Transit Transformation Needed Now!

COST Commentary: There has been a recent flurry of studies and articles regarding the failures of public transit, especially light rail. This posting contains several of these writings. The list below contains the current content of this posting. We may insert additions in the near future:

1. “The Coming Transit Apocalypse”, a CATO Institute ‘Policy Analysis’ by Randal O’Toole, 10-24-2017.

2. “LOS ANGELES TRANSIT RIDERSHIP LOSSES LEAD NATIONAL DECLINE” in ‘new geography’ by Wendell Cox, 11-15-2017.

3. “Denver has a coming transit apocalypse” in The Hill by Randal O’Toole, 11-1-2017

4. “Its the Last Stop on the Light Rail Gravy Train”, Wall Street Journal, by Randal O’Toole, 11-10-2017

5. “L.A.’s Dwindling transit ridership isn’t hard to fix. Make riding the bus cheaper and more convenient” by James E. Moore II and Thomas A. Rubin, L. A. Times Op-Ed, 7-20-2017

6. “Dallas Morning News Editorial,” 11-2-2017


8. The great transit rip-off, Orange County Register, by Joel Kotkin and Wendell Cox, 8-27-2017

These are a few of many such recent publications regarding failures in almost every major transit system in the nation. The publications contain a broad, summary spectrum of exceptional, overwhelming analyses, data and conclusions that have been compiled by an array of the nation’s most experienced, preeminent experts in this field. This collection provides important messages which must be fully considered by all urban communities’ leaders and citizens when considering major influences to their greater-good and quality-of-life such as roadway congestion, mobility, safety, affordability, housing costs, environment, taxes and others.

The subjects of transportation, public transit, congestion and mobility are particularly vital to Austin and its future. Austin has struggled for many years to support its rapid population growth but has achieved very poor results by prioritizing transit and bicycles over private and shared vehicles which require roadways that also provide major improvements for bus transit. Austin’s solutions have been ineffective, resulting in increased congestion, reduced safety and degraded, higher cost, transit service, which is highly subsidized by taxpayers. Austin transit use has declined for 20 years and, in 2016, Austin had the largest transit ridership percentage decline of major metro ares in the nation. Austin also had the fewest total transit riders of 29 major metropolitan areas in the U.S. Chicago, Washington D.C., New York, and Los Angeles all had greater actual transit ridership declines than Austin’s total transit ridership. Los Angeles’ ridership decline of 113 million was almost 4 times Austin’s total ridership.

Austin’s long and accelerating decline in transit ridership has been accompanied by a continuing trend of increasing transit operating costs and cost per transit trip. This rising cost has been more than double inflation growth, requiring increasing taxpayer subsidies for each transit trip. Those few promoting increased light rail lack an understanding that light rial is totally outdated and is the most expensive and least effective of transit options for Austin. Light rail would serve fewer people, reduce safety, cost significantly more tax funds and increase congestion on roadways where 99% of all trips are taken.

Austin is currently on an ill-advised path of being guided by the ‘Imagine Austin’ plan and the premise that greater population density and reducing cars, by forcing citizens to use transit, will provide improved quality-of-life. All evidence indicates this path to be irresponsible because it has resulted in trends of increasing congestion and reducing affordability. This has resulted in many citizens being forced to leave Austin, creating a strong down-trend in public school enrollment which will dramatically decrease the number of schools. In spite of decreased quality-of-life for many citizens and forcing citizens, especially lower income, to leave Austin; the city council continues to pursue misguided policies and wasteful spending of taxpayer dollars which exacerbate problems and are not constructively addressing the greater-good of City citizens.

All of the outstanding and compelling work posted here by experienced, very knowledgeable authors, reaffirms the urgent need for Austin to accept the reality of past failures in effectively addressing transportation and mobility solutions and began an immediate, appropriate transformation of approaches and priorities based on proven, cost-effective solutions and the future of transportation’s rapidly changing technology, as outlined in the publications below and many more.

For me, a key, “bottom line” message in these publications is that Austin must establish the top priority purpose of transit as serving the needs of those citizens who have no transportation alternative. This also serves the greater-good of the total community. There are not enough resources in Austin to effectively meet this priority transit need and to also provide alternative transportation choices to the entire community, with the goal of reducing significant numbers of cars on roadways. This is not a viable strategy and, even if the resources existed, it would be a huge waste of tax dollars because this failed strategy has been confirmed by results in many cities. Today’s transit realities should inform and be a major consideration in Austin’s selection of a new head of Cap Metro, who will be hired in the next few months as the current President and CEO retires.
This initial posting, below, is an excellent, comprehensive analysis report, “The Coming Transit Apocalypse” by Randal O’Toole. Below is the Executive Summary, Introduction and Conclusion of a much longer paper filled with supporting details. The full paper, including referenced Notes below, can be accessed by clicking on the title, in color.

The Coming Transit Apocalypse
By Randal O’Toole, CATO Institute, Policy Analysis, October 24, 2017


With annual subsidies of $50 billion covering 76 percent of its costs, public transit may be the most heavily subsidized consumer-based industry in the country. Since 1970, the industry has received well over $1 trillion (adjusted for inflation) in subsidies, yet the number of transit trips taken by the average urban resident has declined from about 50 per year in 1970 to 39 per year today.

Total transit ridership, not just per capita, is declining today, having seen a 4.4 percent drop nationwide from 2014 to 2016 and a 3.0 percent drop in the first seven months of 2017 versus the same months of 2016. Many major transit systems have suffered catastrophic declines in the past few years: since 2009, for example, transit ridership has declined by 27 to 37 percent in the Bakersfield, Detroit, Fresno, Memphis, Richmond, Toledo, and Wichita urban areas.

Four trends that are likely to become even more pronounced in the future place the entire industry in jeopardy: low energy prices; growing maintenance backlogs, especially for rail transit systems; unfunded pension and health care obligations; and ride-hailing services.

The last is the most serious threat, as some predict that within five years those ride-hailing services will begin using driverless cars, which will reduce their fares to rates competitive with transit, but with far more convenient service. This makes it likely that outside of a few very dense areas, such as New York City, transit will be extinct by the year 2030, leaving behind a huge burden of debt and unfunded obligations to former transit employees.

Despite these trends, the transit industry’s main response is to seek greater subsidies to build, maintain, and operate transit, often relying on rail transit and similar modes that were obsolete many years ago and won’t be able to compete against driverless ride-hailing services. Instead, transit agencies should begin to prepare for an orderly phase-out of publicly funded transit services as affordable, shared driverless cars become available in the next decade. This means the industry should stop building new rail lines; replace most existing rail lines with buses as they wear out; pay down debts and unfunded obligations; and target any further subsidies to low-income people rather than continue a futile crusade to attract higher-income people out of their cars.


Across the nation, transit agencies are in financial trouble as ridership declines while costs rise. But these troubles merely foreshadow the real problems the transit industry will face in the next few years. It is quite likely that, outside of New York and possibly a handful of other cities, transit as we know it will go extinct within 15 years, and many transit agencies will leave behind a mountain of debt that
local taxpayers will be obligated to pay.

Public transit is quite possibly the most heavily subsidized consumer-based industry in the United States. Federal, state, and local subsidies approaching $50 billion a year cover 76 percent of the costs of transit services. It is also one of the most useless industries, as much of what it does could be done for less money through other means.

Led by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), a $30 million-a-year organization that puts out a stream of reports and press releases promoting more subsidies for transit, the transit industry has persuaded many that public transit relieves congestion, saves energy, reduces pollution, is a vital part of urban economies, and helps low-income people. In fact, in the vast majority of urban areas in the United States, none of these things are true.

Lumbering transit buses and railcars not only do not relieve congestion, they often use more road space than the number of automobiles they take off the road. 1 They also use more energy and emit more greenhouse gases per passenger mile than the average car. 2 In most urban areas they carry so few people that transit could disappear tomorrow and almost no one would notice (see Table 1). As for low income people, studies have found that giving unemployed people access to a car will do far more to help them get and keep a job than providing subsidized transit. 3

In 2014, transit ridership reached 10.75 billion trips, its highest level since 1956. This is hardly a great achievement, however, as increased urban populations meant that annual transit trips per urban resident declined from 98 in 1956 to 42 in 2014. Yet the transit industry responded to this increased ridership by calling for more subsidies.

“The record ridership in 2014 is a clear message to Congress that the citizens of this country want expanded public transit services,” said APTA president Michael Melaniphy. “Congress needs to work together now to pass a long-term, well-funded surface transportation bill that invests in our country’s public transit infrastructure.” 4

From 2014 to 2016, nationwide ridership declined by 4.4 percent. While this may seem small, some urban areas have seen catastrophic losses in riders in the past few years. Since 2009, transit ridership has fallen by 37 percent in Wichita, 36 percent in Memphis, 31 percent in Sacramento and Richmond, 29 percent in Detroit, 28 percent in Bakersfield and Toledo, and 27 percent in Fresno. Transit systems in
Atlanta, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Washington have all suffered double-digit declines since 2009. Moreover, data for the first seven months of 2017 suggest that declines are accelerating. 5

Although agencies in these urban areas may depend on fares to cover only 20 to 40 percent of their operating costs, a 10 to 35 percent drop in that share of funding still hurts. Today, transit agencies are furiously lobbying for more subsidies to make up for declining revenues from transit riders. In other words, agency responses to both increases and decreases in ridership are to ask for more subsidies.

In many cases, the agencies plan to use those subsidies in ways that will impose heavy costs on taxpayers for decades to come, including by borrowing money to build new transit lines or rehabilitate old ones. Instead, they should be attempting to find a dignified path towards shutting down their systems in ways that minimize disruptions to transit riders and costs to taxpayers.

COST Note: The body of this excellent report can be reached by clicking on the title of the report, above in color. This quote is included in the body of the paper: “Transit systems in Austin, Dallas–Ft. Worth, Houston, Kansas City, San Antonio, and San Jose only collect enough fares to cover around 10 to 15 percent of operating costs.”


It is not easy to accept that new technologies are replacing one’s core business, a prospect that is currently facing many retailers, such as Sears. Private companies such as RadioShack and Blockbuster Video have been able to wind down their operations without fuss, but owing to its self-perception as serving the public good, the transit industry continues to feel entitled to its $50 billion in annual subsidies. Instead of caving in to demands for more subsidies, elected officials and policymakers should begin to prepare for an orderly phaseout of publicly funded transit services as driverless cars become available in the next decade.

First, transit agencies should stop building rail transit. Buses made most rail transit obsolete nearly 90 years ago, which is why more than 1,000 American cities with streetcars replaced those rail lines with buses between 1910 and 1972. Cities and regions don’t need to be saddled with billions of dollars of debt from construction of new lines that, thanks to shared driverless cars, will end up carrying few riders.

Second, as existing rail lines wear out, transit agencies should replace them with buses. The costs of rehabilitating lines that have suffered from years of deferred maintenance is nearly as great as (if not greater than) the cost of building them in the first place. In most cases, even in such heavily used systems such as the Washington Metro, buses can provide equivalent service at a far lower cost. Unlike rail infrastructure, buses can be sold if and when shared driverless cars replace transit services, and driverless cars can use the same pavement used by buses today, so unlike rail, buses do not represent an irreversible commitment of resources. New York City is the one place where maintaining existing rail lines may make sense, but even there the use of electric buses in subway tunnels should be considered an alternative to spending billions on rehabilitating rail infrastructure.

Third, transit agencies that want to offer competitive services before driverless cars become available should plan express buses or bus rapid-transit lines that use lanes shared with other traffic. Dedicating existing lanes to buses increases congestion, while use of high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) or high-occupancy toll lanes can allow buses to avoid congestion while providing congestion relief for everyone else. As previously noted, very few corridors in the United States generate enough transit riders to require dedicated bus lanes, and most of those places are already served by heavy-rail transit, such as in New York and a few other cities.

Fourth, transit agencies should make a priority of paying down their debts and unfunded pension and health care obligations. Agencies should not saddle future taxpayers with those obligations, especially if there is a real chance that existing transit systems will be completely replaced by shared driverless vehicles.

Fifth, instead of subsidizing all transit riders, transit agencies should target future subsidies to low-income people. Census data reveal that a higher percentage of people who earn more than $75,000 a year take transit than any other income class. 73 To the extent people believe that low-income people can benefit from transportation assistance, such assistance should be in the form of vouchers (similar to food stamps) that can be used with any transportation provider, from a ride-hailing service to an airline.

Transportation is a vital part of the American economy. Public transit, however, is not, especially outside of New York City, and shared driverless cars will make it even more redundant. Whether or not shared driverless cars will put transit agencies out of business in the next decade, those agencies should stop wasting money on expensive and noncompetitive transit services and focus on providing basic, cost-effective services for those who need transit the most, while putting their economic houses in order by reducing maintenance backlogs, debts, and unfunded obligations.
by Wendell Cox 11/15/2017

In recent days, two well placed commentaries have detailed the recent declines both in US transit ridership, and in particular, Los Angeles, where the decline is most severe. The Cato Institute’s Randal O’Toole provided a broad analysis of US transit ridership in The Wall Street Journal and explained how emerging trends may be seriously eroding transit ridership and rendering new urban rail systems even less effective than they have been in the past (see: It’s the Last Stop on the Light-Rail Gravy Train). In a Los Angeles Times commentary, University of Southern California Professor James E. Moore and former top Los Angeles transit financial official Thomas A. Rubin described that area’s stunning transit ridership losses (see: L.A.’s dwindling transit ridership isn’t hard to fix: Make riding the bus cheaper and more convenient).

This article provides more details on the developing national transit ridership decline. Particular emphasis is placed on Los Angeles, which, although widely praised as “the next great transit city”, has sustained by far the greatest share of the loss.

Transit Ridership in Context

Transit ridership had reversed its nearly six decade trend from the middle 1990s to 2014, reaching a level of 10.8 million unlinked trips. An unlinked trip is a “boarding,” which is when a passenger enters a transit vehicle. A simple trip from point A to B on transit may have a single boarding, such as when only one vehicle is used, or more. For example, a single transit trip in which three buses are used counts as a “boarding” or an “unlinked trip.”

The all-time record had been set in 1946, when ridership reached double that level (23.5 billion) following World War II which sparked transit gain with gasoline and tire rationing. However, transit ridership has fallen each of the last three years. Federal Transit Administration data indicates that ridership for the year ended June 30, 2017 had fallen 4.7 percent, or nearly one-half billion annual rides.

The losses have been pervasive. Among the 41 urban areas with more than 1,000,000 residents, 35 experienced losses and six had gains.

Cities Losing the Most Riders

These significant losses were dominated by Los Angeles. Between 2014 and 2017, Los Angeles lost 113 million annual rides, 16.6 percent of its 2014 ridership. The Los Angeles ridership loss was hugely disproportionate to its share of national ridership. In 2014, Los Angeles carried 6.4 percent of the nation’s unlinked trips. Yet since that time, Los Angeles has posted 22.9 percent of the ridership decline, 3.6 times its share of ridership.

Los Angeles lost more riders than were attracted by the whole transit systems of metropolitan areas such as Portland, Baltimore, Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth and Minneapolis-St. Paul. Only 10 urban areas had higher ridership in a year than the number of riders lost in Los Angeles. Indeed, Los Angeles fell to third in total ridership, with Chicago being restored to the second place, a position held by Los Angeles since the early 2000s. [COST Comment: Note in this referenced data, Austin’s transit ridership was 37.5 million in 2000 and is now less than 29 million or down approximately 24% while population has grown almost 70%.]

Other urban areas also lost riders, although no other area contributed more to the transit loss than Los Angeles. New York saw 14 percent of the decline, or 70 million riders. But this ridership decline of 1.6 percent, represented only one-tenth the 16.6 percent of Los Angeles losses.

Washington, dealing with what appears to have been insufficient attention to safety and infrastructure issues on its Metro, lost nearly as many riders as New York, 57 million. This is a 12.2 percent decline. Washington’s loss comprised 12 percent of the national total.

The other largest losers were Chicago (40 million, a loss of 6.3 percent), Miami (30 million, a loss of 17.9 percent), Philadelphia (23 million, a loss of 6.2 percent) and Boston (19 million, a loss of 4.5 percent).

Combined, these cities represented 23 percent of the total national loss. Approximately 21 percent of the loss was in the urban areas other than the eight identified above (Figure 1).

The largest ridership losses are shown in Figure 2. Figure 3 converts these 10 largest losses to percentages. It is notable that each of the losses was more than 6 percent over the year, with the exception of Boston and New
York, with by far the smallest loss.
Fig 1 Cox LA Article

Fig 2 Cox LA Article

Fig 3 Cox LA Article

Transit in Los Angeles: Where Rail, Not Riders Drive Policy

I personally played a role in establishing the Los Angeles rail system during my time on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (see Los Angeles: Rail for Others). Since that time, a rail system of 6 radial routes (from downtown), one cross-town route (along the I-105 Freeway) and two exclusive busways have been opened. No larger US population center outside New York has seen such an improvement in high capacity transit. I and the others on LACTC expected that this system would substantially increase not only transit’s ridership but also its market share in Los Angeles. Yet, as Moore and Rubin put it:

“Metro’s current “annual boardings” — just under 400 million — represent a drop of almost 20% from the system’s 1985 peak, even though the county’s population has increased by nearly a fifth since then.” Further, all of this has cost more than $15 billion (inflation adjusted).

Astoundingly, this abject policy failure has gone largely unnoticed in the media and, according to Moore and Rubin, at least $500 million that could have been spent to lower fares and improve bus service has gone instead to expanding a rail. The system’s ineffectiveness can be measured in passengers lost per million dollars of expenditure.

Moore and Rubin remind readers that the low-fare program of 1982-1985 resulted in a 40 percent ridership increase, perhaps the most significant gain in modern US transit history. Moore and Rubin further show that after a federal court agreed with plaintiffs that Metro was expanding the rail system at the expense of the bus system, a 10-year agreement produced a ridership increase of 36 percent.

Transit is About People, not Trains

In its quest to become “the next great mass-transit city,” Los Angeles has headed off toward a “dead end.” A great mass-transit city does not become so because of its trains (or buses) — that requires riders. In Los Angeles, riders are increasingly in short supply.

In the final analysis, transit is justified by the extent to which it provides mobility to people, especially to those with insufficient resources to provide their own mobility throughout the metropolitan area. The key to transit is growing ridership and putting riders first (see: The Great Train Robbery).

Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, an international public policy and demographics firm. He is a Senior Fellow of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism (US), Senior Fellow for Housing Affordability and Municipal Policy for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy (Canada), and a member of the Board of Advisors of the Center for Demographics and Policy at Chapman University (California). He is co-author of the “Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey” and author of “Demographia World Urban Areas” and “War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.” He was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, where he served with the leading city and county leadership as the only non-elected member. He served as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, a national university in Paris.

Photograph: Los Angeles Metro Rail route map.
Denver has a coming transit apocalypse

By Randal O’Toole, Op-Ed in The Hill, November 1, 2017

In 2004, Denver’s Regional Transportation District (RTD) persuaded voters to pay billions of dollars in taxes to build a 19th century rail transit system for a 21st century urban area. Thirteen years later, this experiment is increasingly proving to be a failure.

Ridership on Denver’s new R and W light-rail lines is so low that RTD is reducing train frequencies. After more than a year of operating a rail line to the airport, the agency still hasn’t figured out how to make its automatic crossing gates work reliably, a problem private railroads solved more than 80 years ago.

Due to overruns that nearly doubled construction costs, RTD is unlikely to finish all of the lines promised to voters in 2004 without another tax increase. Those cost overruns have also harmed bus riders, who — instead of the enhanced bus service promised by RTD — saw service decline from 39 million bus-miles in 2004 to 36 million in 2015, with more cuts expected in the near future.

The number of Denver-area transit commuters has grown, but not enough to keep up with other modes of travel. According to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, the share of commuters taking transit to work in the Denver-Aurora urban area shrank from 5.4 percent in 2006, before any of the new lines opened, to 4.6 percent in 2016, when several new lines had opened and existing ones extended. Though congestion reduction was a major selling point to voters, the trains actually made congestion worse through frequent delays at grade crossings.

RTD’s ridership peaked three years ago, with the first eight months of 2017 seeing 5.1 percent fewer riders than the same time period in 2014. This reflects a national trend, as transit ridership is falling in every major urban area except Seattle.

This national decline appears to be due largely to a combination of low gasoline prices and ridesharing services. A recent survey found that one-third of Uber and Lyft riders would have taken transit if ridesharing were not available. If true, the rapid growth of these services explains nearly three-fourths of the 2016 decline in transit ridership.

Now that hydraulic fracturing has given the United States control over energy supplies, neither low gas prices nor ridesharing are going away anytime soon. In fact, the loss of transit riders to ridesharing services will rapidly accelerate as shared, driverless cars replace human-driving vehicles. Companies as diverse as Ford, Google, and Uber are racing to put driverless cars in our cities within five years that will be both more convenient and less costly than transit.

Why walk in the summer heat or winter cold to catch a bus or light rail when an app on your smart phone will bring a car to your door that will take you to your destination faster and for less money than a transit fare? Given the huge advantages of driverless ridesharing over transit, it is likely that, by 2030, most publicly subsidized mass transit outside of New York City will completely disappear and Denver’s multi-billion-dollar rail lines will be running empty or rusting away.

Despite these predictable trends, transit agencies in many other cities are making the same mistake as RTD by planning and building obsolete, infrastructure-heavy transit programs. Los Angeles Metro is planning to spend tens of billions on new light rail even though, to pay for rail, it has cut bus service, losing nearly four bus riders for every new light-rail rider gained since 2010.

Honolulu is building an ugly, elevated rail line that was supposed to cost less than $3 billion but now is estimated to cost at least three times that amount. Nashville is proposing a $6-billion light-rail system and Durham is talking about a $3.3-billion light-rail line.

Meanwhile, cities with older rail transit systems including Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, have allowed maintenance backlogs to grow to tens of billions of dollars, leaving their systems unreliable and even dangerous. No one ever tells voters that rail transit is not only expensive to build, it must be expensively rebuilt every thirty years, and few transit agencies budget for that reconstruction.

With the pending arrival of driverless ridesharing, RTD and other transit agencies should stop building new rail transit and start preparing to transition their operations. Instead of spending billions rehabilitating worn-out rail lines, cities like Boston and Washington should replace them with buses. All transit agencies should pay down their debts and unfunded pension obligations so as not to saddle future taxpayers with those obligations after transit disappears.

In fact, transit agencies should do these things anyway, as they make more economic sense than going deeper into debt building infrastructure agencies can’t afford to maintain. But the twin signals of declining ridership and rapid development of driverless cars makes it imperative that agencies adopt these policies now rather than wait until their customer base is almost completely gone.

Randal O’Toole (@antiplanner) directs the Transportation Policy Center at the Independence Institute (@i2idotorg), a free market think tank in Denver, and is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute in Washington, DC. He is author of The Coming Transit Apocalypse.
It’s the Last Stop on the Light-Rail Gravy Train

Mayors want new lines that won’t be ready for a decade. Commuters will be in driverless cars by then.

By Randal O’Toole, Wall Street Journal, Nov. 10, 2017

When it comes to mass transit, politicians never learn. Last month, Nashville Mayor Megan Berry announced a $5.2 billion proposal that involves building 26 miles of light rail and digging an expensive tunnel under the city’s downtown. Voters will be asked in May to approve a half-cent sales tax increase plus additions to hotel, car rental and business excise taxes to pay for the project.

San Antonio’s mayor, Ron Nirenberg, also wants to lay rail, even though his city’s voters blocked light-rail plans in 2000 and 2015. In 1933, San Antonio became the first major city in America to replace its streetcars with buses, which are faster, more flexible and cheaper to buy and operate. Nevertheless, Mr. Nirenberg has strongly supported rail construction on “high density corridors,” though he wants the transit agency to work out the specifics.

In the Tampa, Fla., area, transit planners are proposing a 35-mile light-rail line to St. Petersburg. They don’t know how to pay for it, especially since Tampa voters rejected a sales tax for light rail in 2010 and St. Petersburg voters rejected one in 2014.

These proposals are questionable at best and reckless at worst, given that transit ridership—including bus and what little rail these regions have—is down in all three jurisdictions. This is a nationwide trend: Data released this week by the Federal Transit Administration shows that ridership is falling in nearly every major urban area (with Seattle as a notable exception).

Some regions have seen catastrophic drops in ridership since 2010: 30% or more in Detroit, Sacramento and Memphis; 20% to 30% in Austin, Cleveland, Louisville, St. Louis and Virginia Beach-Norfolk ; and 15% to 20% in Atlanta, Charlotte, Los Angeles, Miami, San Antonio and Washington.

Adding rail service hasn’t helped. To pay for new light-rail lines that opened in 2012 and 2016, Los Angeles cut bus service. The city lost nearly four bus riders for every additional rail rider. Atlanta, Dallas, Sacramento and San Jose have seen similar results. The rail system in Portland, Ore., is often considered successful, but only 8% of commuters take transit of any kind to work. In 1980, before rail was constructed, buses alone were carrying 10% of commuters.

The main reason for this drop-off is that low gas prices and ride-sharing services have given people better options. Census data show that 96% of American workers live in households with at least one car, and anyone with a smartphone can summon an Uber or Lyft.

That said, transit ridership has been sliding for decades as jobs have become less highly concentrated in city centers. Since 1970, the number of transit trips taken per urban resident has fallen more than 20%. Outside the areas of New York, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington, transit carries less than 1% of passenger travel. This belies the claim that mass transit is vital to urban economies.

Yet the subsides go on, seemingly forever. Since 1970, taxpayers have plowed more than $1.1 trillion (adjusted for inflation) into transit systems. Critics may reply that roads are also subsidized. But measured per passenger-mile, the subsidies for transit are more than 40 times as great as for driving.

The transit industry has compounded its problems by going heavily into debt, allowing unfunded pensions and health-care obligations to snowball, and failing to maintain the rail lines they already have. According to the Department of Transportation, the nationwide transit maintenance backlog is approaching $100 billion, causing exactly the problems you’d expect: derailments of New York City subways, slowdowns of Chicago’s elevated train, smoke in Washington metro tunnels, and other operational and safety issues. Even if all the money now spent on new construction were redirected to maintenance, according to the department, it would take 20 years to rehabilitate America’s rail transit systems.

Instead of spending billions on new rail lines, cities like Nashville, San Antonio and Tampa ought to use buses to move people faster, more safely, and for far less money. Rail is simply a bad investment.

That’s especially true given the bets being made by companies like Ford, Google and Uber on driverless cars. Some analysts predict that by the middle of the next decade, calling a driverless car will be as easy as hailing an Uber today. Why walk in the heat or cold for a bus or streetcar when you can hail a driverless car to your door for less money than the transit fare? Nashville’s first light-rail line won’t even open until 2026. By then, who’s going to want to use it?

Mr. O’Toole, a senior fellow with the Cato Institute, is the author of a new policy report “The Coming Transit Apocalypse.”

Appeared in the November 11, 2017, print edition.
L.A.’s Dwindling transit ridership isn’t hard to fix. Make riding the bus cheaper and more convenient

By James E. Moore II and Thomas A. Rubin, L.A. Times Op-Ed, July 20, 2017

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s ridership has been falling steadily since 2014, losing on average 69,000 daily riders each month. The most recent 12 months of data show a decrease of more than 10% compared with the same period three years ago, and Metro’s current “annual boardings” — just under 400 million — represent a drop of almost 20% from the system’s 1985 peak, even though the county’s population has increased by nearly a fifth since then.

It wouldn’t be difficult to turn these figures around, as Metro’s history shows: The transportation authority should stop focusing primarily on building new rail and use a fair share of its voter-supplied wealth to lower fares and improve the bus system.

The agency’s own data make both the problem and the solution clear.

Between 1982 and 1985, Metro ridership in L.A. exploded by 40%, jumping from 354.1 million to 497.2 million annual boardings. The reason was simple: The increase followed bus fare reductions, from 85 cents a ride to 50 cents. A minor share (20%) of funds generated by Proposition A in 1980 (the first of four ballot measures increasing sales taxes to support transportation) was used to subsidize the cost. Then as now, Metro riders tended to be low-income, some very low-income. Reducing their travel costs allowed them to travel more.

Los Angeles needs a transit system that focuses on proven strategies that work not just for a few Angelenos, but for all of us.

But in 1986, Metro ended the fare subsidy and shifted the funds to building rail lines, beginning with the Long Beach Blue Line, which opened in 1990. Total transit ridership proceeded to fall until the NAACP, the Bus Riders’ Union and others took Metro to federal court to protect bus service in 1994. Their argument was that the expansion of rail was coming at the expense of bus routes, bus frequency and bus riders, and it was disproportionately harming minorities, the elderly and the young. Metro settled, and the deal was enshrined in a 10-year consent decree starting in 1996.

The settlement allowed Metro to build all the rail it could afford, so long as specific bus service improvements were made too. Those improvements included reducing fares, increasing service on existing lines, establishing new lines, replacing old buses and keeping the fleet clean. Lo and behold, while the decree was in force L.A.’s transit ridership rose by 36%. When Metro was no longer bound by the settlement, it refocused its efforts almost exclusively on new rail projects. The quality of bus service began declining in almost every way measurable, and overall ridership again fell.

With the funds generated by the Measure R sales tax increases, voted on in 2008, and last year’s Measure M increases — which will provide $121 billion over the next 40 years — Metro has more than enough money to reinvigorate bus service. At a minimum, it should return to the program under the consent decree: building all the new rail it wants, as long as bus service is improved as well.

Our detailed analysis of Metro’s 2015 budget identified $573 million available for bus operations and improvements that was spent instead entirely on rail construction and debt service on funds borrowed to accelerate that construction. If just half of this $573 million from Metro’s much larger total budget was redirected to improve the bus system, rail construction would slow but Metro would likely see growth in total ridership. (It is impossible to do the same analysis on Metro’s 2016 budget: Its documentation has become less transparent.)

Metro’s rail-centric approach to transit persists, it appears, primarily because of the makeup of its board of directors. The board members are mostly elected officials. No board member specifically represents transit riders. It’s not surprising then that the board’s concerns seem to be less about the welfare of most Metro users and more about funding capital-intensive rail projects that serve particular constituents.

The Metro system now has 93 rail stops, with 18 under construction. It has 18,500 bus stops. Bus service will always predominate in L.A. If we expand and improve it, and reduce fares, transit ridership will increase again, quickly, better serving the low-income riders Metro has been mostly ignoring. Los Angeles needs a transit system that focuses on proven strategies that work not just for a few Angelenos, but for all of us.

James E. Moore II is a professor in USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering and Price School of Public Policy and director of USC’s Transportation Engineering Program.
Thomas A. Rubin is a consultant based in Oakland; he was the chief financial officer of the Southern California Rapid Transit District before it was merged into Metro.
After decades of rail expansion, it’s time for DART to think big, very big, on buses

By Dallas Morning News Editorial, 11-2-2017

For months now, the chorus of criticism coming from the Dallas City Council aimed at Dallas Area Rapid Transit has been growing louder. The regional agency says it’s listening, but we are skeptical.

If it is listening, DART president Gary Thomas and his cadre of well-paid executives don’t seem to understand what they are hearing.

DART, a nearly $800 million-a-year operation with more than 4,000 employees serving Dallas and 12 smaller cities, is failing the riders who need it most. And it has been for years.

Who are these riders? They are low-income workers and others who use transit because they can’t afford to drive. For these workers, many of whom live here in Dallas, an available bus ride or train trip is the difference between earning a paycheck and not.

In Dallas, the poorest of these workers — full-time, year-round workers who are nevertheless in poverty — are twice as likely to use DART than other workers. When they do, they endure commutes that are 50 percent longer.

And yet these riders are the lucky ones. A study shared with the Dallas City Council last week showed that at least 96 percent of jobs in the region are out of reasonable reach for fully 65 percent of Dallas’ transit-dependent population.

No wonder so many poor workers remain poor, shut out of potentially better jobs just because they can’t get to them. And no wonder bus ridership at DART has fallen steadily for years.

What’s needed at DART is a massive reorganization of its resources. Thomas has repeatedly promised that the agency will boost bus spending by $14 million and is adding more than 40 new coaches by 2019.

Great, but that’s a pittance. It’s almost laughably out of scale with the scope of the problem.

Over the next 35 years, DART plans to spend several billion dollars on an east-west commuter rail line connecting Plano to Addison and onto the airport. Meanwhile, Dallas is determined to double the cost for a second downtown Dallas rail line by insisting it be buried underground, even though doing so won’t add riders.

Every one of those sales tax dollars could be spent, instead, on creating a bus system that works not just for workers in Dallas but for suburban commuters, too.

by Steven Polzin, in new geography, 08/10/2017

In the ever-trendy world of transportation planning people seem to be infatuated with discussions of first mile-last mile public transportation connections and intermodalism. Given all the attention, one would think that the traveling public is anxiously awaiting their next opportunity to transfer vehicles to complete their trip. Nothing can be further from the truth. People don’t aspire to transfer; they don’t aspire to experience an intermodal terminal. They almost always want to get door to door in the fastest, simplest, and most reliable fashion. Transferring between vehicles is a necessary inconvenience, not a virtue.

The concept of using multiple means of travel to complete a given trip is an outgrowth of the reality that different services and technologies offer the optimal means of travel for different contexts, which can result in trips that require transfers for the overall optimal means of travel. The most obvious example is traveling from, say Chicago to New York. Air travel is the time and cost superior means of carrying out the line-haul component of the trip. U.S. airlines, for example, routinely extract less than $.20 per passenger mile from travelers to transport them between airports while also saving them time and perhaps lodging and meal expenses. But jet aircraft will not pick you up at the door or delivered you to the entrance to your destination. Thus, transferring between modes at airports is a necessary and logical interface between air and surface modes. The opportunity to take advantage of the premium performance of air travel more than offsets the onerousness of navigating through airports and transferring between access and egress modes.

On other kinds of trips, the onerousness of transferring might not be as easily offset by the travel benefits of the line-haul or primary mode of travel. For many shorter urban trips, it becomes very challenging for the onerousness of a transfer to be offset by the benefits of using a combination of modes or vehicles to complete a trip. Travel modeling has long recognized the onerousness of transferring, thus quantitatively penalizing the need to transfer by calculating time spent transferring as two or more times more onerous than in-vehicle travel time. From a practical perspective, transferring introduces uncertainty into a trip. Your arrival at the transfer point is captive to the system schedules and you cannot necessarily minimize the transfer wait. The second vehicle introduces an additional chance to be impacted by unreliable service. For first-time trips, you need to figure out both the location of the destination and how to get to it. You may lose your seat or place and interrupt whatever you are doing during your travel. You might be exposed to weather or other risks, and you can’t use the time as productively as you might have had a transfer not been required.

If you do have to transfer, you want it to be as quick and convenient as possible. While basic amenities such as restrooms and convenience retail might be appreciated, the local traveler is most often interested in getting quickly to their destination and not turning the transfer experience into a retail opportunity or recreational outing. For longer distance intercity trips where the traveler may be captive to more lengthy waits between travel segments, additional retail and personal service accommodations might be appreciated to the extent that they don’t disadvantage other passengers by excessively increasing walk distances or causing other delays.

The vehicle travel to and from the transfer location should deviate from the optimal origin-destination travel path as little as possible. If one does have to suffer a transfer, they would much preferred that the point of transfer not dramatically impact the circuity of their travel.

The growing motivation for providing first mile-last mile connections derives from the logical desire to increase the accessibility to public transportation for more homes and destinations. A multitude of efforts in recent years have been carried out to quantify accessibility of residents and activities to public transit. Early work carried out by CUTR indicated that about half the homes in the America were within a half a mile of a transit route. A slightly higher share of employment locations were similarly within a half a mile of transit. More recently, sophisticated software tools have been developed to evaluate accessibility via transit, such as initiatives by the Brookings Institute and the University of Minnesota Accessibility Observatory, as well as tools such as Transit Score. The collective message of these analyses indicate that, in general, access to transit both geographically and temporally is, on average, limited. Hence, folks are interested in improving first mile-last mile connections with the hopes of making transit more attractive and productive.

Historically, line-haul premium transit services provided feeder bus, park-and-ride, and kiss and ride (drop off) opportunities so that travelers could access these premium modes, most typically for longer-distance commute travel. More recently, additional means of access, including bikeshare, carshare, and transportation network company (TNC) connections (i.e., Uber, Lyft, etc.), are being deployed. Automated shuttles are being evaluated as yet another means of enhancing the appeal of line-haul premium travel modes. These concepts make sense in contexts where the line-haul mode is sufficiently attractive by virtue of its speed or cost advantages that the traveler is willing to incur the inconvenience, time cost, trip circuity, or other potential negative characteristics of incurring one or more transfers to complete a trip.

Better first mile-last mile connections work where they work. But where is that and what planning and service investments makes sense to enhance first mile-last mile connections? Individuals who use intermodal connections do it either because there is no viable alternative or because the disutility of transferring is more than made up for by being able to take advantage of the line-haul mode of travel. This is most possible in situations where the line-haul mode is superior to other travel options, typically meaning it is faster by virtue of fewer stops, exclusive guideway, signal priority, utilization of a higher performance travel path (freeway versus arterial), and that the transfer penalty is minimized most typically by having high-frequency service on the line-haul. Faster travel speed is typically only virtuous in instances where the distance of the trip is sufficient to accumulate enough marginal travel time advantage to offset the transfer induced delays. Thus, enhancing first mile-last mile connections has the greatest leverage for longer distance trips and premium services.

Over 60% of person trips according to the last National Household Travel Survey, are less than 5 miles in length, over 75% less than 10 miles in length. Many of the shorter trips are unlikely to be appealing as trips requiring first mile-last mile connections to travelers who have choices. Absent extremely high quality first mile-last mile connections, the circuity and delays likely to be introduced by a first mile-last mile connection(s), as opposed to a direct door-to-door single vehicle trip, are unlikely to make this arrangement attractive for travelers with choices. Such services could incentivize more trips or increase convenience by shortening walk access for travelers without personal vehicle options.

So what does this have to do with anything? Numerous communities are striving to leverage their transit investments and increase mobility for their populations by exploring additional first mile-last mile connections. Though well intentioned, first mile-last mile programs will be most successful if fully informed by an understanding of traveler behavior in general and market conditions in particular. Context has implications in terms of the magnitude of ridership response as a result of improved connections based on the geography of deployment and the trip pattern emanating to and from that geography. First mile-last mile connections are most likely to attract new travelers if they offer high-quality connections, support high performance modes, and serve sufficiently long trips such that the circuity and transfer disutility can be amortized over a longer line-haul premium service segments.

In addition, equity considerations may become an issue. Additional investments in first mile-last mile connections will have to be evaluated in the context of alternative investments in service and facility improvements. Additionally, attention needs to be paid to the question of who will benefit, both geographically and demographically, from various first mile-last mile connections. How much should be spent to coax travelers with personal or private sector mobility options to use public transportation, or should resources be directed to basic service improvements for those dependent on transit?

Experimentation and a learning curve are to be expected as new technologies, business models, and deployment strategies are deployed and experience accumulates. But it will be important to glean a well-informed sense of the public and user costs, travel impacts, and environmental, safety, and other impacts. The role of new technologies and service models in enhancing connections to public transportation is important, but like everything about public transit, it’s not so easy to make it work.

This piece first appeared on Planetizen.

Dr. Polzin is the director of mobility policy research at the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida and is responsible for coordinating the Center’s involvement in the University’s educational program. Dr. Polzin carries out research in mobility analysis, public transportation, travel behavior, planning process development, and transportation decision-making. Dr. Polzin is on the editorial board of the Journal of Public Transportation and serves on several Transportation Research Board and APTA Committees. He recently completed several years of service on the board of directors of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (Tampa, Florida) and on the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization board of directors. Dr. Polzin worked for transit agencies in Chicago (RTA), Cleveland (GCRTA), and Dallas (DART) before joining the University of South Florida in 1988. Dr. Polzin is a Civil Engineering with a BSCE from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and master’s and Ph.D. degrees from Northwestern University.
The great transit rip-off

By JOEL KOTKIN and WENDELL COX | Orange County Register, August 27, 2017

Over the past decade, there has been a growing fixation among planners and developers alike for a return to the last century’s monocentric cities served by large-scale train systems. And, to be sure, in a handful of older urban regions, mass transit continues to play an important — and even vital — role in getting commuters to downtown jobs. Overall, a remarkable 40 percent of all transit commuting in the United States takes place in the New York metropolitan area — and just six municipalities make up 55 percent of all transit commuting destinations.

But here’s an overlooked fact: Transit now serves about the same number of riders as it did in 1907, when the urban population was barely 15 percent of what it is today. Most urban regions, such as Southern California, are nothing like New York — and they never will be. Downtown Los Angeles may be a better place in which to hang out and eat than in the past, but it sorely lacks the magnetic appeal of a place like Manhattan, or even downtown San Francisco. Manhattan, the world’s second-largest employment center, represents a little more than 20 percent of the New York metropolitan area’s employment. In Los Angeles, by contrast, the downtown area employs just 2 percent.

Transit is failing in Southern California

As we demonstrate in a new report for Chapman University, our urban form does not work well for conventional mass transit. Too many people go to too many locales to work, and, as housing prices have surged, many have moved farther way, which makes trains less practical, given the lack of a dominant job center. But in its desire to emulate places like New York, Los Angeles has spent some $15 billion trying to evolve into what some East Coast enthusiasts call the “next great transit city.”

The rail lines have earned Mayor Eric Garcetti almost endless plaudits from places like the New York Times. Yet, since 1990, transit’s work trip market share has dropped from 5.6 percent to 5.1 percent. MTA system ridership stands at least 15 percent below 1985 levels, when there was only bus service, and the population of Los Angeles County was about 20 percent lower. In some places, like Orange County, the fall has been even more precipitous, down 30 percent since 2008. It is no surprise, then, that, according to a recent USC study, the new lines have done little or nothing to lessen congestion.

This experience is not limited to L.A. Most of the 19 metropolitan areas with new mass transit rail systems — including big cities like Atlanta, Houston, Dallas and even Portland, Ore. — have experienced a decline in transit market share since the systems began operations.

Transit as social engineering

To achieve their transit goals, boosters in Southern California and other wannabe metros need to “elect a new people,” to paraphrase German Communist playwright Bertolt Brecht. Desperate to force commuters onto trains, they feel compelled to foster a dense, “pack and stack” housing pattern that they feel might better fit the needs of expanding transit agencies.

Virtually all housing development proposals are required to be “transit-oriented,” which seems bizarre, given the sector’s declining market share. Meanwhile, poor people get degraded local bus service and ever-higher gas prices to accommodate a supposed surge of wealthier potential transit riders. This won’t help them find jobs, either. In the Los Angeles metropolitan area, for a commute of 30 minutes or less, the average employee is within 60 times as many jobs by car as by transit.

Are there alternatives?

Rather than try to re-engineer the region, perhaps we should seek mobility solutions that can work. Building new rail lines — and, even more absurdly, trolleys, which average a pathetic 8 miles per hour — will do nothing to relieve traffic. More densification can be expected only to worsen congestion.

Arguably, the most promising step would be to encourage work at home. There are already more people working at home than transit riders in Southern California. Since 1990, home office use increased by eight times that of transit use, with virtually no public expenditure. Home-based workers, needless to say, do not receive subsidies.

Ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft, cited as a factor in the recent ridership declines in Los Angeles — and even New York — can also provide cost-effective solutions. Already, one local transit operator in suburban San Francisco has established a one-year pilot program to extend local transit service through ride-hailing, and canceled a lightly patronized bus route, reducing costs while providing quicker door-to-door service.

Furthermore, rapidly evolving autonomous technologies could speed up traffic along freeways. They may take time to gain widespread acceptance, but are likely to be in place well before the much-ballyhooed “build-out” of the Los Angeles rail system, which, in any case, cannot make transit commuting remotely competitive with the car, except, perhaps, for very few. Under any circumstance, autonomous technology seems likely to further weaken conventional transit.

Southern Californians need to demand transportation policies that accommodate them, not those that merely acquiesce to the urbanist fantasies of planners, politicians and developers. Decision-makers need to both embrace our geography and economic form and look for 21st-century solutions to 21st-century problems.

Joel Kotkin is the R.C. Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University in Orange and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism (
Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, a St. Louis-based public policy firm, and was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission.

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