Austin’s Major 2020 Transit Bond and “2018 Census Data Show Transit in Decline”

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.
4 Texas Cities Ridership_Page_1
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.
4 Cities Total Population & Ridership_Page_1
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.
Chart 1 JPEG
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.
Chart 2 JPEG
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
Chart 3 JPEG
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.
Chart 4 JPEG
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.
Chart 5 JPEG
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.
Chart 6 JPEG
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.
Chart 7 JPEG
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.
Chart 8 JPEG
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.
Chart 9 JPEG
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.
Chart 10 JPEG
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.

Data Sources

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.

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