Continued Major U.S. Transit Decline – First Quarter of 2017

COST Commentary: Below is a companion article to our previous posting: U.S. and Austin Transit Ridership Declined in 2016. As noted, the major reasons for this continuing decline are not going away. They will mostly lead to further declines and future technologies, such as driverless vehicles, will result in greater declines. Also, see COST posting “Austin & Texas Transit & Mobility Policies Are Failing – New Solutions Needed” for data on the long transit decline in Austin and other Texas cities. As shown in this article, many billions of tax dollars have been spent in vain and failure in attempting to change these declining transit trends which are occurring in a period of very rapid population growth.

Austin continues its ridership decline in the first quarter of 2017 with a bus/rail transit ridership decrease of 2.3%. The other major Texas cities also declined: Dallas lost 1.2% of its total bus/rail ridership, Houston was basically flat after a major revamping of its bus route system provided a slight bus ridership increase in 2016 and San Antonio lost 6.8% of its bus only transit system. This re-due of the Houston system has been quoted many times by shallow Austin folks as a great Houston transit success and Cap Metro has stated they expect great results from a similar upgrading approach. What none of them recognize or state is that Houston has 14% less bus/light rail transit ridership today than it had in 1999 when it had 44% fewer people. Only Austin’s reduction of 16% in transit ridership since 1999, with 71% fewer people, is greater than Houston’s percentage ridership decline.

The continuing transit declines in Austin, and most major cities across the nation, do not support the often heard remarks that Austin needs “mass transit.” As shown by a long history, there are zero U.S. cities, similar to Austin now or in the future, which are examples of mobility improvements by investing huge tax dollars to subsidize public transit. Another “political” comment often heard is that “We need it all – all modes and choices.” to improve mobility. Nothing could be further from the truth. Failing to understand the mobility needs of citizens and attempting to do it “all” will result in failing, wasting huge sums of tax dollars, degrading overall mobility and creating continuing declines in quality of life for all.

With continuing and long term evidence in Austin and all similar cities throughout the Nation, it is a tragedy that many local governments and transit agencies continue to pursue the same failed transit/mobility approaches. These outdated systems are not cost-effective and are do not improve mobility. An Albert Einstein quote is: “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Worse, these local leaders try “social engineering” to change citizens decisions as to what mobility approaches are the best to meet their needs.

The use of limited tax dollars to improve the roadways will make a much greater positive, more cost-effective, impact on the vast majority of travel including private, shared, public transit, commercial, emergency, government and school vehicles. The current path of wasteful spending of huge tax funds to subsidize public transit and bicycle infrastructure will continue to increase roadway congestion and reduce safety, providing a lower quality of life for almost all citizens.

Transit’s Precipitous Decline

By Randal O’Toole, newgeography, Jul 2017

Transit ridership in the first quarter of 2017 was 3.1 percent less than the same quarter in 2016, according the American Public Transportation Association’s latest ridership report. The association released the report without a press release, instead issuing a release complaining about the House Appropriations bill reducing funding for transit.

The ridership report is devastating news for anyone who believes transit deserves more subsidies. Every heavy-rail system lost riders except the PATH trains between Newark and Manhattan and the Patco line between Camden and Philadelphia. Commuter rail did a little better, mainly because of the opening of Denver’s A line and trend-countering growth of riders on the Long Island Railroad. Most light-rail lines lost riders, though surprisingly many streetcar lines gained riders.

In most cases where light-rail ridership grew, it did so at the expense of bus ridership. Los Angeles Metro gained 1.66 million light-rail riders but lost 8.73 million bus riders, or more than five for every new light-rail rider. Between the two modes, Phoenix’s Valley Metro lost 23,100 riders; Charlotte 20,200 lost riders; and Dallas Area Rapid Transit lost 193,100 riders. Similarly, Orlando’s commuter trains gained 22,700 riders but buses lost 98,500.

Houston and Minneapolis-St. Paul lost bus riders but not quite as many as they gained in light-rail riders. Houston gained 192,100 light-rail riders but lost 154,200 bus riders. Minneapolis gained 337,000 light-rail riders but lost 270,000 bus riders. Only Seattle scored a large increase in light-rail riders (thanks to an expensive new line that opened March 16, 2016) without an offsetting decline in bus ridership.

Many individual transit agencies suffered particularly catastrophic declines. Broward County (Fort Lauderdale), which wants to build a $200 million streetcar line, lost 12.8 percent of its transit riders. San Jose’s VTA, the agency I’ve sometimes called the worst-managed transit agency in the country, lost 11.9 percent. Birminghan lost 9.8 percent; Cleveland lost 7.9 percent; and San Diego lost 6.2 percent. In San Francisco, Muni lost 6.4 percent, BART lost 5.6 percent, SamTrans lost 8.9 percent, AC Transit (Oakland) lost 0.8 percent, and Central and Eastern Contra Costa County lost more than 7.0 percent.

One factor contributing to the losses might be that 2016 was leap year, so its first quarter had 1.1 percent more days than 2017. But both quarters had exactly the same number of work days (62 or 64 depending on whether you count King’s Birthday and President’s Day as holidays or work days), so leap day counted for less than it might have.

Many of these losses are just a continuation of trends that began in 2009 or earlier. As the Antiplanner noted last month, several major transit agencies lost 25 to 35 percent of their riders between 2009 and 2016, and most of these continued to lose in 2017. Moreover, none of the factors that led to these declines–low fuel prices, high auto ownership rates, rising costs, increasing competition from ride-hailing services–are going away, and some are only going to get worse.

Since 1970s, the transit industry has received well over a trillion dollars in subsidies while seeing a 20 percent drop in the average number of rides urban resident take each year. All this should lead Congress and state legislatures to question why taxpayers ought to continue subsidizing this fast declining industry.

This piece first appeared on The Antiplanner.
Randal O’Toole is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute specializing in land use and transportation policy. He has written several books demonstrating the futility of government planning. Prior to working for Cato, he taught environmental economics at Yale, UC Berkeley, and Utah State University.

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