Transit Ridership Overestimates

Following up on yesterday’s list of cost overruns, today the Antiplanner looks at ridership overestimates. The sample of projects today is slightly different, as several of yesterday’s projects are excluded for a lack of data while several projects are added that were excluded yesterday because they involved reconstruction of existing rail lines.

The table below shows that early ridership estimates average about 70 percent greater than the actual ridership of the project. Estimates for projects completed in the 2000s were slightly worse than estimates for projects completed in the 1980s. Estimates for 2010s projects were better, but the sample size is small.

The numbers in the table represent average weekday ridership. Most of these data are based on projections for the first year of operation, but some projects didn’t make estimates for that year so the DOT relied on estimates for a later year and tried to adjust the numbers based on the rate of growth in ridership. In two cases (marked with *) the projected year was 2010, so I used actual 2010 ridership. In a case marked **, the projected year was 2015, so I projected that year based on the growth rate through 2012.

Projected and Actual Riders

Urban AreaModeRouteYear OpenPredicted RidersActual RidersOver- estimate
WashingtonHRRed & Blue1986959,000762,01326%
San DiegoLREl Cajon198921,60024,950-13%
San JoseLRGuadalupe199141,20021,03596%
St. LouisLRInitial199341,80042,381-1%
San Fran.HRColma199615,20013,06016%
DallasLRS Oak Cliff199634,17026,88427%
BaltimoreLRBWI HV ext.199712,2308,27248%
San JoseLRTasman West199714,8758,24480%
Salt LakeLRI-15199926,50022,10020%
St. LouisLRSt. Clair200120,27415,97627%
Los AngelesHRRed2002297,733134,555121%
DallasLRN. Central200217,03316,2785%
San Fran.HRAirport200367,40035,53490%
Salt LakeLRUniversity200310,05021,811-54%
San Fran.HRAirport200368,60028,321142%
San DiegoLRMission Vly200510,7958,89521%
San JuanHRTren Urbano2005114,49231,749261%
BaltimoreLRDble track200644,00028,54154%
NewarkLRElizabeth I200612,5002,500400%
New JerseyLRH-B 1 & 2200666,16041,52559%
MiamiCRDbl Track200742,10015,138178%
San DiegoYRSprinter200811,9956,60082%
Salt LakeCRWeber20088,4005,30058%
PhoenixLREast Valley200826,00034,800-25%

“The systematic tendency to over-estimate ridership and to under-estimate capital and operating costs introduces a distinct bias toward the selection of capital-intensive transit improvements such as rail lines,” noted the 1990 DOT report that is the source of data for the earliest 10 projects on this list. This bias exists even if the over-/under-estimates were just as great for the low-cost projects because high-cost projects only make sense if the costs can be spread over large numbers of riders.

You can download my spreadsheet presenting all of these data, as well as data for a few other projects that are not as well documented. The spreadsheet also specifies the sources of data for most of the projects. Let me know if you have more to add to this list.


7 thoughts on “Transit Ridership Overestimates

  1. metrosucks

    Ironically, even the pumped up, too high ridership numbers are still embarrassingly low. Only habitual liars & manipulators, that is to say, government planners, could accept any of this as encouragement to build some failure boondoggle.

  2. Damian

    Full year data don’t exist yet, but the recently completed BART-Oakland airport connector numbers are in for the first two months. Projected ridership (from consultant report)
    “Each train will comfortably carry 113 passengers and their luggage. An estimated 2,745 passengers are expected to ride the new system each day in the first year of service with that number expected to increase by about 500 in the second year.”
    They do not break this down by weekeday/weekend.

    December 2014 ( 1523 exits at oakland, 1477 entries for a total of 3000 people per weekday.
    Seems good, although the fare is $6 compared the the previous bus fare of $3, and that bus carried 969,000 in 2008 (1,300,000 in 2006). This is 2655 per day.
    So while they were accurate in their forecasts, it hasn’t attracted many new riders.

  3. JOHN1000

    Detroit can be forgiven (up to a point) its 1042% overestimate since its population decline was so great.
    But the government of Detroit’s wasteful projects like this helped drive out what little was left of its taxpayer base.
    Now we see the last of the Detroit government oligarchs trying desperately to block any innovations which could revive a dead (way past dying) city unless they are allowed to keep control ad to force more regulations and boondoggles on its poor remaining residents.

  4. C. P. Zilliacus

    metrosucks wrote:

    Ironically, even the pumped up, too high ridership numbers are still embarrassingly low. Only habitual liars & manipulators, that is to say, government planners, could accept any of this as encouragement to build some failure boondoggle.

    I usually agree with you, but in this instance I must express some dissent.

    In general, a critical input dataset to any travel demand forecasting process (be it for transit or highways or something else) – predictions of future resident population and employment. Those forecasts are frequently developed by other government employees, and can involve unrealistic assumptions about future growth in population and/or jobs and where those jobs will be located.

    The demographic forecasts for the Washington Metrorail system were honestly done and assumed that the District of Columbia’s resident population would grow from the 1970’s for the next several decades. The forecasts did not anticipate the election of Marion Shepilov Barry, Jr. to the office of D.C. Mayor in 1978, and the incompetence in municipal government that came with Barry (in 1990, the liberal Washington Monthly magazine called the municipal government of D.C. under Barry the “Worst City Government in all America”). Nor did the forecasts anticipate the cocaine wars and the rise of crack cocaine, and the surge in murders that started in the mid-1980’s, as much of the rail system was coming online, which caused the D.C. population to crash (it has since recovered somewhat – well after Barry left the office of Mayor in 1999).

  5. RRider

    Most people look at transit ridership and think, “Well, at least those people aren’t DRIVING on the roads.” But my (limited) experience is that rail transit draws most of its riders from BUSES, not cars. In San Diego County, the official estimates are that about 75% of the riders are from buses. Indeed, buses are often CANCELLED to “encourage” rail ridership.

    I suspect somewhere on this website that info is available on a nationwide scale. I’d be interested in seeing that data.

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