Posts tagged ‘bus’

Phoenix Light Rail Update: Half Billion Dollars More Spent, Transit Ridership Continues to Fall

Valley Metro, the agency that operates light rail and most bus service in the Phoenix area, has published its 2016 annual ridership numbers, and they are awful (the agency is on a july-june fiscal year).  Over the past year, they have opened two extensions of the current light rail line, spending $o.5 Billion to extend the line 6.2 miles.  So what did we get for this?  Falling transit use.


To begin with, we must again look past Valley Metro's downright bizarre chartsmanship, where differences in bar length bear absolutely no relationship to the values graphed (just try to figure out the bar lengths for the last three years of light rail data).

We see that light rail ridership is up 9%.  This appears low, given that the line and total investment were increased by about 33%, but the new extensions were not available for the whole year.  My guess correcting for opening dates is that on a full year basis this represents about a 20% increase.  For May, June, and July light rail ridership has been running 19%, 26%, and 20% above the same month last year (before either extension was opened).  This is well below the increase in line length (31%) and line total investment (36%)

I have always argued that the first 20 miles of the light rail line cut through the densest part of the city, including the downtown area (such that it is), the two highest visitation sports stadiums, and ASU  -- and as such any future expansions were going to have a much harder time justifying themselves (ie, as in this case, a 31% expansion in length would yield something less than 31% increase in ridership).  Light rail supporters have argued in return that I had things exactly backwards, that network effects would mean that ridership increased faster than route length.  My sense is that this argument will pretty clearly tip in my direction by the time we have 2017 data.

By the way, with total investment up to over $2 billion and average weekday round trip ridership at about 23,500 in fiscal 2016, then the total capital cost (not including annual operating subsidies) of the line sits at about $85,000 per round-trip rider.   Whenever Valley Metro supporters defend the line against my attacks, they will often quote various riders saying how much they love it.  Of course they do!  They damn well should love it -- we taxpayers spent $85,000 for each one of them to open the line AND subsidize every single one of their rides.

But if you really want to see the cost of these subsidies, look at the bus and total transit ridership in the chart above.   Total transit ridership in the area has fallen to the lowest point since before the light rail line was first opened, despite the fact the city it serves is still growing.  This is because bus ridership has fallen off the map.   Just last year, for every 1 rider gained to the light rail line expansions, 3.6 were lost on busses.   To see how far bus ridership has fallen, you have to go back further than the chart above shows.  Here is an older Valley Metro chart I annotated for a previous article:

click to enlarge

You can see from this that bus ridership in Phoenix fell to a level we have not seen since 2003!  This is despite the fact that the Phoenix MSA has added about a million people since that time.

As it does in every city, light rail costs are starving the rest of the transit system.   By shifting transit dollars into a mode that requires 10x  more money to move a single passenger, the numbers of passengers served has to fall.  You can see from the chart that Phoenix transit ridership was rising steadily from 1997 to 2009.  But once light rail was completed, transit ridership absolutely stopped growing, despite population increases and large increases to total transit budgets.  Without light rail, we might very well have seen transit ridership as high as 90 million today, if past ridership growth trends held.


One Weird Trick That Will Sell Your Tax Increase to the Public

Here is the trick:  You want a tax increase for X.  The public is never going to approve of raising taxes for X.  So you bundle 95% X with 5% Y, Y being something the public is really excited about.  As much as possible, you never mention X in any discussion of the tax increase, despite most of the funds being dedicated to X, and instead focus solely on Y.   If history is any guide, you will get your tax increase.

What a specific example?  You want a tax increase to fund a huge public transit boondoggle.  The public is not buying it.  So you rebrand the public transit project as a "transportation bill", you throw in a few highway improvements, you talk mainly about the highway improvements, and you get your public transit bill.

Another example is general revenue increases.  Most of these tax increases go to increasing the salary and pensions of bureaucrats and senior administrators that aren't really doing anything the public wants done in the first place.  So you say the tax increase is to improve the pay of three (and only these three) categories of workers:  police, firefighters, and teachers.  The public likes what these folks do, and could mostly care less about what anyone else in local government does.   So even if the taxes help about just 3 teachers among 3000 other bureaucrats, you sell it as a teacher salary increase.

It is because I understand this one weird trick that this sort of story does not surprise me in the least:

'Yikes!': Some Arizona teachers see little from Prop. 123

For months leading up to the vote on Proposition 123, supporters of the public education funding measure pleaded for its passage, saying it represented money for teachers.

But as the first installment of cash has gone out, many teachers may find Prop. 123 is a smaller windfall than they hoped. And voters may be surprised to learn where some of the money is going.

In some cases, teachers will collect less than 20 percent of their district's Prop. 123 funds. Some districts will use most of their money for other purposes, ranging from textbooks to computers to school buses, according to an Arizona Republicsurvey of district spending plans.

The measure was sold as a way to direct money — significant money — to teachers and classrooms....

With no rules on how the money can be used, each school district has tried to address its own priorities. While many supporters of the measure invoked teachers as the main reason to vote for Prop. 123, others in the public school systems have staked a claim to the money, especially after many went years without raises beginning in the recession.

Those seeing raises include relatively low-paid secretaries, custodians and bus drivers. But it also includes superintendents, principals and mid-level administrators who don’t work in classrooms.

That may not sit well with voters who opposed the measure or with supporters who thought they were doing something more substantive for teachers.



Stupid BS Government Officials Get Away with Everywhere

I don't know if you have ever had to write a check or sent a form to a county assessor, clerk, treasurer or the like.  But the odds are that the forms you were working with did not tell you to send a check to "Loudon County Tax Assessor" but to something like "Mike Cambell, Loudon County Tax Assessor."  There is absolutely no reason the assessor's personal name has to be on the check, or on the forms, or on the letterhead, or on the envelope, or on the return address.  But it is.  Because this is a way that small-scale elected officials have found to get free advertising and name recognition in their next election at taxpayer expense.  It is an advantage they have structured as incumbents against any would-be challengers.

And it has real costs even beyond the artificial limiting of electoral competition.  When the current assessor loses office, or retires, or just gets hit by a bus, all the printed materials in the office have to be thrown away as they all had his or her name on them and are thus obsolete.  All new material has to be printed.   Someone has to go in and manually edit every single form.  The printer has to reset to make a new batch of return address envelopes and such.  The bank needs to be notified that checks to the deposit will be addressed to a different person.  It is crazy.

Phoenix Light Rail (Continued) Fail

In 2014, I published  an article based on Valley Metro's (our transit operator in Phoenix) very own ridership chart.  Here was the chart I showed:

click to enlarge

My point was that the huge amount of money spent on light rail, which essentially constituted a single commuting route in this enormous and spread-out city, was cannibalizing bus service.   The cost and investment to carry a light rail passenger is at least an order of magnitude greater than that needed to carry a bus passenger, and no public system can long endure this sort of cost increase to shift passengers from a relatively cheap transit mode to an expensive one.  Inevitably, bus service (which mainly benefits the poor) is terminated to pay for the train (which benefits middle and upper class riders who would not be caught dead on a bus).  I am pretty sure the train would have been harder sell if they had been honest and said that they were going to have to cut bus service for the low-income working folks so that ASU students and Arizona Diamondbacks and Phoenix Suns fans could have a better way to get to the ballgame.

Anyway, Valley Metro has updated the chart for 2015 and it continues to look bad:


They were smart to cut off history on this one so you can't see how they killed the growth trend with the advent of light rail.  But you see that total transit ridership fell, with a small fall in light rail ridership and a huge fall in bus ridership.   Oops.  As an aside, they still have not fixed their terrible chart plotting.  You can see this years bar for light rail being longer than the one for 2013 despite the fact the number is lower.

The 2016 numbers will be interesting.  Since 2015 they will have opened several light rail extensions and got themselves a huge new tax increase approved (over my stern opposition).

Update:  In retrospect, the bus ridership fall was significant but "huge" probably is an exaggeration.  I was fooled by looking at the bar lengths, which again seem to have nothing to do with the actual data.  They are clearly drawing this manually -- no automatic charting program would get it this wrong.

Is The Media Actually Waking Up to How Rail is Sinking Public Transit?

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).

Does Transit Save Energy?

This is one of those questions that seems like a no-brainer -- a bunch of people are sharing a ride, so they must be saving energy.  When asked this question, we all think of a full bus or train of people vs. the number of cars that would have carried the same people.

The key issue turns out to be occupancy -- how full is the train or bus.   And it turns out that occupancy is probably lower than most people think.  That is because everyone rides on buses or trains as they commute -- they are going in the direction of most people's travel at the time of day they travel, so the transit is totally full.  But no one thinks about those trains having to go back the other direction, usually mostly empty.   As a result, we get to this fact, from the National Transit Database as synthesized by Randal O'Toole.

2014 Energy Use per Passenger Mile

  • Transit:  3141 BTU
  • Driving:  3144 BTU

Valley Metro Rail here in Phoenix does better, at a reported 1885 BTU per passenger mile.   As reported many times here on this site, the cost of building this rail line, now well over one and a half billion dollars, would easily have bought every round trip rider a new Prius, with a lot of money left over.   This would have saved more energy as well.  Buses in Phoenix are averaging just over 6000 BTU per passenger mile.


Phoenix Light Rail: We Spent $1.4 Billion (and Growing) To Subsidize ASU Students

The AZ Republic has some of the first information I have ever seen on the nature of Phoenix light rail ridership.  The first part confirms what I have always said, that light rail's primary appeal is to middle and upper class whites who don't want to ride on the bus with the plebes

Light rail has changed the demographics of overall transit users since the system opened in 2008, according to Valley Metro.

Passengers report higher incomes than bus riders, with more than a quarter living in households making more than $50,000 a year. Many riders have cars they could use.

The 20-mile system running through Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa recorded more than than 14 million boardings last year. Still, census data estimate less than one-third of 1 percent of Phoenix commuters — or about 2,000 people — use rail as their main transportation to work.

.0033% huh?  If we built similar facilities to serve everyone, it would only cost us about $420 billion at the rate of $1.4 billion per third of a percent.

But I thought this next bit was the most startling.  I always had a sneaking suspicion this was true but never have seen it in print before:

While the much larger bus system reaches most corners of the Valley, light rail connects specific destinations along a single line. Nearly half of light-rail riders are enrolled in college.

I must have missed this in the original sales pitch for the light rail line: "Let's pay $1.4 billion so ASU students can get to more distant bars."   Note that by these numbers, students likely outnumber commuters 10:1.  Doesn't bode well for light rail extensions that don't plow right through the middle of the most populous college campus in the country.

Postscript:  They don't break out people riding to get to sporting events downtown, but sporting events make up most of the largest traffic days on the system.  From my personal acquaintances, many people use light rail as a substitute for expensive downtown parking at sporting events, parking (often semi-illegally) near light rail stops and taking the train the rest of the way in.  On the whole, its not very compelling as a taxpayer to be helping to subsidize someone else's parking.  And from a municipal fiscal standpoint, it means that light rail fares may be cannibalizing (on a much greater ratio than 1:1 given the price differential) parking fees at municipal parking lots.

Vote "NO!" on Phoenix Prop 104 Transit Tax

Randal O'Toole and the Arizona Free Enterprise Club have weighed in with a comprehensive report on Phoenix's Prop 104 transit tax, and the results are ugly.  A few findings:

  • The oft-repeated claim that light rail has generated $7 Billion dollars in economic development is simply untrue. In fact, many of the projects included in this claim have never been built (like the Sycamore Station development) or involve projects that have nothing to do with light rail (such as the $600 million Convention Center Expansion, which was funded largely by state tax dollars).
  • The main beneficiaries of the transit plan appear to be contractors and developers who have projects near rail stations. The tax revenue from the plan combined with the generous subsidies offered to select developments ensures that this plan will benefit a few contractors and developers at the expense of others.
  • The plan is unbalanced and ignores vehicle street improvements. Despite the fact that only 3% of the population uses transit (less than 1% use light rail), 95% of the funding in the plan goes toward expanded bus and rail service. Only 3% goes toward vehicle street improvements.
  • Transit ridership actually fell after the light rail opened. From when light rail opened in 2009 through 2014, any gains in light rail ridership were offset by the loss of more than one bus rider. Ridership is still 1.2 million less per year than it was in 2009.
  • The transit plan as proposed will increase traffic congestion, energy usage and greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, the transit plan will use more

The complete report is here.

Coyoteblog readers will be totally familiar with this statement from the report about light rail merely cannibalizing bus riders, echoing past articles I have had saying the same thing:

According to the city of Phoenix and Valley Metro, light rail is a great success in Phoenix, generating a 42-percent increase in transit ridership since 2001 and stimulating the construction of $7 billion in new real estate development along its route. A close look, however, reveals that both of these claims are wrong.

The increase in ridership took place between 2001 and 2009, the (fiscal) year that the light-rail line opened. Since that year, for every light-rail rider gained, the region’s transit systems lost more than one bus rider. Per capita transit ridership has declined by 8 percent since 2009 partly because the high cost of light rail forced a 34-percent increase in average bus fares by 2010 and an 18-percent decrease in bus service by 2013.

You can see this perfectly well from a chart right off of our transit authority's web site (except for my annotation in red), which I discussed in depth here.

click to enlarge

It is just incredibly disingenuous that light rail supporters are trying to claim credit for transit ridership increases that occurred before the line was built and whose growth the line essentially halted.

Another claim the report demolishes is that light rail is somehow spurring development.  Supporters claim $7 billion of light rail development planned or built along the line, but oddly enough that is the exact same figure they were touting almost 8 years ago before the line was even completed.  Doesn't seem like they are getting much traction, huh?  In fact, the list actually shortens with every year as projects get cancelled and no new ones are added.  But beyond this, simply adding up development along the line and claiming that it is all incremental to the line's construction is simply moronic, the same facile BS analysis often used to support publicly funded football stadiums.    The obvious questions are:

  • How do they know this development is incremental, and not development that would have occurred anyway?  In particular, this line was built through the three of the largest pre-existing development hubs in the metropolitan area (North Central Ave, Downtown Phoenix, and Tempe/ASU).  There was always development activity in these areas, and always going to be
  • Much of the new activity they cite is near Tempe Town Lake, and I would give that project, not the rail, much of the credit.  The city did a marvelous job (see, I can give props to government once in a while) converting a big wide ugly dry ditch into a lake that is the centerpiece for business and condo development
  • Much of this development is subsidized by various government programs.  It is impossible to separate the effects of the subsidy from the rail line.

Finally, if you don't believe me about the relative costs of the two modes, let's take a look at the number from Phoenix's own plan.  They speak for themselves:


So what does one get for the 5x higher operating costs and 134x higher capital costs of light rail over buses?  Well on the negative side, one gets a system that is substantially less flexible and responsive to changes.  The only positive I can come up with is that middle and upper class white people consider buses low class and want a transportation mode of their own.

Even Vox Can't Make A Very Strong Case For Streetcars

A reader sent me a link to this Vox article on streetcars.  What I thought was interesting is just how weak the case for streetcars is, even when made by folks are are presumably sympathetic to them.  This page is entitled "Why do cities want streeetcars."  The arguments are:

  • Tourists like them, because you can't get lost like you can on buses.  My response is, "so what."  Unless you are one of a very few unique cities, tourists are a trivial percentage of transit riders anyway.  Why build a huge system just to serve out-of-town visitors?  I would add that many of these same cities (e.g. Las Vegas) considering streetcars are the same ones banning Uber, which tourists REALLY love.
  • Developers like them.  Ahh, now we are getting somewhere.  So they are corporate welfare?  But not so fast, they are not even very good corporate welfare.  Because most of the studies they cite are total BS, of the same quality as studies that say sports stadium construction spurs all sorts of business.  In fact, most cities have linked huge tax abatement and subsidy programs to their streetcars, such that the development you get with the subsidy and the streetcar is about what you would expect from the subsidies alone.  Reminds me of the old joke that mimicked cereal commercials: "As part of a breakfast with juice, toast, and milk, Trix cereal has all the nutrition of juice, toast, and milk."
  • Good for the environment.  But even Vox asks, "as compared to what."  Since they are generally an alternative buses, as compared to buses that have little environmental advantage and often are worse (they have a lot more weight to drag around when empty).
  • The Obama Administration likes them.  LOL, that's a recommendation?  When you read the text, what they actually say is that mayors like the fact that the Obama Administration likes them, for it means the Feds will throw lots of Federal money at these projects to help mayors look good using other peoples' money
  • Jobs.  This is hilarious Keynesianism, trying to make the fact that streetcars are 10-100x more expensive than buses some sort of positive.  Because they are more inefficient, they employ more people!  One could make the exact same argument for banning mechanical harvesters and going back to scythes.   Left unquestioned, as Bastiat would tell us, is how many people that money would have employed if it had not been seized by the government for streetcar use.
  • Je ne sais quoi.  I kid you not, that is their final argument, that streetcars add that special something to a neighborhood.  In my mind, this is Vox's way of saying the same thing I did the other day -- that the streetcar's appeal is primarily based on class, in that middle and upper class folks don't want to ride on a bus with the masses.   The streetcar feels more upscale than buses.   The poor of course, for whom public transit is most vital, don't want to pay 10 times more for sexiness.  Oh, and watch this video of Washington streetcars blocking traffic and crunching parked cars and tell me what it is adding to the neighborhood.

Every argument I have ever been in on streetcars always boils down to something like "well, all the cool kids like them."  Once, after defending the US approach to rail (vs. Europe and Japan) as (correctly) focusing on productivity vs. sexiness, having gone into a lot of detail on the economics of freight vs. passengers, I got a one sentence answer from Joel Epstein of the HuffPo:  “You should get out of the country more often.”  That was it -- the cool cosmopolitan kids who vacation in Gstaad but never would be caught dead driving across Nebraska were all against me.

Streetcars: A Scam That is All About Class

I am increasingly convinced that the appeal of streetcars and light rail has everything to do with class.  From any rational perspective, these systems make no sense -- they are 10-100x more expensive than buses and lack the flexibility that buses have to adjust to shifting demand patterns over time.  A single extra lane of highway adds more capacity than any light rail line.

Streetcar's single, solitary advantage is that middle and upper class whites who would not be caught dead on a bus seem to be willing to ride streetcars.   I don't know if this is because of some feature of the streetcars (they are shiny and painted pretty) or if it is some sort of self-segregation (the upper classes want to ride on something that is not filled with "riffraff").

Anyway, Reason has a really good video on streetcars, which covers a lot of topics from cronyism to the class issues I mention.  And the film of the incredibly poor design of the DC streetcar has to be seen to be believed.  (via Maggies Farm and their great daily links page)

Great Example of Concentrated Benefits / Dispersed Costs Cronyism: New Phoenix Rail Tax

The hefty sales tax that funds Phoenix light rail deficits is about to expire, and as is usual, politicians not only don't want it to expire but they want to double it so they can build more over-priced rail lines.

One of the reasons that stuff like this is so hard to fight is a phenomenon called "concentrated benefits but dispersed costs."  This means that, particularly for certain crony handouts, the benefits accrue to just a few actors who, due to the size of these giveaways, have a lot of financial incentive to promote and defend them.  The costs, on the other hand, are dispersed such that the final bill might only be a few dollars per taxpayer, such that no individual has much incentive to really pay up to support the fight.

A great example of this is sugar tariffs.  These raise the price of sugar (as well as reducing our choices and effectively promoting imperfect substitutes like HFCS) so we as consumers should all fight them.  But the higher cost of sugar might only cost us, say, $20 each a year individually.   Are you really going to donate $100 in a political cause to save $20?  On the other side, these tariffs create millions and millions of dollars in profit for a few sugar producers, such that they have a lot of money and incentive to spend big on lobbying to keep the tariffs in place.

The new Phoenix light rail tax increase gives us a yet another sad example of the phenomenon:

Construction companies, engineering firms and transit service providers are the biggest early supporters of the Proposition 104 campaign to expand Phoenix transportation, while the group fighting the proposed tax increase still seeks major funding.

The MovePHX campaign, supporting the bus, light rail and street improvement plan going before city voters in August, raised $382,900 from March through the end of May, according to finance reports filed Monday.

Opposition group Taken for A Ride — No on Prop 104 received just under $417 from individuals over the same period. A second campaign committee opposed to the proposition formed after the contribution reporting period ended....

More than half of the contributions to the MovePHX campaign during the reporting period came from engineering, design and construction firms, including many that were hired for design and consultation on the Valley's first stretch of light rail.

The largest single donation came from We Build Arizona, a group of engineering, contracting and transit organizations that donated $125,000 to the campaign. TransDev and Alternate Concepts, Inc., which hold bus and light rail service contracts, contributed more than $35,000 combined.

A combined $30,000 came from police, firefighter and food and commercial worker union political action committees.

$382,900 to $417.  That is why cronyism is so prevalent.

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).



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.

Is The Left Finally Starting to Question Light Rail?

This is the first even mild questioning of light rail I have seen, and it is certainly welcome.  It even acknowledges that the sole advantage of light rail over much more flexible and less expensive buses is that it is more appealing to the middle and upper classes.  Via Kevin Drum:

Josh Barro thinks our cities are building too much light rail. It's expensive, often slow, and offers virtually no advantage over simply opening up a bus line. The problem, according to a 2009 report from the Federal Transit Administration, is that "Bus-based public transit in the United States suffers from an image problem."



Geeky Reflections -- Simulated Annealing

When I was an undergrad, my interest was in interfacing microcomputers with mechanical devices.  Most of what we did would be labelled "robotics" today, or at least proto-robotics (e.g. ripping the ultrasonic rangefinder out of a Polaroid camera, putting it on a stepper motor, and trying to paint a radar image of the room on a computer screen).

In doing this, we were playing around with S-100 bus computers (PC's were a bit in the future at that point) and I got interested in brute force approaches to solving the traveling salesman problem.  The way this is done is to establish some random points in x,y space and then connect them with a random path and measure the length of that path.  The initial random path is obviously going to be a terrible solution.  So you have the computer randomly flip flop two segments, and then you see if the resulting total distance is reduced.  If it is, then you keep the change and try another.

This will lead to a much shorter path, but often will not lead to the optimally shortest path.  The reason is that the result can get stuck in a local minimum that is not the optimum.  Essentially, to break out of this, you have to allow the solution to get worse first before it can get better.

The approach I was playing with was called simulated annealing.  Everything I said above is the same in this approach, but sometimes you let the program accept flip-flopped segments that yield a worse (ie longer) rather than better path.  The allowed amount worse is governed by a "temperature" that is slowly lowered.  Initially, at high temperatures, the solution can jump into most any solution, better or worse.  But as the "temperature" is lowered, the allowed amount of jumping into worse solutions is reduced.  Essentially, the system is much, much more likely than the previous approach to settle closer to the actual optimum.  This is roughly an analog of how annealing works in metals.  The code is ridiculously simple.   I don't remember it being much more than 100 lines in Pascal.

Anyway, if you lived through the above without falling asleep, the payoff is this site.  After 30 years of pretty much never thinking about simulated annealing again, I found Todd Schneider's blog which has a great visual overview of solving the travelling salesman problem with simulated annealing.  If you really want to visually see it work, go to the customizable examples at the bottom and set the iterations per map draw for about 100.  Then watch.  It really does look a bit like a large excited molecule slowly cooling.  Here is an example below but check out his site.


I Can't Understand the Obsession with Streetcars

I just don't get it -- why the obsession with streetcars?  Why pay zillions of dollars to create what is essentially a bus line on rails, a bus line that costs orders of magnitude more per passenger to operate and is completely inflexible.  It can never be rerouted or moved or easily shut down if changes in demand warrant.  And, unlike with heavy rail on dedicated tracks, there is not even a gain in mobility since the streetcars have to wallow through traffic and intersections like everyone else.

What we see over and over again is that by consuming 10-100x more resources per passenger, rail systems starve other parts of the transit system of money and eventually lead to less, rather than more, total ridership (even in Portland, by the way).

But apparently, in DC the cannibalization of buses is even worse, as the streetcars are getting in the way and slowing buses down:  (hat tip to a reader)

Three District mayors have backed plans to return streetcars to D.C. streets, following in the transit-oriented footsteps of Portland, Ore., and other cities. Officials in the nation’s capital want to build a 20-plus-mile network connecting neighborhoods from Georgetown and Takoma to Anacostia, linking richer and poorer communities, giving people an alternative to the automobile and, they argue, spurring development along the routes. Eventually they see a system stretching about 37 miles.

... The inaugural 2.2-mile line, on H Street and Benning Road NE, is viewed by some as proof that the concept will work. Others see the opposite.....

Buses are facing significant delays behind the streetcars, which are making regular practice runs meant to simulate everyday operations. “We’re having to go around them. Since H Street has narrow lanes to begin with, it’s a challenge,” Hamre said. He said he has instructed bus drivers to pass streetcars only when they are stopped.

“That reduces the risk of misjudging,” Hamre said.

But it also forces faster-moving buses to hang back and wait for the less-agile streetcars, prolonging commutes for the much larger population of bus riders.

Back in 2010, District transportation officials estimated that 1,500 people a day will ride streetcars on the H Street/Benning Road line once it opens. But the X-line Metrobuses that travel the same streets — and go farther east and west — carry more than 12,000 passengers a day.

Apparently, the line creates so much value that no one is willing to pay even a dollar to ride it, so they will not be charging for the service for now.  By the way, from the "I don't think that word means what you think it means" files, note the use of the term "revenue service":

Early plans were to charge $1 or more a ride. But now “DDOT has determined that fares will not be collected at the start of revenue service,” according to a DDOT plan dated Oct. 2.

And from the "and other than that, how was the play Mrs. Lincoln" files:

District officials said the move will solve a pair of outstanding problems: They don’t have a system in place to collect fares, and ridership is projected to be underwhelming.

Is Phoenix Light Rail Fudging Its Charts to Look Better?

I bring your attention back to this chart from this post the other day about light rail killing transit growth.


I have no evidence that this chart was deliberately manipulated, but somehow the light rail ridership bar for 2014 got exaggerated.  It certainly seems suspicious.  Light rail ridership went up from 2013 to 2014 by only about 45,000, or 0.3%.  This is negligible  We should not even see the bar move.  Note the total ridership in 2011 and 2010 when ridership fell by 86,000 but the bar lengths are almost indistinguishable.  The rail ridership looks to my eye like the bar is 7-9% longer, not 0.3% longer.  In fact, the bar for 2014 clearly goes past the halfway point between 10 and 20, despite the fact that 14.3 should be less than halfway.  In fact, the 2014 rail increase of 45,000 is graphed as visually larger than the 1.3 million decrease in busses.

Phoenix Light Rail Update: We Spent $1.4billion+ to Reduce Transit Ridership

Check this graph out from the Phoenix Metro web site.  It shows bus ridership in years past, and more recently both bus and light rail ridership.

click to enlarge


You can see a few things.  First, note that almost all the rail ridership came at the expense of bus ridership.  It  was almost a pure 1:1 substitution.  The bus ridership, even with a half year of light rail being open, was 65.7 million in 2009.  Total ridership was only 67.6 million in 2010 and 2011.  Yes there is a recession here, but of the 12 million or so in light rail ridership, at least 10-11 million of that came out of buses.  Essentially, we paid $1.4 billion in capital costs to move 10 million riders to a mode of transit that is at least an order of magnitude more expense.  Nice work.

Second, note that after over 12 years of growth, with the onset of light rail transit ridership has stagnated for 6 years.  Some of this, at least initially, is likely due to the recession but in fact recessions are supposed to spur transit ridership, not reduce it, as people look for lower cost alternatives.  There is a good explanation for this.  Because light rail is so much more expensive, the cost per rider for the entire transit system has skyrocketed.  With budgets unable to be increased this fast (and with fares covering only a tiny percentage of rail costs), the system must cut back somewhere.  Since rail can't really be cut back, bus routes are cut.

If we had seen the same growth rate from 2009 to 2014 as we had seen in the twelve years prior, we should have over 86 million trips in 2014 (note these are fiscal years, and fiscal year 2014 is already closed, so this is not partial year data).

We paid, and continue to pay (since rail must be subsidized heavily) billions of dollars to reduce transit ridership.

More Bipartisan Cronyism in Phoenix: Subsidizing Real Estate so that Future Transit Expenditures Can Be Justified

Yuk.  $14 million giveaway to developer

Last week, Phoenix City Council members approved a deal for the $82 million high-rise, mixed-use Phoenix Central Station. The development at Central Avenue and Van Buren Street will include about 475 apartments and 30,000 square feet of commercial space.

As part of the deal, Phoenix would give the developer, Smith Partners, a controversial tax-abatement incentive called a Government Property Lease Excise Tax for the tower portion of the project. The agreement allows developers to avoid paying certain taxes through deals that title their land or buildings to a government entity with an exclusive right to lease the property back.

In this case, the city already owns the land, but the developer will eventually take title over the building. The arrangement allows them to not pay property taxes for 25 years, which a city official estimates would be $600,000 to $900,000 per year based on conversations with the developer. However, the developer will make smaller lease payments back to the city, and, after eight years, pay taxes on those lease payments.

The agreement requires the developer to pay the city a portion of its revenue, which will net the city an estimated $4.4 million over the first 25 years

The difference from the $4.4 million they will actually pay and 25 years at $750,000 in property taxes is about $10 million (fudging concerns about present value and such).  I used to be OK with anything that reduced taxes for anyone, but now I have come to realize that discounting taxes for one preferred crony just raises taxes for the rest of us.  [Props to Republican Sal Deciccio for being one of two to vote against this]

Here is my guess as to what is going on here.  Phoenix paid a stupid amount of money to build a light rail line that costs orders of magnitude more money than running the same passengers in buses.  One of the justifications for this gross over-expenditure on the light rail boondoggle was that it would spur development along the line.  But it is not really doing so.  Ridership on light rail has been stagnant for years, as has been transit ridership (most of the light rail ridership gains simply cannibalized from bus service, shifting low-cost-to-serve bus riders to high-cost-to-serve train riders).

So they need to be able to show transit-related development to justify future light rail expansions.  Thus, this subsidized development along the rail line.

I will make a firm bet.  Within 5 years we will have Phoenix politicians touting this development as a result of the light rail investment with nary a mention of the $10 million additional taxpayer subsidy it received.

DC Elites Say: Get Your Car Out of My Way

via the Anti-planner:

Washington DC has proposed an anti-auto transportation plan that is ironically called “MoveDC” when its real goal is to reduce the mobility of DC residents. The plan calls for reducing auto commuting from 54 percent to no more than 25 percent of all workers in the district, while favoring transit, cycling, and walking.

This strikes me as just incredibly elitist.   There is no way the politicians and lobbyists who are writing this stuff are going to by cycling and walking or even riding a bus.  They are going to drive (or be driven).  This is about getting the hoi palloi off the roads and out of their damn way.

As Randal O'Toole points out, congestion pricing, if done correctly, could actually improve capacity, but he is skeptical it will be done correctly.

About those "Rising Transit Use" Numbers

From Randal O'Tooole

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) argues that a 0.7 percent increase in annual transit ridership in 2013 is proof that Americans want more “investments” in transit–by which the group means more federal funding. However, a close look at the actual data reveals something entirely different.

It turns out that all of the increase in transit ridership took place in New York City. New York City subway and bus ridership grew by 120 million trips in 2013; nationally, transit ridership grew by just 115 million trips. Add in New York commuter trains (Long Island Railroad and Metro North) and New York City transit ridership grew by 123 million trips, which means transit in the rest of the nation declined by 8 million trips. As the New York Timesobserves, the growth in New York City transit ridership resulted from “falling unemployment,” not major capital improvements.

Meanwhile, light-rail and bus ridership both declined in Portland, which is often considered the model for new transit investments. Light-rail ridership grew in Dallas by about 300,000 trips, but bus ridership declined by 1.7 million trips. Charlotte light rail gained 27,000 new rides in 2013, but Charlotte buses lost 476,000 rides. Declines in bus ridership offset part or all of the gains in rail ridership in Chicago, Denver, Salt Lake City, and other cities. Rail ridership declined in Albuquerque, Baltimore, Minneapolis, Sacramento, and on the San Francisco BART system, among other places.

It looks like Chris Christie was doing his part to increase transit ridership in New York.

By the way, the phenomenon of small increases in light rail use offset by large drops in bus ridership is extremely common, almost ubiquitous.  Cities build flashy prestige rail projects that cost orders of magnitude more to build and operate than bus service, and are much less flexible when the economy and commuting patterns change.  Over time, bus service has to be cut to pay the bills for light rail.  But since a given amount of money spent on buses tends to carry more than 10x the passenger miles than the same amount spent on light rail, total ridership drops even while spending rises.  That is what is going on here.

Light rail is all about politician prestige, civic pride, and crony favoritism for a few developers with land along the route.  It is not about transit sanity.

Marginal Economics Fail

How much more carbon does filling a marginal open seat on a bus produce vs. filling a marginal open seat on an airplane.  My guess is the answer rounds to zero even with a lot of decimal places.

Story here.

One Thing I Got Wrong About Obamacare

For several years I have feared that my high-deductible health insurance would be illegal.  I am a big believer in high deductible insurance.  First, it is real insurance, requiring that I pay day-to-day expenses but protecting me from catastrophic bill.  Second, it improves the health care system by providing incentives for consumers to actually price-shop services.

Well, I was wrong.  In fact, most people see to be getting higher deductibles than they want.

My only excuse is that the Obama Administration has acted for three years as if they hated high-deductible health coverage and were planning to make it go away.  Kathleen Sebelius has said on a number of occasions that it is not "real insurance" (she believes that insurance should actually be pre-paid medical care).  Seriously, here is an example of what she was saying:

At a White House briefing Tuesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said some of what passes for health insurance today is so skimpy it can't be compared to the comprehensive coverage available under the law. "Some of these folks have very high catastrophic plans that don't pay for anything unless you get hit by a bus," she said. "They're really mortgage protection, not health insurance."

She is saying this all while the policies being prepared for the exchange were exactly the kind of coverage she was speaking out against.  And she had to know -- I cannot believe a former state insurance commissioner was not looking at what policies were being prepared for the exchange.  After all, her organization made the last minute decision to hide policy pricing from the public (e.g. deleted the window shopping functionality) and this almost certainly was in response to seeing the policies being prepared for the exchange and realizing the pricing and features were not going to make people happy.

By the way, there is a certain schizophrenia here that is entirely political:  These new policies have a $10,000 deductible, but they pay 100% for condoms?    They may well be creating a combination of catastrophic insurance and pre-paid medical care that has the worst of both approaches.

Politicians lie.  But what is it about this administration that lies in ways that are inevitably going to be discovered, in just a few months?  Can they really be so focused on getting through each individual news cycle that this kind of behavior makes sense?

The Public Rail Spending Game

Kevin Drum has a very good, succinct description of how the rail (light rail, high speed rail, commuter rail) spending game works, in the context of California High Speed Rail (HSR)

As near as I can tell, the HSR authority's plan all along has been to simply ignore the law and spend the bond money on a few initial miles of track. Once that was done, no one would ever have the guts to halt the project because it would already have $9 billion sunk into it. So one way or another, the legislature would keep it on a funding drip.

It's a time-tested strategy, and it might have worked if not for a meddling judge.

Here is a great example of this from Chicago, where all they could afford at first was a single station.

I applaud Drum for opposing this boondoggle, but if he really understands this so well, I wonder why he seldom demonstrates any skepticism about other rail and mass transit projects.

Rail projects, particularly light rail projects that are being constructed or proposed in nearly every major city, are a classic example of a nominally Progressive policy that ends up hurting all the people Progressives want to help.

Bus-based mass transit is an intelligent way to help lower income people have more urban mobility.  Buses are relatively cheap and they are supremely flexible (ie they can switch routes easily).  Such urban bus systems, which like any government run function often have their problems and scandals, never-the-less can be reasonably held up as a Progressive victory.

But middle and upper class people, for whatever reason, don't like buses.  But they do like trains.  And so cities, under middle class pressure, have shifted their mass transit investment to trains.  The problem is that trains are horrendously expensive.    The first 20-mile leg of Phoenix light rail cost over $1.4 billion, which amounts to about $70,000 per daily round-trip rider.  Trains are also inflexible.  You can't shift routes and you can't sell them-- they have to follow fixed routes, which tend to match middle class commuting routes.

Because the trains are so expensive to operate, cities that adopt them quickly start cutting back on bus service to feed money to the rail beast.  As a result, even transit poster-boy cities like Portland have seen the ridership share of mass transit fall, for the simple reason that rail greatly increases the cost per rider and there is not an infinite amount of money available to transit.


Liberal Douchebag vs. Liberal Douchebag: Google Employees Invade San Francisco

This is an article a reader described as being from the "screw them all" category, and I am inclined to agree.  There are many funny bits in the piece, but I particularly liked the San Francisco lefties arguing that these new Google millionaires should act more like the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts.  LOL for sure.

Incredibly, no one asks the obvious question -- why is home supply in San Francisco treated as zero sum, such that a Google millionaire moving in by necessity kicks some  poor people out.  The reason is that no place in the country does more than San Francisco and the Bay Area to make it impossible to build new housing.  San Francisco has some unique geographic constraints but you don't hear people complaining about this in Houston (which is in fact a much larger city).  In fact, I am trying to imagine Houston complaining about too many rich people moving in.  I just can't seem to focus that image in my head.

Actually, the article does very briefly consider the supply side of the equation, but of course no one mentions government development and zoning restrictions -- its the fault of capitalist speculators!  My reader highlights this paragraph:

Though he doesn’t much care for the start-up douchebags, Redmond blames not individual tech workers for the current crisis, but property speculators and the lawmakers who have let them take advantage of their precious commodity: space. “If we had a major earthquake in San Francisco, the water mains all broke, and some guy showed up with a water truck and started selling water for $10 a gallon, people would be pissed,” he says. “That guy would be ridden out of town; he’d be attacked with sticks and pitchforks. But that’s what the real estate people are doing right now – and they’re getting away with it.”

Memo to speculators:  If I have lost all access to water and am dying of thirst, you are welcome to come to my house and sell water to me for $100 a gallon.  I promise no pitchforks at my house.

PS-  One thing I did not know is that tech companies seem to be running large private bus systems

The Google buses, which often stop in spaces supposedly reserved for public transport, are a particular point of contention. This growing fleet of unmarked luxury coaches carries some 14,000 people on their 35-mile trip from the city to Silicon Valley and back. Since the search giant introduced the buses a decade ago, Facebook, Apple, eBay and almost 40 other companies have followed suit. Each new route quickly becomes a corridor of hip clothing stores and restaurants.

This is an interesting exercise in privatization.  For riders, it certainly would be nice to have routes custom designed to match your needs (ie exactly from your origin to your destination without changing trains or busses), something that is often an issue with public transport networks.  Als0- and this is going to sound awful but it is from many public surveys and not my own point of view - these private bus networks get around the social mixing issue that turns a lot of middle class riders off on bus systems.

This is obviously expensive but I understand why some companies do it.  As someone wrote a while back, no one in their right mind would put Silicon Valley in California today if it were not already there.  It is absurdly expensive to do business in CA and it is expensive to live there as an employee.  However, tech companies have found that  a certain good called "access to San Francisco" is quite valuable to the types of young smart employees they want to hire and can overcome these negatives.  So the bus system is a way for companies to better provide this good.  The irony of the article is that as so many tech companies are selling this good (ie access to San Francisco) they may be changing the character of San Francisco in a way that makes the good less valuable over time.

Thoughts on Online Reviews, Suburban Express, and Dennis Toeppen

Apparently Dennis Toeppen likes to sue the customers of his bus company Suburban Express  (here, and previously here) with as many as 125 suits just this year in small claims court, many aimed at stifling customer criticism of the company.

This is just incredible to me.  Last year we served about 2 million customers in the parks we operate (I am guessing that is a few more than Mr. Toeppen serves).  Over the last 10 years we have served about 17 million customers.  Do you know how many I have sued?  Zero.  Do you know how many I considered suing even for a microsecond?  Zero.  Unless a customer is 6 months late on a payment that equals a measurable percentage of annual revenues, you don't sue your customers.

I know online reviews can be a mixed bag, and some people's mental state or unreasonable expectations simply do not allow them to be fair.  Get over it -- take your ego out of the equation.  For God sakes, Casablanca has 39 1-star reviews  (I always thought John Scalzi had a healthy way of dealing with this, publishing his one-star Amazon reviews on his blog from time to time.)

We get negative review from time to time.  The vast majority, while perhaps overwrought from what some might feel was a small slight, have a core of truth.  We treat all these reviews at face value, we try to track down the customers to find out more about their experience, we give out refunds and gift certificates, and then we fix things.  Our biggest problem is that we hire what seem to be perfectly normal people who turn out to be arrogant and overly-officious when dealing with customers.  This tends to come out in the form of an irritating predilection to over-enforce every trivial rule until customers' vacations are ruined.  In other words, they seem to act like Mr. Toeppen and his employees.  Negative customer comments are a treasure, as I can't be in every campground every minute of the day, and these comments are often the canary in the coal mine, letting me know we have an employee or process or training problem.

Yes, in a few circumstances we get flat out dishonest comments.  One ex-employee was so upset at being terminated that he posed as a customer, posting fake reviews about how we employed a sexual predator in some campground.  Several review sites we work with, knowing that I don't make a habit of trying to take down negative reviews, were willing to take this one down once explained.  The other sites that by policy do not take down reviews allowed me to post a comment under the review, wherein I explained the situation, and gave my office phone number and email for anyone to call if they had any concerns about the campground either before or after the visit.