A few days ago, the Federal Transit Administration posted the 2012 National Transit Database. Data are downloadable in three formats. First, you can download profiles for every transit agency (21.3 MB). These give basic data such as trips, passenger miles, fares, and costs broken down by type of transit. If you don’t want to download the whole book, you can also download profiles for individual agencies by entering the agency name, city, or ID number in a search box (scroll down and look for “Individual Profiles” on the righthand column).
Second, you can download data tables, which present the data for all transit agencies in fairly user-friendly spreadsheets. All of the tables at once can be downloaded in a self-extracting exe file (4.1 MB), but my Macintosh doesn’t want to extract the spreadsheets. One problem with the data tables is that there are separate tables for trips, fares, operating costs, capital costs, and other data, so comparing the numbers is difficult.
Third, you can download database spreadsheets. These are more difficult to read than the data tables, but are easier to manipulate on a computer because every row on each spreadsheet follows a consistent format. Like the data tables, these spreadsheets can also be downloaded as one self-extracting exe file (5.1 MB).
Transit advocates often argue that a particular city or region must spend more on urban transit in order to support the growth of that region. To test that claim, the Antiplanner downloaded the latest historic data files from the National Transit Database, specifically the capital funding and service data and operating expenses by mode time series. These files list which urbanized area each transit agency primarily serves, so it was easy to compare these data with Census Bureau population data from 1990, 2000, and 2010.
The transit data include capital and operating expenses for all years from 1991 through 2011. I decided to compare the average of 1991 through 2000 per capita expenses with population growth in the 1990s, and the average of 2001 through 2010 per capita expenses with population growth in the 2010s. In case there is a delayed response, I also compared the average of 1990 through 2000 per capita expenses with population growth in the 2000s. Although it shouldn’t matter too much, I used GNP deflators to convert all costs to 2012 dollars.
I had to make a few adjustments to the population data to account for changes in the Census Bureau’s definitions of urbanized areas. Between 1990 and 2000, the San Francisco-Oakland and Los Angeles urbanized areas were split into several parts, so I added up the various parts for 2000 and 2010 data. At the same time, the Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach urbanized areas were merged, so I added these three for 1990. The Oklahoma City urbanized area was radically reduced in size, with the apparent but incorrect result that it had lost population between 1990 and 2000. I used the growth rates for the Oklahoma City metropolitan statistical area instead. Since they are served by the same transit agencies, I combined Boulder and Denver data as well as Salt Lake, Ogden, and Provo-Orem data.
The Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce thinks a regional (as opposed to county) transit agency will help Indianapolis compete with regions such as “Minneapolis and Salt Lake City that offer extensive transit systems.” The Antiplanner disagrees, pointing out that the Indianapolis urban area is already growing twice as fast as Minneapolis or Salt Lake City, and higher taxes aren’t going to help.
Unmentioned is the fact that “regional transit” is generally a euphemism for rail transit, and that the proposal for a regional Indianapolis transit agency includes a plan for a low-capacity rail line. Basically, someone wants to spend a lot of money on obsolete transportation.
Only about 17,000 Indianapolis-area workers live in households that lack cars. I’m not saying this should be done, but it would cost less, and do more for regional vitality, to give every one of those households a new Toyota Prius than to build a low-capacity rail line. With or without rail, Indianapolis doesn’t need regional transit.
When the Antiplanner travels around the country, I often meet people critical of their local transit systems. “The buses/trains are empty most of the time,” they say. “I saw a bus this morning with only one passenger on board.” “They put advertising over the windows so we can’t see in to see how empty they really are.”
Socially beneficial transit? Flickr photo by David Wilson.
People shouldn’t complain about empty transit vehicles, says transit expert Jarrett Walker. People “make it sound like because transit systems run empty buses that means they’re failing,” says Walker. In fact, those empty buses are serving a socially beneficial function: they “are valued for the lifeline access they provide for the isolated senior,” disabled person, or other people who lack access to an automobile.
A new poll finds that three out of four Americans never or almost never ride transit. Just 6 percent use it daily; 7 percent once a week; 4 percent two or three times a month; and 7 percent once every few months.
The numbers seem a little high, as the 2010 census found that less than 5 percent of workers ride transit to work. Moreover, other data show that people who say they ride transit often drive instead, while people who say they drive almost always drive, so the census numbers overestimate transit commuting.
In any case, the poll goes on to say that Americans “still tend to believe the government should back mass transit projects as long as they don’t lose money.” But all transit loses money? How did the pollsters reach this conclusion?
The Antiplanner’s faithful ally, Robert Poole of the Reason Foundation, told a Congressional committee last week that highway user fees should be dedicated to highways and any federal subsidies to transit should come out of other funds. Unfortunately, we have become so used to the idea that everything should be subsidized that advocates of transit subsidies could get away with calling Poole’s ideas “crazy talk.”
Why is it crazy to think that user fees should go to the infrastructure that the users are using? I suppose the transit lobby thinks that some of the money people pay for clothes at Wal-Mart and J.C. Penneys should go to subsidize Paris fashions. Or that some of the money people spend on ordinary groceries should subsidize gourmet restaurants.
After all, transit–at least the kind of transit these people want–is a luxury, not a necessity. They want expensive transit systems aimed at getting relatively well-off people out of their cars. To pay for these systems, they want to tax the more-than-92 percent of mostly ordinary people who have and use cars as their primary modes of transportation.
A few weeks ago, the Antiplanner took a quick look at the Federal Transit Administration’s 2013 New Starts program. Now the agency has released its 2014 New Starts Report, which includes eight new projects.
Four of the eight projects are bus-rapid transit, which can mean anything from running buses on existing streets to building expensive new busways. A proposed BRT in El Paso appears to be closer to the former as it is projected to cost $43 million for a 17-mile route, or less than $3 million per mile. At the other extreme, a BRT in Lansing is projected to cost $215 million for an 8.5-mile route, or more than $25 million per mile. This is undoubtedly a huge waste.
Two of the remaining four projects are extensions to existing light-rail lines. Denver proposes to spend $211 million building a 2.3-mile extension of one of its light-rail lines. At $92 million per mile, this is less than the national average for light rail, but still outrageously expensive, especially considering Denver built its first couple of light-rail lines for less than $30 million per mile.
A $112 million transit center in Silver Spring, Maryland, is years behind schedule due to serious construction flaws. After detecting the flaws, Montgomery County officials halted construction and hired en engineering firm to look at the center.
That firm’s report found that the pillars supporting the three-level center are inadequate to hold the buses that are supposed to use one of the levels; the concrete covering the steel reinforcement bars is so thin that the center will probably rust out in about 12.5 years, instead of the 50 years for which it was designed; and the center doesn’t meet fire standards.
Really, why does Silver Spring need an expensive, three-level transit center anyway? They could have fit everything they wanted in a ground-level, surface parking lot that would have cost far less than $112 million. This is simply another case of transit going for the high-cost solution to any problem.
One of the claims made by Indianapolis transit advocates was that improved transit would help the region “compete for jobs and talent.” They cited a study by a group called CEOs for Cities that found that “Young adults with a four-year degree are 94% more likely to live in close-in urban neighborhoods than their counterparts with less education.”
This is the old Richard Florida idea that cities should strive to attract the “creative class” of well-educated people that want to live in lively cities with walkable, transit-intensive neighborhoods. Ninety-four percent sounds like a big number, but let’s put this into context.
The CEOs for Cities study defined “close in” as neighborhoods near downtowns housing an average of less than 5 percent of urban area populations. “Young adults” includes people in the 25- to 34-year-old age class. The 2010 Census found that about 31.5 percent of this age class has a four-year degree or better. If this group is 94 percent more likely to live close in than their cohorts without a four-year degree, then less than 7.5 percent of young, well-educated adults live “close in.” This is less than 2.5 percent more than might be expected if the population was evenly distributed by education class.
Indygo, Indianapolis’ transit agency, offers one of the lowest levels of transit service of any urban area of its size in the Midwest–only Omaha’s is lower. The proposed Indy Connect plan calls for changing this by making a $1.3 billion capital investment and more than tripling Indygo’s operating from about $50 million to $175 million a year. A key feature of the plan is to have communities outside of Marion County–which is the current limit of Indygo’s services–join in a regional transit district.
Proponents say the plan will make Indianapolis more competitive, relieve congestion, and reduce air pollution. Yesterday, I gave a presentation arguing that the plan wouldn’t accomplish any of those goals. Instead, I urged the region and state to save money by contracting out existing transit services; legalizing private transit operations; and encouraging cities outside Marion County to start their own cross-county transit service, which would probably offer better service at a lower cost than a regional transit district could provide.
My presentation can be downloaded in several formats:
1. A 16-MB PDF
2. A 22-MB PowerPoint show minus videos of self-driving cars
3. A 62-MB zip file containing the PowerPoint show with videos of self-driving cars.
Feel free to use these shows or any of the shows downloadable by clicking on the new “presentations” link above.