Public Transportation’s Myths and Tall Tales

Public transportation ridership has become a confusing mishmash of data as metrics change, and not toward transparency and accountability for the funds spent. Fortunately, the media have come to realize they’re being hoodwinked in this numbers game. They’re finally digging deeper than rosy ridership counts provided by the transit cheerleaders.

Once upon transit reported daily paying passengers. Then it became daily ridership. Now it’s  “unlinked passenger trips,” meaning each passenger boarding, regardless of fare paid. A trip with a transfer counts as two boardings. So that one daily passenger could be counted four times or more. All the while, ridership has been dwindling, both in passengers and when compared to the rate of population growth. In Atlanta, as the Georgia Public POlicy

In a weekend article headlined, “America’s Buses Lose Riders, Imperiling Their Future,” The Wall Street Journal noted:

A staple of American urban life — the city bus — is in a state of steady decline.

Ridership on city buses around the country was down 13% in the second quarter of 2017 compared with the same quarter in 2007, according to Transportation Department data, a drop that has left transit agencies scrambling to make up for lost fare revenue and contemplating additional service cuts on top of ones they have already made.

After the 2007-09 recession, financially strapped city bus agencies pared back service nationwide, slashing routes and frequency to save money. That drove riders away and starved bus agencies of cash needed to recover lost services. Fares account for about a third of agencies’ operating budgets, with the rest coming from state, local and federal sources. The agencies responded by cutting service even more. …

The downturn is squeezing low-income workers, drawing out their commutes, and could alter the shape of city life if it persists.

Bus service in America’s cities and towns was about 10% lower in the second quarter of this year than it was a decade ago as measured by miles of transit service provided. Research from San Jose State University’s Mineta Transportation Institute found that bus ridership is sensitive to service levels; When service is cut, ridership drops as people look for alternatives, said Hilary Nixon, a professor at San Jose State who co-authored the study. …

The nagging ridership decline is unusual in a period of economic recovery. While ridership often sags during recessions, it usually recovers as unemployment rates drop and the economy expands. Other factors are amplifying the trend, including the rise of Uber and Lyft, cheap gas enabling more people to drive, and the determination of hip millennials to live in city centers within walking or biking distance of work.

Myth 1: About those millennials: No generation has been held up more than millennials as a reason for transit expansion, especially rail transit. How real is the need to pamper millennials with transit? First, let’s talk about whether they’re living in the city center: FORGET THE URBAN STEREOTYPES: WHAT MILLENNIAL AMERICA REALLY LOOKS LIKE

 Home ownership rates have declined in the metro Atlanta region, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission‘s Friday FactDay. But the breakdown suggests it’s more because homeownership is more expensive and the rent is too high than because they want to move to the city center:  “Perhaps not surprisingly, ‘living with parents’ is the most popular living arrangement for 18 to 34 year olds among all 10 metro counties,” the ARC found.

At the same time, rising urban rents may be pushing poorer residents into distant areas with little or no bus service, forcing them to find alternatives to get to work.

Subway service is faring much better. The country’s subway systems, which tend to be more expensive and less widespread than buses, have boosted service 10% over the past decade and ridership is up 12%. Intercity bus companies such as Greyhound and Megabus are also doing well, posting a 22% increase in trips between 2010 and 2015, according to the Transportation Department.

How are transit agencies responding to dwindling bus ridership? According to The Wall Street Journal,

Some agencies, such as in Houston or Seattle, have responded by completely redrawing bus routes.

Others, such as the agency serving Pinellas County, Fla., are forming partnerships with Uber and Lyft to offer subsidized rides in areas with few transit options. Elsewhere, such as in Austin, Texas, transit agencies are developing their own on-demand services that will allow them to move riders around town without offering regular fixed-stop service.

In Orange County, Mr. Johnson and his staff are contracting out for more service. They have eliminated routes with less traffic and increased frequency on the busiest ones while also helping some of their local towns finance a seasonal service to ferry summer beachgoers around coastal areas.

Instead of running regular bus service through the more residential parts of the country, the transit agency offers a $400 monthly subsidy to help commuters who live near each other set up a vanpool.

“Not every community in your service area needs 40-foot buses every 10 minutes,” Mr. Johnson said. “Some do, but not all of them.”

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