April 6, 2006
U.S. transit systems carried fewer riders in each of the last four years than they did in 2001. But you would never know it from press releases and puff pieces issued by the nation's transit lobby, which is pumped up by support from railcar manufacturers, rail engineering companies, and others who profit from rail transit construction.
For example, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), which represents transit agencies and transit builders, put out a press release yesterday (April 5) claiming that recent transit data prove "that Americans want transportation choices and will often leave their cars behind when quality public transit services are available." But a close look at the data prove otherwise.
From the release:
"More than 9.7 billion trips were made on U.S. public transportation systems in 2005, for a 1.3 percent increase over 2004, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) said April 5. Since 1995, public transportation use increased 25.1 percent."
APTA neglects to note that public transit use increased from 1995 to 2001, but declined by 0.9 percent since 2001.
"In comparison, the amount of highway vehicle miles traveled rose 22.5 percent, according to APTA."
By comparing transit use with total miles of driving, APTA is comparing apples and oranges. Because transit serves only urban areas, the correct comparison is between transit use and urban driving. Urban driving is growing faster than total driving.
This chart shows how irrelevant transit is for urban passenger travel and how slowly it has been growing compared with driving. Note that each mile of driving corresponds to an average of 1.6 passenger miles, so driving has an even larger share of passenger travel than indicated on the chart.
"'The ridership growth over the past 10 years demonstrates that Americans want transportation choices and will often leave their cars behind when quality public transit services are available,' said APTA President William W. Millar."
The ridership growth from 1995 to 2001 and decline from 2001 to 2005 demonstrates that people ride transit during boom periods, then stop riding during recessions. The continuous growth in urban driving, whether during booms or busts, demonstrates that people are not leaving their cars behind.
"Last year's 9.7 billion trips on public transportation benefit our entire nation by reducing congestion, improving air quality and conserving foreign oil."
The majority of transit riders in most cities can't drive, and their trips on public transit do little to reduce congestion or improve air quality. Since buses use lots of fuel and emit lots of pollutants but carry an average of just 10 people at a time over the course of a day, they actually increase dependence on foreign oil, congestion, and air pollution. (See below)
"In fact, use of public transit is the single quickest way most Americans can beat the high cost of gasoline."
Forcing other people to subsidize your trip can always reduce your costs, but that does not mean it is a good idea.
"The group said light rail, meaning modern streetcars, trolleys, and heritage trolleys, had the highest percentage of increase among all modes, with a 6.0 percent increase in 2005."
Light-rail ridership grew only because of a large increase in light-rail service. From 1990 to 2004, light-rail ridership increased by 93 percent. But to get that 93 percent increase transit agencies had to increase light-rail vehicle-revenue miles of service by 166 percent. This is called "diminishing returns."
"Some light rail systems showed double digit increases in ridership: Minneapolis (168.9 percent)"
Minneapolis light rail opened in June of 2004. When you start service in the middle of one year, your ridership over the entire following year is bound to be a huge percentage increase over the first year.
Another article on APTA's web site claims that rail transit uses far less energy than driving. However, the report makes a critical error in comparing electrical energy to gasoline fuel: it fails to account for the energy losses when electricity is transmitted over wires.
The report assumes that one kilowatt-hour of electricity is equal to about 3,400 BTUs. According to pages 260-261 of the U.S. Department of Energy's Transportation Energy Data Book, after accounting for generation and transmission losses the real figure is nearly 12,000 BTUs.
Wendell Cox pointed out this error in the National Review when the APTA study was posted in 2002, but APTA has still not corrected its report.
According to the Department of Energy's data book, on the average passenger cars used about 3,500 BTUs of energy per passenger mile in 2002 (p. 58). Buses don't do as well at 4,100 (p. 58). Rail transit averaged a bit better than autos at 3,200 (p. 181), but this is hardly enough of a savings to crow about especially if you add the energy cost of building rail transit.
Moreover, the Department of Energy points out that many poorly patronized rail lines consume more energy than cars (p. 60). Rail lines in Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, and Philadelphia are among those that DOE says are less energy efficient than cars.
According to the 2004 National Transit Database, the following rail lines consume more energy per passenger mile than passenger autos:
Any heavy- or light-rail lines not on this list did better than cars, though in some cases -- as in the DC subway and Boston light rail, it was nearly a tie. Many commuter rail lines did not provide energy data to the National Transit Database, so we don't know how Seattle, Maryland, Virginia, Ft. Lauderdale, Dallas, San Diego, Los Angeles, or San Francisco commuter rail stacks up. But it is likely that many of these did poorly.
Outside of New York, Boston, and Chicago, the only really efficient lines -- those using less than 3,000 BTUs per passenger mile -- were Atlanta, San Francisco BART, light-rail lines in Portland, San Diego, and St. Louis, and the New Orleans streetcar. So you can see how your rail transit system is doing, I've posted a spreadsheet showing agency-by-agency calculations of rail transit BTUs per passenger mile.
It is not surprising that the transit lobby would publish biased, distorted, and self-serving information. What is surprising is that so many public officials are quick to believe it. The truth is much more tragic: despite investing billions of dollars on transit in the past twenty years, transit ridership today is barely 20 percent more than it was in 1985 -- meaning it has barely kept up with population growth -- while urban driving has nearly doubled. People who truly care about transit should find another course that will allow ridership to grow at a much lower cost.
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