Mass Transit is collapsing everywhere

COST Commentary: The op-ed directly below these comments is perhaps the most concise description to-date of the reality of mass transit. This version was published in ‘The Hill’: Mass Transit is collapsing everywhere by Randal O’Toole. Similar versions have been published elsewhere. The article’s conclusions are based on a firm foundation of facts which are rarely used by those promoting the use of billions of tax dollars for light rail transit, often mislabeled as “mass transit.”

This is a very timely subject for Austin. Rumblings from the already proven, incompetent Project Connect are indicating a possible new Austin light rail election by about 2020. Project connect was created by the cozy relationship between Capital Metro and the City (three City Council members are on the Capital Metro Board). The developing plan seems to be building to another attempt to use distortion and deception to seduce voters to approve the wasteful spending of billions of dollars to implement ineffective, extremely high cost and outdated light rail transit. This would have the totally opposite effect of the promised reduced congestion with the real result being major increases in congestion throughout the Austin area.

Perhaps the most compelling fact for Austin area citizens is that Austin’s transit ridership is on a 20 year declining trend, highlighted by a huge drop in ridership of 19.5% from the first quarter of 2017 to the first quarter of 2018, ending March 31, 2018. Austin is one of the fastest growing cities in the Nation and it’s population growth during this period has been more than 70% and most new trips are in cars. Dallas, Houston and San Antonio are also top growing cities in the U.S. and their combined transit ridership is less than 20 years ago after spending billions of dollars to increase transit ridership in a period which their average population grew about 70%.

This transit performance should send a strong message regarding citizens’ mobility choices which best serve their needs and quality-of-life. Austin had the largest percentage transit ridership drop of any region in a quarter which the top 38 U.S. Metro areas all lost transit ridership and overall ridership dropped in all major forms of transit, rail and bus. The national drop in transit ridership is summarized by a blog article in The Antiplanner by Randal O’Toole which is the third article below this message and discusses the drop in U.S. ridership from the first quarter of 2017 to the first quarter of 2018.

There are no models of light rail transit success for cities similar to Austin or the projected Austin, 100 years from now. Every fact, including the vast majority of citizens’ every day decisions, points to Austin’s reality that acceptable, cost-effective mobility improvements can only be effectively achieved by improving our major roadways which serve 99% of the regions passengers miles each day. Roadway improvements also improve public transit, commercial, emergency and shared vehicles. A recent op-ed in the Statesman by Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty emphasizes this point and others.

The awareness of the facts above and in the articles referenced and below make it completely irresponsible for the City and Capital Metro to waste millions of dollars to prepare for a new light rail election. Cap Metro is asking the City for $15 million dollars to combine with Capital Metro’s $5 million to do early engineering and environmental work for potential light rail lines. This appears to be a deceptive way to spend light rail money prior to a vote and avoid/violate the state law that Austin’s light rail must be approved by voters. So, this would be an irresponsible action indicating strong disregard and lack of respect for citizens of the Austin region.

The second article below is also by Randal O’Toole, titled: Why We Need to Stop Subsidizing Public Transit. It is a “big picture” summary view of the massive federal, state and local taxpayer transit subsidies which are spent for little benefit and much of it is directed to rail transit which which has been obsolete for more than 80 years.


Mass transit is collapsing everywhere


Nationwide transit ridership in March 2018 was 5.9 percent below March 2017, according to the latest data published by the Federal Transit Administration. Following three years of steady declines, these numbers present a dire picture of the nation’s transit industry.

Ridership declined in all of the nation’s 38 largest urban areas (and the 39th, Providence, gained only 0.1 percent new riders). Transit systems in Austin, Boston, Charlotte, Cleveland, Miami, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, San Diego, and Tampa-St. Petersburg all suffered double-digit declines, with Austin losing 19.5 percent and Charlotte 15.4 percent despite being two of the fastest growing urban areas in the nation.

Data from 2017 showed that ridership in Seattle and Houston grew from 2016, providing hope to transit advocates that other regions could reverse ridership declines if they emulated the examples of those two cities. But transit systems in both Seattle and Houston lost riders in March 2017.

A recent article in Bloomberg claimed that the decline in ridership “is confined to buses,” implying that cities can reverse the decline by building expensive rail transit systems. But that wasn’t even true when the article was written (it admitted that heavy-rail ridership was declining), and the March data show all major forms of transit are declining: buses, commuter rail, light rail, and heavy rail.

Cities that have spent billions of dollars on rail transit have not been immune from the decline. Charlotte won new rail riders by opening a new light-rail line in March, but it lost 2.5 bus riders for every rail rider gained. Denver also lost about 2.5 bus riders for every new rail rider. Dallas, Los Angeles, Salt Lake, and several other regions lost both rail and bus riders.

Denver-area voters agreed in 2004 to spend billions building new rail transit lines, and the region has opened several lines since then. Yet by 2016 transit carried only about 10,000 more of the urban area’s commuters to work than it did in 2000, while nearly 280,000 more commuters drove to work.

Transit apologists offer many excuses for ridership declines, such as low gas prices and crumbling infrastructure. But gas prices were 10 percent higher in March 2018 than March 2017 and ridership is declining even in areas with brand-new transit infrastructure.

The fundamental problem is that big-box transit — moving people in 60-passenger buses, 450-passenger light-rail trains or 1,500-passenger heavy-rail or commuter-rail trains — no longer works in American cities. Such transit made sense a century ago when most jobs were in downtowns surrounded by dense residential areas. But today only New York City comes close to looking like that.

Modern urban areas have far more jobs scattered across the suburbs than concentrated in downtowns. Job location is only one of many factors people consider when deciding where to live. The result is jobs, residences, retail, schools, and other activity centers are widely dispersed.

The number of transit trips taken by the average urban resident declined from nearly 300 in 1918 to about 60 in 1964, when Congress began offering federal subsidies to transit. Since then, federal, state, and local governments have spent more than $1.1 trillion on transit subsidies, yet trips per urban resident have fallen to about 38 in 2017.

Here’s a stark reality: according to table B08141 of the 2016 American Community Survey, just 4.3 percent of American workers live in households without cars — and 58 percent of them don’t rely on transit to get to work. Transit doesn’t even work for people who don’t have cars, much less is it able to compete for the business of most of those who do.

Some propose to redesign American cities to serve obsolete transit systems: forcing more jobs downtown, building high-density transit-oriented developments in transit corridors, and turning highway and street lanes into dedicated bus lanes. Yet huge changes in urban form are needed to get a small change in transit usage, and the benefits are trivial. Transit isn’t particularly green, using more energy and producing more greenhouse gases, per passenger mile, than the average car.

Seattle has done the most to reshape itself into an early twentieth-century city. Draconian land-use policies and tax subsidies increased the city’s population density by 25 percent since 2000 and increased the number of downtown jobs from 215,000 in 2010 to 281,000 in 2017. These policies came at a terrible price: housing is no longer affordable and traffic is practically gridlocked. The urban area gained 58,000 transit commuters since 2000, but it also gained 190,000 auto commuters.

It is time to stop thinking that transit is somehow morally superior to driving and that it deserves the $50 billion in subsidies that it receives each year. Ending the subsidies would lead to a variety of private transit alternatives where people will use them and allow cities to concentrate on relieving congestion and making roads safer and cleaner for everyone else.

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 forthcoming book, Romance of the Rails: Why the Passenger Trains We Love Are Not the Transportation We Need.

Why We Need to Stop Subsidizing Public Transit

It’s obsolete and costs taxpayers billions, yet its ridership and productivity continue to decline.

BY: Randal O’Toole | May 7, 2018 in Governing
Public transit cost federal, state and local taxpayers more than $50 billion in 2016 — nearly $5 in subsidies every time someone boarded a transit vehicle. Yet transit ridership has been declining since 2014, and although some might attribute this to telework or a general decline in the reliability of transit services, it’s thanks in large part to the success of competitors such as Uber, Lyft and Chariot.

This has led many to wring their hands over the future of public transit. In fact, we should be happy to see it go as it is obsolete, needlessly expensive and provides no significant environmental or social benefits.

A little over 50 years ago, urban transit was mostly private and mostly profitable. But in 1964, in the face of declining ridership and concerns about the industry’s long-term financial viability, Congress offered federal subsidies to cities and states that took over private transit companies. Within a decade, all but a handful of transit companies had been “municipalized.”

Those subsidies, along with those provided by states and local governments, failed to boost ridership or stabilize the industry. What followed instead was a dramatic decline in transit’s productivity by any measure. The number of annual riders carried per transit employee has dropped by more than 50 percent, according to data from the American Public Transit Association. Operating and capital costs have grown more than twice as fast as fare revenues.

Adjusted for inflation, the same data show that subsidies to transit by all levels of government have totaled well over $1.1 trillion since 1964, but these subsidies haven’t benefitted either cities or transit riders. In 1964, the average urban resident took more than 60 transit trips a year. Preliminary data for 2017 indicate that this has fallen to 37 trips per year, the lowest level in recorded history.

Subsidy supporters say transit helps low-income people get to work, but census data show that only about 4 percent of American workers live in households that lack cars, and a majority of them don’t commute by transit. Nor are claims that transit saves energy and reduces pollution true. In 2016, transit used about 10 percent more energy per passenger mile than the average car and only slightly less than the average light truck. Both transit and cars emit about the same amount of greenhouse gases per passenger mile. People who care about energy or climate change would do better to drive a plug-in hybrid than to take transit.

The latest argument for transit is that it promotes economic development. While some studies have found that heavily used transit lines can influence property values, research published by the Federal Transit Administration has shown that this is a zero-sum game: Higher property values in one part of a city are balanced by lower values elsewhere. Not only does transit not promote overall economic growth, the high taxes required to subsidize transit may actually slow growth down. Data from more than 300 urban areas show that the regions that grew fastest in the 2000s were ones that had spent the least on transit in the 1990s, while the regions that spent the most on transit in the 1990s were among those that grew the slowest in the 2000s.

Now that ride hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft and private bus companies such as Chariot are providing increasingly affordable alternatives to public transit, it is time to think about phasing out the subsidies. That means, first, that transit agencies should stop spending money on new rail transit lines that few people will ride.

Rail transit was rendered obsolete more than 80 years ago when manufacturers had perfected buses that were less expensive to buy, operate and maintain than rail cars. Contrary to claims that light rail is “high-capacity transit,” buses have much higher potential capacities: The New York-New Jersey Lincoln Tunnel Exclusive Bus Lane, for example, moves more people per hour than almost any rail line in the world, and far more than any light-rail line.

Next, transit agencies should pay down the debts they incurred building previous rail lines, as well as their unfunded pension and retiree health-care obligations. Finally, they should offer transit franchises to private companies, as the United Kingdom has done. At least until driverless cars make buses obsolete, private companies can provide bus services at a profit in many urban areas. A private company might also be able to operate the New York subway at a profit, but most other rail lines should be scrapped.

To be fair, we should end subsidies to highways as well, though those subsidies are much smaller — 1.5 cents per passenger mile vs. nearly 90 cents for transit. Subsidies make transportation providers, whether public or private, more responsive to politicians than to transportation users. Politicians are likely to build bridges to nowhere or expensive, low-capacity rail lines, while user-fee-driven agencies will focus on maintenance and cost-effective congestion relief to keep customers happy.
The great experiment of socializing public transit has failed. Instead of trying to rescue transit, we should stop subsidizing it, saving taxpayers’ tens of billions of dollars a year. There are better ways to improve urban transportation.

March Transit Ridership Drops 5.9%

by Randal O’Toole in Antiplanner blog, May7,2018

Some have blamed declining transit ridership on low gas prices, but gasoline was about 10 percent more expensive in March 2018 than March 2017, yet March transit ridership was 5.9 percent less than in the same month in 2017. To be fair, March had one fewer work day in 2018 than in 2017, which could account for some of the decline, but January had one more work day in 2018 than 2017, and ridership still declined.

The Federal Transit Administration released March ridership numbers over the weekend. As usual, the Antiplanner has supplemented the raw numbers with a spreadsheet that totals ridership by years (2002-2018) in columns GW through HM; by major modes in rows 2116 through 2122; by transit agency in rows 2131-3129; and by the 200 largest urbanized areas in rows 3131 through 3330.

Previous releases showed that transit has been declining in nearly all major urban areas except Seattle and, in some recent months, Houston. March’s numbers are even more dire, as ridership declined in all of the top 38 urbanized areas including Houston and Seattle. Of the top 50 urban areas, ridership grew only in Providence (by a mere 0.1 percent), Nashville (by a respectable 8.2 percent), Hartford (8.1 percent), and Raleigh (by 3.5 percent).

But elsewhere the returns are grim. Seattle’s light-rail ridership grew by 6.5 percent and commuter rail grew a more modest 0.5 percent. But this growth wasn’t enough to make up for the decline in bus ridership, so overall ridership fell by 0.5 percent. Ridership in Houston, the other major region sometimes considered to be an exception, fell by 2.9 percent.

Still, many other transit systems would be happy to have a mere 0.5 percent — or even a 2.9 percent — decline. New York ridership fell 4.5%, Los Angeles by 9.6%, Miami by 10.9%, and Philadelphia by 12.5%. Other big losers were Boston at -11.8%; San Diego at -15.7%; Tampa-St. Petersburg & St. Louis were both -10.1%; Austin -19.5%; and Charlotte -15.4%. Charlotte opened a new light-rail extension on March 15 and gained 46 percent more light-rail riders, but the loss in bus ridership more than made up the difference. Cleveland, Memphis, and New Orleans are also among the double-digit losers.

Contrary to claims that only buses are losing and rail is at least holding its own, all major modes of transit lost riders in March. Buses lost 6.3%; light rail 5.7%; heavy rail 5.3%; and commuter rail 3.3%. Despite recent openings of several streetcar lines, streetcars lost 14.2 percent and lines that the FTA classifies as “hybrid rail,” including rail lines in Austin, Portland, and a few other cities, lost 11.6 percent.

Transit defenders frequently rely on obsolete data to justify claims that ridership declines aren’t “that bad” or are only affecting a portion of the industry. But these data, the most recent available on a nationwide basis, show that no city or transit agency is truly immune from the rot that is afflicting the nation’s socialized transit systems.

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