The transit industry loses $50 billion a year. It’s customer base is dwindling. Business in many regions has declined by 20 to 40 percent. Yet Bloomberg, one of the nation’s leading business publications, says, “The outlook for public transit isn’t all that bad.”
Sheesh. Just how bad does it have to be to be “that bad”?
According to Bloomfield columnist Noah Smith, light-rail and commuter-rail ridership “are at all-time highs,” by which he means highs for 1990 to 2017, the time period used in his charts. In fact, his chart doesn’t show it, but according to the source of data in his chart (American Public Transportation Association (APTA) ridership reports), both light rail and commuter rail declined in 2017 and light rail (which APTA equates with streetcars) was much higher before 1955 than it is today.
It is true that both light- and commuter-rail ridership in 2017 were higher than 2014, a time period during which, Smith claims, heavy rail was “down only slightly.” But his charts use different scales, disguising the fact that heavy rail lost almost nine times as many riders during that period as were gained by light and commuter rail together. Moreover, commuter rail grew mainly because a new line opened in Denver while light rail grew because of new lines in Los Angeles and Seattle, and the growth in Denver and Los Angeles was offset by declining bus ridership in those cities. Between 2014 and 2017, buses nationwide lost 35 riders for every one gained by light and commuter rail.
Based on his charts, Smith concludes that “the decline in U.S. transit comes almost entirely from buses.” That’s true if 80 percent is “almost entirely” — my definition of “almost entirely” is somewhat greater, but that’s semantics. The real point is that buses are the backbone of the industry, providing 100 percent of transit ridership in most regions and, until the recent decline, more than 50 percent nationwide, so a loss in bus ridership can’t be dismissed as irrelevant.
Smith’s presumption is that bus and rail ridership aren’t connected. In fact, one of the reasons bus ridership is plummeting is that too many cities have bet on trains and cut bus service to pay for construction cost overruns, the high costs of rail maintenance, and debt service on rail bonds.
Here are some hard facts. According to data just released by the Federal Transit Administration, nationwide transit ridership in the first two months of 2018 was 2.2 percent less than the same two months of 2017. In turn, 2017 ridership was 4.9 percent less than 2016 and 11.5 percent less than 2014. Nearly all forms of transit, including buses, heavy rail, light rail, commuter rail, and streetcars, are declining.
If an 11.5 percent nationwide loss since 2014 doesn’t sound “that bad,” how about a 31 percent loss in Cleveland? Or 20 to 26 percent losses in Charlotte, Columbus, Miami-Ft. Lauderdale, St. Louis, Tampa-St. Petersburg, Virginia Beach-Norfolk, and Washington DC? Or 15 to 20 percent losses in Atlanta, Boston, Dallas-Fort Worth, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia, among many other regions? Since 2010, Memphis is down 40 percent!
These regions are all very different — some large, some small; some growing rapidly, some slowly; some with trains, some with only buses — but the trend everywhere except Seattle is down. And Seattle’s upward trend may have more to do with the confluence of Millennials, university students, and Pacific Northwest weirdness than the kind of transit Seattle is offering, so should not be construed as an example for other cities to follow.
Based on Smith’s erroneous claim that rail ridership isn’t declining or declining only “slightly,” he concludes that “trains will still be a good bet.” He has a caveat: trains will be a good bet if cities “decide to build dense, New York-style cores” — as if cities can snap their figurative fingers and turn into Manhattan.
I shudder to think what kind of advice he might have offered investors in the past. Do you think he would have said, “Despite the iPhone, Blackberry will still be a good bet”? How about, “Despite Amazon, K-Mart will still be a good bet”? Or “Despite Netflix, Blockbuster will still be a good bet”? Or, most likely, “Despite the horseless carriage, buggy whips will still be a good bet.”