In 1960, when most of the nation’s transit was private (and profitable), 7.81 million people took transit to work. By 2015, the nation’s working population had grown by nearly 130 percent, and taxpayers had spent well over a trillion dollars improving and operating urban transit systems. Yet the number of people taking transit to work had declined to 7.76 million.
The share of households that owns no vehicles has declined from 22 percent in 1960 to 9 percent today, while the share owning three or more vehicles has grown from 3 percent to 20 percent.
Although 7.76 million isn’t a few, commuting is only a small share of the travel people do. In 2014, Americans drove 5.1 billion miles a day in urban areas, which (at 1.67 people per car) works out to 3.1 trillion passenger miles per year. The 57 billion passenger miles carried by urban transit was just 1.8 percent of the total. Add walking, cycling, motorcycles, and other forms of travel, and transit’s share is even smaller.
In 2015, the American Public Transportation Association issued a press release whose headline claimed that transit ridership in 2014 achieved a new record. However, the story revealed that 2014 ridership was the highest since 1956. That’s no more a record than if it was the highest since 2013.
The truth is that America’s urban population more than doubled between 1956 and 2014. Using the ridership number that really counts–trips per urban resident–2014’s number was a near-record low of 41 trips per person. The only time it was lower before 2014 was a few years in the mid-1990s, when ridership dropped to as low as 38 trips per person. The rate may fall to nearly that level in 2016.
Fifty-three years ago, the transit industry was mostly private and earned a net profit. Today, it’s almost entirely publicly owned, and subsidies have grown out of control. It’s time to take a stand and say all transportation subsidies are bad, but transit subsidies are the worst.
The National Transit Database says agencies spent more than $64 billion in 2015 yet collected less than $16 billion in fares. They carried about 55 billion passenger miles, for an average cost of $1.15 per passenger mile, of which 87 cents was subsidized. No other major mode of passenger transportation is anywhere near this expensive.
Americans spent about $1.1 trillion buying, operating, repairing, and insuring cars and light trucks in 2015, but they also drove their autos nearly 2.8 trillion miles. At average auto occupancies of 1.67 people (see table 16), that’s 4.6 trillion passenger miles by auto, for an average cost of about 24 cents per passenger mile. We don’t have 2015 data yet, but in 2014, government agencies spent about $72 billion subsidizing roads (add the $98 billion in “other taxes and fees” to the minus $10 billion in “less amount for nonhighway purposes” and the minus $16 billion for “less amount for mass transportation”).
Maryland has long had a state law requiring transit systems to collect enough fares to cover at least 35 percent of their operating costs. While it is admirable to set a target, this particular target is disheartening for two reasons.
First, 35 percent is a pretty low goal. The 2015 National Transit Database lists 48 transit operations that cover between 100 and 200 percent of their costs, including New York ferries, the Hampton Jitney, several other bus lines, and a bunch of van pooling systems. No rail lines cover 100 percent of their operating costs, but BART covers 80 percent, Caltrains covers 72 percent, New York and DC subways cover 64 percent, and New York commuter trains cover 60 percent. On average, commuter bus and commuter rail systems earn half their operating costs. So 35 percent lacks ambition.
Even worse, most Maryland transit operations don’t come close to meeting the target. Maryland commuter trains cover 45 percent of their costs. But Baltimore’s light rail only covers 17 percent, and its heavy rail covers a pathetic 13 percent. Standard bus service also covers just 13 percent of its costs, though commuter buses come closer to the target, reaching 28 percent.
With little fanfare, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) released its fourth quarter 2016 ridership report last week. When ridership goes up, the lobby group usually issues a big press release ballyhooing the importance of transit (and transit subsidies). But 2016 ridership fell, so there was no press release.
The report showed that light-rail ridership grew by 3.4 percent, probably because of the opening of new light-rail lines such as Seattle, where the opening of the University line increased ridership by 60 percent. In the past, light-rail ridership has grown with the addition of new lines, but the number of passengers per mile of light rail has fallen, indicating diminishing returns to new rail construction.
Commuter-rail ridership grew by 1.6 percent, mostly due to growth in New York City. Trolley bus ridership grew by 1.8 percent, almost all of which was in San Francisco. Demand-response (paratransit) grew by 0.7 percent.
Everyone wants a piece of Trump’s trillion-dollar infrastructure plan, even though they don’t really know what that plan is. Perhaps most arrogant of all, the American Public Transportation Association thinks that transit industry should get $200 billion, or 20 percent of the total.
That’s the same transit industry that carries 1 percent of all passenger miles in the United States–and no freight. That’s the same transit industry into which taxpayers have pumped more than $500 billion in operating subsidies and $350 billion in capital improvements since 1990, only to see annual transit trips per urban resident fall from 47 in 1990 to 40 in 2016. That’s the same transit industry that’s likely to be mostly replaced by self-driving cars in a few years. So, sure, blow $200 billion on it.
APTA’s plan might sound reasonable to transit fanatics who think that transit is worth a lot more than roads. But this assumes that the entire trillion-dollar infrastructure plan is for transportation. In fact, infrastructure includes things like Flint, Michigan’s water supply, a smart electrical grid, and high-speed internet to rural and low-income areas. With all these potential projects, why should an obsolete transportation system that carries 1 percent of passenger travel and no freight get 20 percent of the funds?
Yesterday, the Antiplanner noted that APTA has published its third quarter ridership report for 2016. The report shows that, nationwide, transit ridership was 2.9 percent less than the same quarter in 2015. Heavy-rail ridership fell by 2.5% and bus by 4.4%, while light rail grew by 4.1% and commuter rail by 0.5%.
In addition to Washington, DC, where heavy rail fell by 13.5 percent, some of the biggest heavy-rail losers include Baltimore, which also declined by 13.5 percent; Atlanta (-9%); San Juan (-8%); and Miami (-5%). Ridership grew in a few places, but that growth was swamped by the 1.4% decline on the New York City subway, which is by far the largest heavy-rail operator in the country.
The main reason light rail grew was the opening of new lines in Seattle and New Orleans, both of which saw growth of around 60 percent, as well as Los Angeles, which saw a 12 percent gain. Light-rail ridership also grew significantly in Baltimore (15%), Boston (13%), and Phoenix (+14%), but light-rail suffered declines of 5 percent or more in Buffalo (-15%), Dallas (-6%), Norfolk (-7%), Pittsburgh (-9%), Sacramento (-9%), San Jose (-12%), and St. Louis (-6%).
According to ColoradoPolitics.com, the state of Colorado ranks 29th in per capita funding for transit, spending just one-twentieth of the national average. Thus, transit is getting “left by the roadside.” This is highly misleading. In fact, Colorado apparently ranks 29th in state transit funding. That’s because most of the funding for transit comes from the regional level.
The misleading-news site’s misleading data are based on a report by a Boulder group known as the South West Energy Efficiency Project (SWEEP), which is urging the state legislature to spend more money on transit. But this recommendation is based on three fallacies.
First is the fallacy that more spending on transit leads to more transit ridership. In fact, the state with the highest state per capita transit funding is Alaska, which has far from the highest level of per capita ridership. Just 1.6 percent of Alaska commuters take transit to work, compared with 5.5 percent nationally. Other states spending more on transit than Colorado, but not attracting a lot of people to transit, include Vermont, Tennessee, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Wyoming. About 2.3 percent of Wyoming commuters take transit to work; in the other states listed here, it’s less than 1.5 percent.
“Exact change only.” “Carry proof of fare with you at all times.” “No food or beverage.” “No playing music aloud.” “Take off your backpack and put it between your legs so we can cram more people onto your transit vehicle.”
Some of these rules are for the convenience of other passengers, but most of them are for the convenience of the transit agencies themselves. Take, for example, the request–which could easily become a rule–to passengers to not wear backpacks while on board a transit vehicle.
You might think that this was for the convenience of other customers so more people can fit on board. But if the vehicles so crowded, why isn’t the agency running them at greater frequencies so they don’t get so full? In the case of the light-rail car pictured in the story at the above link, the answer may be that the agency picked a high-cost but low-capacity form of transit and now is stuck with that choice.
If you downloaded the summary file for the 2015 National Transit Database that the Antiplanner posted December 30, please do so again (link fixed). I discovered I made an error transferring the operating cost data from the raw files to this summary sheet, and the revised version corrects this error.
The revised version, which is about 1.6 megabytes, also has a lot more calculations in it. These include vehicle occupancy (passenger miles divided by vehicle revenue miles), average number of seats per vehicle, and average standing room per vehicle. Some columns calculate operating and maintenance costs per passenger mile or vehicle mile, but these should be used with care as maintenance costs can vary tremendously from year to year.