco-Oakland from 121 to 108. Nationally, per capita ridership was 36 trips per urban resident in 2018, the lowest ever recorded, and 2019 is on its way to being lower still.
New York Growth Hid Losses Elsewhere
The one major exception to the per capita ridership trend is the New York urban area, where ridership grew from 201 trips per resident in 1985 to 223 in 2017. In the 1980s, New York City was mismanaged and losing people and jobs. Improvements made by the Giuliani administration in the 1990s reduced crime and made the city and its transit system more attractive.
More recently, New York City’s recovery from the September 11, 2001 terror strike has contributed to transit ridership growth which obscured declines in many other parts of the nation. In 1993, transit in the New York urban area carried just under one-third of all transit rides in the nation. Since then, New York transit ridership has grown by 73 percent, while transit in the rest of the nation has grown by only 7 percent (which, considering population growth, represents a 21 percent decline in per capita ridership outside of New York). As a result, as of 2018, transit in the New York area carried nearly 44 percent of all transit riders in the nation.
Even New York, of course, wasn’t immune to the effects of ride-hailing on transit ridership. New York-area ridership peaked in 2014 and has dropped about 4 percent since then. But even without ride-hailing, New York ridership was not likely to grow at the rates it had been enjoying before 2014.
Last week, the Alliance for Downtown New York reported that job numbers in lower Manhattan have recovered to their pre-9/11 levels. With an 11 percent vacancy rate in lower Manhattan office buildings, there is still room for a little growth, but once that is filled up, job growth in downtown New York will slow.
Thus, the outlook for transit is dimmer than ever. While the transit industry would like people to believe that the most important goal of government land-use, tax, and transportation policies is to get people to ride transit more, there is really no reason why that should be so. The one factor that can increase transit ridership is to significantly increase downtown jobs. Cities have few tools to do that and even if they could do that, the negative side effects — congestion, high real estate prices, and homelessness — outweigh the benefits.
The ridership data posted by the FTA last week shows monthly ridership for every month from January 2002 through March 2019 by transit agency and mode of transit. For those who wish to explore these data further, I’ve posted an enhanced spreadsheet that totals the monthly data into annual data in columns HI through HZ, and provides totals for major modes in rows 2142 through 2149, transit agencies in rows 2153 through 3151, and the nation’s 200 largest urban areas in rows 3153 through 3351.
September 29th, 2018
Cost Commentary: Austin and Cap Metro transit plans being developed by “Project Connect” are based on reducing current car lanes on major roadways to provided dedicated transit lanes. This ill-conceived plan would result is some of the most devastating negative impacts, in history, on Austin citizens’ quality-of-life and living costs.
This COST posting is the latest of many prior postings regarding the decline of transit’s effectiveness, the decline of transit ridership and the resulting increasing burden on taxpayers in Austin and throughout the country
The article below is focused on recent data regarding one significant aspect of the rapid decline in transit ridership. Previous posting discuss other aspects of the decline more thoroughly. Shrinking transit share: In 2017 for the first time the number of people who regularly work from home (7.9 million) exceeded riders of public transit systems (7.6 million). This jibes with a separate Census report that showed the numbers of people who worked from home at least one day a week rose 4.2 million between 1997 and 2010. Source: CBS News.
As shown in the article below, transit ridership has been relatively flat since 2006 whereas ‘workers usually working from home’ has been continuously increasing and passed transit ridership with a strong serge from 2015 while transit declined since 2015.
This reducing transit trend is expected to continue. Transit is being further reduced by a variety of rental and ride-hailing modes. This trend will also continue and will be accelerated by the entry of driver-less vehicles.
As noted, perhaps the greatest cause of transit ridership decline is increasing car ownership. This is clearly the preferred transportation mode by the vast majority of travelers as it provides greater quality-of-life with convenient, versatile, time saving transportation to go where you want to go, when you wish to go. See COST’s previous postings: 1. Transit declines as people rapidly increase car ownership, 2. Why Cities Are Abandoning Light Rail Transit In Major Public Transit Decline, and 3. Mass Transit is collapsing everywhere.
Austin is totally in-tune with the overall U.S. Working from home is a much greater percentage of the work force than that using transit. In Austin, transit is in 5th place as a travel-to-work mode: 1. Drive Alone, 2. Car Pool, 3. Work from Home, 4. All Other (walking, bicycle, taxi/ride hailing, and 5. Public Transit.
Fully considering current broad-based national transportation trends, new and rapidly advancing technologies, citizen’s strongly demonstrated transportation preferences/choices, taxpayers’ burden and safety; it is irresponsible for Austin elected officials and Capital Metro to continue the current transportation approach. This approach is designed to support the distant past and will continue to increase congestion with significant travel delays. This will result is reduced quality-of-life, increased safety risks and higher costs for all citizens.
More Americans Now Telecommute Than Take Public Transportation to Work
BY MIKE MACIAG | SEPTEMBER 21, 2018 in GOVERNING, The States and Localities, Infrastructure and Environment
Driving remains the predominant form of commuting. But for the first time, the next most common is working from home.
A growing number of American workers are abandoning their commutes.
The latest estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau published last week show that approximately 8 million workers primarily work from home. That makes telework now second behind only driving as the most common means of getting to work, exceeding public transportation for the first time.
Last year, an estimated 5.2 percent of workers in the American Community Survey reported that they usually telecommute, a figure that’s climbed in recent surveys. Meanwhile, the share of employees taking public transportation declined slightly to 5 percent and has remained mostly flat over the longer term.
The number of Americans telecommuting at least occasionally is much larger than what’s depicted in the federal data. That’s because the Census survey asks respondents to report how they “usually” go to work, meaning those working from home only a day or two each week aren’t counted. A 2016 Gallup survey found that 43 percent of employees spent at least some time working remotely.
Several factors contribute to this increase in telecommuting.
For one, some companies are encouraging employees to telework. Advances in technology have also made working remotely more practical than before. And tech-oriented areas of the economy support jobs more ideal for telecommuting than manufacturing, brick-and-mortar retail and other major industries where recent employment gains haven’t been as strong.
Those working from home at the highest rate — 11.7 percent — in the Census survey were classified as professional, scientific, management, administrative and waste management services workers. Other industries where telework is about as common include finance, insurance, real estate, agriculture and the information sector.
As one might expect, self-employed individuals are the mostly likely to work from their homes, with about 24 percent doing so last year. But they’re not driving the expansion of telecommuting. According to Census survey, there are fewer self-employed teleworkers who own unincorporated businesses than a decade ago, partially because the self-employed make up a smaller share (5.9 percent) of the overall workforce.
Instead, it’s employees of private companies who are pushing up telework numbers. According to the latest estimates, 4.3 percent of all private wage and salary workers usually worked from home last year, up from 2.7 percent a decade prior.
Additionally, older workers are significantly more likely to telework than younger age groups. The Census estimates indicate that 7 percent of workers age 60 to 64 worked from home, as well as 10.3 percent of those age 65 and over last year.
Meanwhile, several factors are suppressing public transportation ridership.
Perhaps what’s most to blame is an increase in car ownership. A recent study in Southern California concluded that increased vehicle access was the single most significant factor contributing to diminished transit use. Nationally, data suggests more adults living in poverty now have access to cars.
Other reasons often cited include the proliferation of ride-hailing services, lower gas prices and higher trip fares for some transit systems.
In the first quarter of this year, total transit passenger trips were down 3.9 percent from 2017, according to the American Public Transportation Association’s most recent ridership report, finding declines for all modes except for commuter rail.
Bus systems across the country have experienced particularly noticeable drops. The Maryland Transit Administration, Miami-Dade Transit Agency and Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority all reported year-over-year declines in bus passenger trips exceeding 10 percent in the first quarter. Many agencies have responded in recent years by reconfiguring bus routes and launching initiatives aimed at addressing inefficiencies in service.
Driving alone remains the predominant form of commuting. Just over three-quarters of employed workers reported driving to work in the 2017 Census survey, essentially unchanged from a decade ago.
Metro Area Telework Data
The prevalence of teleworking in a region largely reflects workforce demographics and types of industries doing business locally. The Census Bureau measures numbers of workers “usually” working from home, shown for each region below. (Note that data was not reported all years for some smaller metro areas.)
August 23rd, 2018
Cars Crush Transit
February 5, 2018 By Gary Galles, in California Political Review
The Los Angeles Times has recently reported that public transit agencies “have watched their ridership numbers fall off a cliff over the last five years,” with multi-year decreases in mass transit use by up to 25%. And a new UCLA Institute of Transportation study has found that increasing car ownership is the prime factor for the dive in usage.
As Homer Simpson would say, “Doh.”
Southern California residents bought 4 times as many cars per person in the fifteen years after the turn of the century, compared to the decade before. That substantial jump in automobile ownership caused the share of Southern California households without access to a car to fall by 30%, and 42% for immigrant households. As one of the study’s authors, Michael Manville, put it, “That exploding level of new automobile ownership is largely incompatible with a lot of transit ridership.” In other words, once a household has access to a car, they almost universally prefer driving to mass transit.
This patronage plunge threatens transit agencies. Typical responses echo Hasan Ikhrata, executive director of the Southern California Association of Governments, who said, “We need to take this study as an opportunity to figure out how we make transit work better for us.” In other words, we should ignore increasing access to automobiles and overwhelming revealed preferences for driving over mass transit, and find new ways to fill bus and train seats.
Many things are already in motion to solve transit agency’s problems. For instance, in 2015, Los Angeles began a 20-year plan to remove auto lanes for bus and protected bike lanes, as well as pedestrian enhancements, diverting transportation funds raised from drivers and heightening congestion for the vast majority who planners already know will continue to drive (it would have doubled the number of heavily congested–graded F–intersections to 36% during evening rush).
Such less than effective attempts to cut driving (and bail out transit agencies) by creating gridlock purgatory suggest we ask a largely ignored question. Why do planners’ attempts to force residents into walking, cycling and mass transit, supposedly improving their quality of life, attract so few away from driving?
The reason is simple–cars are vastly superior to alternatives for the vast majority of individuals and circumstances.
Automobiles have far greater and more flexible passenger- and cargo-carrying capacities than transit. They allow direct, point-to-point service, unlike transit. They allow self-scheduling rather than requiring advance planning. They save time, especially time spent waiting, which surveys find transit riders find far more onerous. They have far better multi-stop trip capability (which is why restrictions on auto use punish working mothers most). They offer a safer, more comfortable, more controllable environment, from the seats to the temperature to the music to the company.
Those massive advantages explain why even substantial new restrictions on automobiles or improvements in alternatives leave driving the vastly dominant choice. They also reveal that policies which will punish the vast majority for whom driving remains far superior cannot effectively serve all residents’ interests.
The superiority of automobiles doesn’t stop at the obvious, either. They expand workers’ access to jobs and educational opportunities, increase productivity and incomes, improve purchasing choices, lower consumer prices and widen social options. Trying to inconvenience people out of their cars also undermines those major benefits.
Cars’ allow decreased commuting times if not hamstrung, providing workers access to far more potential jobs and training possibilities. That improves worker-employer matches, with expanded productivity raising workers’ incomes as well as benefitting employers. One study found that 10 percent faster travel raised worker productivity by 3 percent, and increasing from 3 mph walking speed to 30 mph driving is a 900 percent increase. In a similar vein, a Harvard analysis found that for those lacking high-school diplomas, owning a car increased monthly earnings by $1,100.
Cars are also the only practical way to assemble enough widely dispersed potential customers to sustain large stores with affordable, diverse offerings. “Automobility” also sharply expands access to social opportunities.
Attempting to force people out of cars and onto transit recycles earlier failures and harms the vast majority of citizens.
As Randal O’Toole noted:
Anyone who prefers not to drive can find neighborhoods…where they can walk to stores that offer a limited selection of high-priced goods, enjoy limited recreation and social opportunities, and take slow public transit vehicles to some but not all regional employment centers, the same as many Americans did in 1920. But the automobile provides people with far more benefits and opportunities than they could ever have without it.
Gary Galles is a Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University, an adjunct scholar at the Ludwig von Mises Institute, part the Foundation for Economic Education faculty network, and a research associate of the Independent Institute. His books include “Apostle of Peace” (2013); “Faulty Premises, Faulty Policies” (2014); and “Lines of Liberty” (2016).