Vanishing Automobile update #58

Rail Disasters Continue Through 2004

1 February 2006

Twin Cities transit ridership declined by 8 percent in 2004 thanks to the opening of a new light-rail line. This is only one of the many cities with rail transit that suffered transit ridership declines in 2004, according to the 2004 National Transit Database recently published by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA).

Here is a brief review of the nation's rail transit systems, also summarized in the table below:

Growth in Bus, Rail, & Total Transit Ridership and Driving, 2004 vs. 2003
                        Bus    Rail    Total  Driving
Atlanta                 1.9%   -3.9%   -0.9%   24.5% *
Baltimore               3.5%   -9.6%    1.1%    0.5%
Boston                 10.1%   16.8%   14.6%    1.9%
Buffalo                -3.0%   -6.5%   -3.9%    1.2%
Chicago                 0.9%   -1.0%    0.1%    3.1%
Cleveland              -2.2%   -6.5%   -3.0%    1.9%
Dallas-Ft. Worth        2.1%    0.5%    1.8%    3.9%
Denver                  6.3%   -5.7%    4.7%    4.6%
Houston                -3.1%            2.8%   -1.6%
Los Angeles            -5.2%    2.8%   -4.3%    1.3%
Miami-Ft. Lauderdale   12.5%   12.8%   12.5%    8.7%
Minneapolis-St. Paul  -12.5%           -8.4%    0.5%
New Orleans           -16.5%   40.7%  -10.1%   -3.1%
New York               -0.9%    3.4%    1.7%    2.7%
Philadelphia            4.9%    2.3%    3.8%    2.8%
Pittsburgh             -2.7%   -7.0%   -3.1%   -0.2%
Portland               -0.5%    1.2%    0.0%    5.4%
Sacramento             -1.9%   24.4%    5.8%    1.7%
Salt Lake City          2.2%    2.1%    2.2%    5.4%
San Diego             -10.0%    5.4%   -5.5%    3.1%
San Francisco-Oakland  -1.0%    4.3%    0.9%    0.4%
San Jose              -16.1%   -9.6%  -15.1%   -4.7%
Seattle-Tacoma          4.3%  185.0%    5.5%    4.0%
St. Louis              -0.7%   -2.3%   -1.2%    3.7%
Washington              0.4%    3.2%    2.0%    1.7%
Number that grew        11      16      14      21
* Atlanta's large growth in driving is partly because the Georgia Department of Transportation's redefined the Atlanta urbanized area to include 72 percent more land.

In short, of the twenty-five rail cities considered here, only eleven increased both rail ridership and overall transit ridership -- and in Houston's case it was only because of the distortion caused by the Superbowl. Three more gained transit riders but lost rail riders. The remainder lost transit riders.

So, where has rail transit been a success? If "success" is defined as all forms of rail ridership are growing and transit's share of travel is growing relative to the automobile, then seven regions have successful rail transit systems: Boston, Miami, Philadelphia, Sacramento, San Francisco-Oakland, Seattle, and Washington. Actually, Boston doesn't quite qualify because its commuter rail lost riders, but its light- and heavy-rail gains were so large that I include it anyway.

Of these seven regions, Seattle and Miami successes are due mainly to their bus systems. Sacramento's share only grew because it opened a new rail line; in the four previous years, transit's share shrank. The other four successes successes all have dense inner-city populations and job centers. This suggests that rail is not going to do much good in regions such as Phoenix and Charlotte, where population densities are low and jobs are decentralized.

You can download the National Transit Database in three different ways. First is an easy-to-read file format that is difficult to manipulate. Second is an easy-to-manipulate format that is difficult to read. Or you can download profiles for individual transit agencies.

Because the above data files are unwieldy, I have created a half-megabyte Excel spreadsheet summarizing the 2004 data including ridership, passenger miles, operating costs, capital costs, fares, vehicle miles, and vehicle hours for every mode of transit and transit agency. The file also sums ridership data by mode for each of the 100 largest urbanized areas and includes the amount of driving in each urban area from the 2004 Highway Statistics.

If you have a copy of Rail Disasters 2005 and want to see the charts updated to 2004, you can download an 800-kilobyte spreadsheet with updated data and charts. The spreadsheet notes and corrects a few places where 2004 data are not consistent with prior-year data.

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