Readers will know that this is one of my favorite topics on this blog, how huge investments in showy rail projects that amp up the prestige of government officials tend to cannibalize lower cost bus service and, at the end of the day, actually reduce total transit ridership. The LA Times almost sortof recognizes this, and Randal O'Toole is on the case:
“Billions spent, but fewer people are using public transportation,” declares the Los Angeles Times. The headline might have been more accurate if it read, “Billions spent, so thereforefewer are using public transit,” as the billions were spent on the wrong things.
The L.A. Times article focuses on Los Angeles’ Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro), though the same story could be written for many other cities. In Los Angeles, ridership peaked in 1985, fell to 1995, then grew again, and now is falling again. Unmentioned in the story, 1985 is just before Los Angeles transit shifted emphasis from providing low-cost bus service to building expensive rail lines, while 1995 is just before an NAACP lawsuit led to a court order to restore bus service lost since 1985 for ten years.
Transit ridership is very sensitive to transit vehicle revenue miles. Metro’s predecessor, the Southern California Rapid Transit District, ran buses for 92.6 million revenue miles in 1985. By 1995, to help pay for rail cost overruns, this had fallen to 78.9 million. Thanks to the court order in the NAACP case, this climbed back up to 92.9 million in 2006. But after the court order lapsed, it declined to 75.7 million in 2014. The riders gained on the multi-billion-dollar rail lines don’t come close to making up for this loss in bus service.
Los Angeles ridership trends are not unusual: transit agencies building expensive rail infrastructure often can’t afford to keep running the buses that carry the bulk of their riders, so ridership declines.
- Ridership in Houston peaked at 102.5 million trips in 2006, falling to 85.9 million in 2014 thanks to cuts in bus service necessitated by the high cost of light rail;
- Despite huge job growth, Washington ridership peaked at 494.2 million in 2009 and has since fallen to 470.4 million due at least in part to Metro’s inability to maintain the rail lines;
- Atlanta ridership peaked at 170.0 million trips in 2000 and has since fallen nearly 20 percent to 137.5 million and per capita ridership has fallen by two thirds since 1985;
- San Francisco Bay Area ridership reached 490.9 million in 1982, but was only 457.0 million in 2014 as BART expansions forced cutbacks in bus service, a one-third decline in per capita ridership;
- Pittsburgh transit regularly carried more than 85 million riders per year in the 1980s but is now down to some 65 million;
- Austin transit carried 38 million riders in 2000, but after opening a rail line in 2010, ridership is now down to 34 million.
I will add that total transit ridership has been totally flat in Phoenix after construction of a major light rail project. The project's total cost is approaching $2 billion as they slowly add on short extensions, but this amount did nothing but cannibalize bus ridership. In fact, the situation is worse than this, since before light rail was built, Phoenix transit ridership was growing rapidly every single year, so in fact light rail actually likely reduced ridership by about 14 million. The whole story is here. (I will have an update in a moment but they have updated the chart from that article and ridership fell yet again in 2015).