Irreverent and Unsolicited Advice to Transit Advocates – Part 2

Norm King
Norm King is a former city manager of three California cities and of the San Bernardino County transportation commission and has taught part-time at USC and Claremont McKenna College. He also served as past director of the Leonard Transportation Center at CSUSB

(Editor’s Note: This week Fox and Hounds is running a five part series by Norm King dealing with transportation issues based on his years of experience as a city manager and transportation consultant)

Transit Investment Up, Ridership Down

Don’t deny the decline. Accept that transit ridership is not performing anywhere near the levels projected before the transit funding surge of the past 20 years.

These disturbing trends need to be addressed up front: the increasing cost per passenger mile, decreasing passengers per mile of transit capacity, decreasing market share, decreasing overall ridership.

Metro boarding in LA County is down 10% since 2006 after spending $9 billion on new rail in past the 30 years. It’s worse in Orange County where bus transit has decreased 30% in last seven years and in the San Jose area where the Valley Transportation Authority ridership is off 23% since 2001.

Armed with the age-old wisdom – or at least practice – that if it is not working now “Do more of the same,” Metro is planning to spend $13 billion more on transit over the next 10 years.

Most people believe that transit is underfunded even though there has been a massive increase in transit spending in the past 20 years. In the largest California counties most of the transportation sales tax has been allocated to transit rather than highways. Over the past 8 years the federal Highway Trust Fund allocations to highways has been flat and non-highway allocations have increased more than 40%.

It’s not just about declining ridership. Declining ridership combined with the new transit investment has created excess capacity and greenhouse gas emissions from transit have increased per passenger mile. Assumptions about transit’s superiority over car travel in regard to greenhouse gas reduction and energy consumption have been turned on their heads.

Better mileage for autos and fewer passengers per mile of service on buses and trains means that new sedans produce less greenhouse gas and use less gasoline per passenger mile than the average transit trip. With gas mileage improving (Federal CAFÉ standards will require an average of 54.5 mpg for newer cars by 2025) it is hard to believe that transit ever again will be able to claim that on an average passenger mile basis that it is cleaner than auto trips. Yet the go-to assumption by most people, the majority of the state legislature and certainly the editorial staffs at our largest newspapers is that transit is always cleaner than the automobile.

We are overpaying to reduce greenhouse gases by investing in transit compared to less expensive alternatives. There are studies, which indicate that it costs $600 per ton to reduce greenhouse gas by new transit investment; California’s cap and trade price is around $10 per ton; a realistic world market price to reduce a ton of carbon is around $40.

California’s SB375 Sustainability Strategy depends on vastly increased transit ridership. However, declining transit ridership, increased transit cost trends and declining greenhouse gas reduction performance versus autos makes these policies highly risky and financially not possible.

Don’t ignore or rationalize the data about the poor performance of new rail infrastructure, particularly light rail. Congestion has not been reduced by increased rail investment; many passengers switch from bus to the more highly subsidized train; bus service often has been reduced; free parking at many stations has encouraged long distance commuting; ridership projections have consistently not been met; many systems are not properly maintained.

In virtually every city (about 30) which has installed new light rail or street cars in the past 25 years total transit use has declined in absolute numbers and market share. (This is also true in Portland, light rail’s shining light.) In the U.S. since 1970 transit ridership increased 45% but the transit supply (vehicle miles of service) has increased 180%. Because of over-investment in rail the number of rail passengers per mile of service has declined over the past 25 years and costs per passenger mile have increased.

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