Transit Losses From Poor People Buying Cars?

A new report from the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies finds that the main cause of declining ridership in southern California is poor people buying cars. Between 1990 and 2000, when ridership was growing, the Los Angeles region grew by 1.8 million people but only 456,000 cars, or about one car per four people. Between 2000 and 2010, when ridership was shrinking, the region grew by 2.3 million people and gained 2.1 million cars, or nearly one car per new person.

There is certainly something to this, but other factors are probably more important than the report estimates. The report says that neither ride sharing nor changes in transit service and fares have played an important role, and I suspect these conclusions are wrong.

The report shows that transit trips per capita peaked in 2007 and have declined in most years since then. Certainly the decline before around 2012 or 2013 was not due to ride sharing. But the decline steepened after 2014, and I suspect much of that decline is due to ride sharing.

With regards to service levels and fares, the report concludes that “Changes in transit service and fares have mostly followed and not led falling ridership.” The authors base this on combined data from the region’s transit systems as a whole. But most of the decline has been in bus ridership on LA Metro, the region’s largest transit system, and a close look at the Federal Transit Administration’s historic time series reveals that LA Metro bus ridership in fact followed changes in service levels and fares.

Vehicle-miles of service peaked in 2006 and dropped just 0.7 percent in 2007. Despite the drop, 2007 ridership grew by 3 percent. But then, after several years of fairly constant fares, Metro hiked fares by nearly 14 percent in 2008, leading to an immediate 7 percent decline in ridership. This was followed by a 2 percent drop in service in 2009. Riders responded by reducing trips by 5 percent in 2010. It appears that fare increases led to an immediate decrease in ridership while ridership responses to service cuts lagged by about a year.

At first glance, data seem to back the report’s conclusion that increasing auto ownership played a role in ridership declines, but the timing is curious. In 2000, 11.4 percent of Los Angeles urban area households lived without a car. By 2007, this had dropped to 8.5 percent. Renters (who tend to have lower incomes than homeowners) without cars declined from 18.4 to 14.7 percent. Between 2006 and 2016, those without cars fell a little more to 8.1 percent while renters alone fell to 12.7 percent. So while the increase in car ownership was considerable, most of it was before the ridership peak in 2007.

Table B08119 of the American Community Survey shows that, between 2006 and 2016, the number and percentage of low-income commuters taking transit declined while the number of high-income commuters increased. In the Los Angeles-Anaheim urbanized area, the share of workers earning less than $35,000 a year commuting by transit declined from 9.5 to 9.0 percent (representing a loss of 57,200 commuters), while the share earning more grew slightly from 2.20 to 2.23 (representing a gain of 23,600 commuters).

Table B08119 doesn’t break down bus vs. rail transit. But FTA data show Los Angeles Metro increasing rail service as it decreased bus service, with increasing rail ridership offset several times over by decreasing bus ridership. It is not hard to imagine that the growth in higher-income riders is mainly on rail while the decline in low-income riders was mainly on buses. The agency apparently made a conscious decision to sacrifice low-income riders so it could gain more high-income riders.

My conclusion is that keeping fares low helped maintain ridership in the face of increasing auto ownership before 2007. But a stiff fare hike in 2008 led to a vicious cycle of declining ridership and service cuts that mainly affected low-income bus riders. The rapid growth of ride sharing after 2013 is probably eroding high-income riders, but this hasn’t shown up in commuter numbers yet so if it is true it must mainly affect non-work-related travel.


2 thoughts on “Transit Losses From Poor People Buying Cars?

  1. LazyReader

    Further proof that elites don’t really give a shit about the poor, they simply want to assimilate them into their enclave of govt service.
    “Don’t worry we’ll take care of you”
    The greatest example of this lifestyle hypocrisy is during any Climate conference. They emphasize YOU should utilize transit, lower your energy consumption, give up your car (if you have more than one), bike regularly.
    Then the diplomats who argue how you should live, arrive at the conference in a fleet of sedans/SUVs. Audi’s, BMW’s, Mercedes. Audi’s powered by VW Groups amazing W12 engine. BMW’s powered by Bavarian Motor Work’s turbo six-cylinder and Mercedes legendary AMG engines, like it’s 4.7 twin-turbocharged V8 or it’s awesome 6 liter V12.
    2nd, there’s no evidence electric cars are any better for the planet. And the hypocrisy in the environment groups that support electric cars, loudly tout their benefits, Virtue signal people that don’t possess them. At the same time lead opposition for the extraction for the resources critical to their manufacture. Namely Copper, lithium and rare earth metals. The Sierra Club recently denounced Trump Admins permitting process for a road in Alaska, the Ambler Road, 220 mile road for allowing vehicles and equipment to mine for copper in Alaska……
    Typically vehicles range from compacts to SUV’s so they use between 18-50 pounds of copper in their manufacture for their wiring. A hybrid car on the other hand uses over 80 pounds copper, a Plug in hybrid uses about 132 pounds of copper and a Fully electric car uses between 180-250 POUNDS of copper; Over three or four times that of a normal car. Plus the charging infrastructure needed to recharge these babies requires copper. You want to deter the demand for copper…. Go back to gas. But don’t sit there and Virtue Signal us that your Tesla is better for the planet; Tesla uses Lithium-carbon-iron battery technology; innovative but to manufacture one Tesla battery puts out as much carbon as 8 years of auto driving and if the power used to run the car is fossil fuels you’ll probably never amortize it’s environmental cost unless you hold onto the car for decades and pass it on to your kids……Doubtful. A kilowatt-hour of coal electricity produces 2.07 pounds of CO2 so a 100 kw-h battery charging is 207 pounds of CO2. A strip mine for rare Earth metal is 1000 times bigger than a oil drilling location, the metals have to be chemically extracted from the rock; that requires toxic chemical catalysts; just like gold mining. The process also extracts Thorium and other isotopes from the soil which produces radioactive waste. In short, for every ton of rare earth metals, a ton or more of radioactive waste is produced. China whom consolidates 90% of the global supply produces 100,000 tons of rare earth metals (and radioactive waste) per year. In comparison the US nuclear industry produces 3000 tons of spent fuel (of which 30 tons is actual fission waste). In 2012, the US installed 12,000 MW of nameplate capacity of wind turbines, with one ton of rare earth metals (used in their generator magnets) per turbine; that’s 3000 metric tons of radioactive waste. To produce a mere 53 gigawatts in that year. The nuclear industry produces 20 times that much power for a fraction of the waste.

  2. AThomas

    One thing that would be interesting to see with low income people and cars are some hypothetical models relating to what the transportation scene would look like if smaller super low cost vehicles were added to the markets. For instance in India you can get a micro car like the Tata Nano for about $2,500. Even with US level emissions I bet you could have a car similar to the old Geo Metro for around $5,000. What I am curious about is what that would do to resource usage and also how it would impact the economics of low income people. American, even at the height of the economy car era in the late 70-80’s has always preferred relatively large and expensive vehicles. In recent times this has gotten quite absurd when you look at what passes for a “compact” car in today’s market. Also, I would be curious to see whether left leaning administrations have pushed expensive emissions and safety standards with the implicit motive of making driving more expensive. Granted seat belts and EFI are good things but I really question the need to add a 10th air bag or doing something to the emissions system of a car to lower its emissions even though it is burning twice as much gas (fleet economy has declined quite a lot since the 80s). All, told I think if there are going to be effective challenges to the monolithic public transit dogma these ideas should be explored and fleshed out.

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