Transit Net Transit Ridership Does Not Go Up When Cities Build Rail

As I have written before, Phoenix has seen its total transit ridership flat to down since it built its light rail line.  This after years of 6-10% a year increases in ridership.  Most cities, even the oft-worshipped Portland, have seen the same thing.  Here is the chart for Phoenix (if you look closely, you can see how they fudged the bar scaling to make light rail ridership increases look better).

ridership_140903_annotated

 

The reason is that per passenger, or per mile, or per route, or whatever way you want to look at it, rail systems are 1-2 orders of magnitude more expensive than buses.  Since most cities are reluctant to increase their spending on transit 10-100x when they build trains (and to be fair, proponents of rail projects frequently make this worse by fibbing about future costs and revenue expectations), what happens is that bus routes are cut to fund rail lines.  But since buses are so much cheaper, 10 units of bus capacity, or more, must be cut for each one unit of rail capacity.

The Anti-planner shows us an example in Honolulu.  No, the line is not finished so this effect has not happened yet, but you can see it from a mile away:

The city and state officials who promoted construction of Honolulu’s rail transit line now admitthat they don’t know how they are going to pay for the cost of operating that line. Between 2019, when the first part of the line is expected to open for business, and 2031, those costs are expected to be $1.7 billion, or about $140 million per year. In 2011, the annual operating cost was estimated to be $126 million a year.

Honolulu has about a hundred bus routes, which cost about $183 million to operate in 2013, or less than $2 million per route. The rail line will therefore cost about 70 times as much to operate as the average bus route.

So they have budgeted no money for operations, and are probably underestimating net operating costs as their revenue projections, as discussed later in the article, are transparently over-optimistic (this is always a good bet, since 99% of rail projects under-estimate their costs and over-estimate their ridership).  The rail line will cost as much to operate as 2/3 of their city's entire bus system, which is extensive and well-used. So how many bus routes will be cut to fund this one route?  10?  30?  70?

By the way, beyond the obvious harm to taxpayers, the other people hurt by this are the poor who are disporportionately bus users.  Rail systems almost always go from middle/upper class suburbs to business districts and seldom mirror the transit patterns of the poor.  Middle class folks who wouldn't be caught dead on a bus love the trains, but these same folks already have transportation alternatives.  The bus lines that get cut to fund the trains almost always serve much lower income folks with fewer alternatives.

  • klgmac

    Detroit is following the same insane path. They just cut pensioners benefits, can't put a reliable bus system on the streets, but hope to be able to maintain a short distance train that connects nothing to nothing. Brilliant!

  • Mike

    You're right on the money as far as traffic patterns of the poor, or low income rider. Here in Mesa, it seems the "light rail" is going to dodge MCC entirely. A lot of low income people are students there.

    But another problem I've seen first hand in San Diego, is the reduction in property value when light rail (aka the Trolley) expands into a new area. In San Diego, many members of the criminal element ride the rails. This brings crime into the neighborhoods along the route. For that reason along, I do not want the light rail anywhere near my neighborhood!

  • Bistro

    Oh Lord yes. I remember well all the screaming and gnashing of teeth as La Jolla point blank refused to accept any kind of trolley service for exactly the reason you state.

    I was in Hawaii about 6 years ago when the Governor was on the radio explaining that Hawaii has a requirement under their Constitution to present a balanced budget every year and her Deputy was also on the radio explaining how the new rail link would make money for Honolulu and the State.

    Ha!

  • mx

    It's varied a lot from community to community and nobody is quite sure why (see, for instance, Impacts Of Rail Transit On Property Values: http://reconnectingamerica.org/assets/Uploads/bestpractice083.pdf). Some cities with well-used transit systems, including Boston and Chicago have seen major increases in property values in neighborhoods close to mass transit. The effects can certainly be seen in the East Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area, where apartments within walking distances of BART stations command a rental premium.

    That said, building large capital projects without having a real source of funding for operating expenses based on non-fictitious estimates is an awful idea.

  • BobSykes

    I am a retired civil engineering faculty member. All the transportation engineers I have ever known strongly preferred buses over trains because of economy and flexibility and who got served. On the other hand, most city/urban planners seem to like trains. Got me.

  • jonspencer

    I am starting to like Curb Guided Bus's more and more. They seem to be able to do both fixed and variable routes without the massive infrastructure of a rail route.

  • slocum

    Oh, it doesn't connect to nothing -- it connects downtown to Midtown and New Center. Basically, there's a 3 by 1 mile area in Detroit running north from the river and bounded by expressways on both sides, and it contains nearly all of what's not completely screwed up in the city. Much of the area is actually kind of booming right now, and the M-1 light rail will run right down the middle. So it's not a white elephant -- it will be used, just not much by poor people who live out in the neighborhoods.

    BTW, am I the only one who suspects that there might be a little method to the madness of building light rail and cutting back on bus service? Isn't it a pretty effective way to drive gentrification by making cities more attractive to the well-off and less so to the poor?

  • klgmac

    "So it's not a white elephant -- it will be used, just not much by poor people who live out in the neighborhoods."

    Then the rich will be covering all of the expenses through ridership fees right? We both know that's a joke. Because if you charged the $5 per ride or whatever it would take to cover operating expenses then the usual suspects would be caterwauling about how unfair the fees are to the poor. That's true right? Why do you support the poor and people on a fixed income subsidizing the well to do?

  • klgmac

    "BTW, am I the only one who suspects that there might be a little method to the madness of building light rail and cutting back on bus service? Isn't it a pretty effective way to drive gentrification by making cities more attractive to the well-off and less so to the poor?"

    Since you are so in the know, you may already know that many long time tenants and residents are being squeezed out. In the Progressive mind set, out of sight, out of mind!

  • slocum

    Are you under the impression I support the M-1? I think it's a stupid idea -- in fact, I think that streetcars in general are really dumb, combining the worst aspects of trains (high construction and operating costs, fixed routes) and buses (still stuck in traffic and vulnerable to traffic accidents, and unlike buses, they can't even deviate around accidents). I'm only saying it's not a train to nowhere -- once it's built, people will use it.

  • klgmac

    People use the People Mover too. My point is that it is a terrible use of VERY scarce resources. People ride the donkey's in Greece too. That doesn't mean we should subsidize them.

  • Androgynis Amominus

    Hawaii is a particularly stupid place to build light rail, because the weather is so nice you could field double decker buses with roofless tops and everyone would absolutely love them.

  • Dan Wendlick

    Look at Walt Disney World. Zero operating subsidies from the government and they haven't added any light rail miles since 1982, just good old fashioned rubber-tire busses.

  • Maximum Liberty

    Warren:

    You need to boil it down to a slogan, which is all that gets traction these days.

    Rail is regressive.

  • MJ

    BTW, am I the only one who suspects that there might be a little method
    to the madness of building light rail and cutting back on bus service?
    Isn't it a pretty effective way to drive gentrification by making cities
    more attractive to the well-off and less so to the poor?

    Ask Buffalo. I'm sure they have a pretty interesting story to tell.

  • Public Transport at About.Com

    The title of this article is contradicted by the evidence presented. Every single year since the light rail has been open total transit ridership has been higher than any bus year. Your assertion that bus ridership would be 86 million per year without rail comes with no evidence to show that it would be the case. Rapid bus ridership in the previous 20 years had come through the addition of routes to fill in the grid, the addition of frequency to fill in the grid, and increased service span (since somewhat reduced). It wasn't that long ago when Phoenix did not even have bus service on Sunday. As far as I can recollect the only bus route that was eliminated when light rail began was what was known as one time as the "Red Line". In fact, bus/rail connections need to be improved.