Austin had Greatest Loss of U.S. Transit Transit Ridership in 2016

Austin Reflects Failed Transportation Strategy

by Jim Skaggs, Coalition For Sustainable Transportation, March 4, 2017

The transit ridership data below are from the Seattle PI based on their “analysis of Federal Transit Administration data, and include annual trips (not necessarily riders, but single trips) and the percent change from 2015.”

Austin continued its almost 20 year declining trend in transit ridership as it had the greatest loss of ridership from 2015 to 2016 among 29 major metropolitan areas in the U.S. Austin’s ridership decline was 11.9%. The Austin region also had the lowest transit ridership of these 29 regions at 28.9 million rides. Austin’s ridership decline was more than 4 times its total commuter rail ridership which also declined in 2016, about the same percentage as total transit ridership declined. This again questions Cap Metro’s wisdom in currently spending almost $100 million tax dollars to upgrade Austin’s rail transit to encourage increased ridership.

Only four of the 29 regions recorded an increase in transit ridership: Seattle, with a 4.1% increase had the largest increase of these four cities. Seattle has substantially improved its bus routes and extended its one rail line, the most expensive rail (dollars per mile) ever opened in the U.S. Houston had the second largest ridership increase with a gain of 2.3%. This increase is primarily due to a major restructuring of its bus system to provide better service. However, Houston’s total transit ridership is still about 15% below its ridership level almost 20 years ago while its population has increased almost 50%. The other two cities with transit increases were Detroit and Milwaukee. Detroit is slowly recovering from one of the greatest, large city declines in U.S. history.

Along with Austin, both Dallas and San Antonio experienced ridership declines. Dallas has spent billions of taxpayer dollars to implement the longest light rail system in the U.S. Considering the actual rider numbers instead of single trips (ridership), Dallas ridership has been essentially flat for the past 20 years while its population has increased more than 40%. San Antonio is the only major Texas city without a rail line. San Antonio’s all bus transit system is far more cost effective than the other three cities’ transit systems. San Antonio’s transit system is funded with a 1/2 penny sales tax versus full penny transit sales tax in the other three major cities. San Antonio has significantly more rides per capita than the other three major Texas cities. This is another very informing, factual message which Austin is ignoring in its transit plans for the future. This and the current and rapidly approaching transportation technology render a major portion of Austin’s and Cap Metro’s transportation planning as totally obsolete. Many hundreds of millions, and likely billions, of taxpayer dollars will be wasted if Austin and Cap Metro continue with their current transportation path. The Austin $720 million transportation bond package which voters approved in 2016 has a major focus on using street lanes for dedicated transit and bicycle lanes. This will waste hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to encourage transit and support a small fraction of transportation needs while reducing mobility for 99% of Austin’s daily trips on the roadways. The result: major increases in Central Austin congestion, closing of many small businesses and degradation of overall safety.

On the national transportation scene, The slight gain in the New York transit ridership of 0.4% is greater than the loss in the 25 metro regions with less ridership. Therefore, one who wishes to distort the message, can report national transit ridership is up a little in 2016. Unfortunately, Austin is doubling-down on presenting the message that it can increase transit ridership and reduce roadway congestion. This cannot be done and will only lead to more wasteful spending of tax dollars which will deplete the availability of funds necessary to achieve real, sustainable mobility increases. Result: continued and increasing roadway congestion which will further reduce the desirability for citizens to travel in central Austin.

Cap Metro does have an opportunity to improve its Austin area bus route system and slightly improve overall transit service to reduce the decline in ridership. However, Cap Metro’s current goal to increase transit ridership by an estimated 40% with an expanded commuter rail and improved bus system is only a shallow dream similar to their long history of failed attempts to increase transit ridership. There are far better ways to improve transportation than for Cap Metro and the City of Austin to spend the planned several hundred million tax dollars to encourage additional transit ridership. This will only degrade overall mobility and quality of life.

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