Vanishing Automobile update #58
Rail Disasters Continue Through 2004
1 February 2006
Twin Cities transit ridership declined by 8 percent in 2004 thanks to the opening of a new light-rail line. This is only one of the many cities with rail transit that suffered transit ridership declines in 2004, according to the 2004 National Transit Database recently published by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA).
Here is a brief review of the nation's rail transit systems, also summarized in the table below:
- Atlanta gained bus riders in 2004, but lost more rail riders for a net ridership decline of nearly 1 percent.
- Baltimore gained bus riders but lost both light-rail and heavy-rail riders, for a net ridership increase of 1 percent.
- Boston, which Rail Disasters 2005 found to be one of the few rail success stories, continued to succeed with a 15-percent gain in overall ridership, including gains in all modes except commuter rail.
- Buffalo lost 3 percent of its bus riders and 6 percent of its light-rail riders, even as driving increased by more than 1 percent.
- Chicago managed to increase ridership on its previously declining bus system by nearly 1 percent, but lost almost as many rail riders as it gained bus riders. The result was a net increase of less than 0.1 percent, compared with a 3-percent increase in driving.
- Cleveland saw falls in both bus and rail ridership.
- Dallas-Ft. Worth bus ridership increased by 2 percent, but light-rail ridership declined by nearly 4 percent, for a net transit ridership growth of less than 2 percent compared with a 4-percent increase in driving. Commuter-rail ridership grew, but its numbers remain insignificant.
- Denver reported a 6-percent increase in bus ridership but a 6-percent decline in light-rail ridership, partly because the existing light-rail line was shut down for a short time while work progressed on a new line.
- Houston opened a new light-rail line to great fanfare and the crashing of many automobiles. While Houston transit carried a few more trips in 2004 than in 2003 -- partly due to the Superbowl -- the system lost more than 5 percent of its riders since 2001.
- Los Angeles increased its light-rail mileage by 33 percent, but picked up only 3 percent more light-rail riders. Bus ridership fell by more than 5 percent, for an overall loss in transit ridership of more than 4 percent.
- Miami-Ft. Lauderdale transit ridership increased by 12.5 percent. While all forms of transit grew, buses accounted for 80 percent of the growth, growing much faster than commuter- or heavy-rail.
- Minneapolis-St. Paul's new Hiawatha light-rail line went so far over budget that the transit agency cut bus service and asked drivers to accept reduced health benefits, which led to a short strike. The result was an 8-percent loss of transit riders.
- New Orleans opened a new tourist-oriented streetcar line, increasing its streetcar ridership by 41 percent. But it lost 16.5 percent of its bus riders (remember, this is the year before Katrina), for a net ridership loss of more than 10 percent.
- New York subways gain nearly 4 percent more riders, but buses lost 1 percent for a net ridership gain of 1.7 percent. Driving increased by 2.7 percent.
- Philadelphia enjoyed a 5-percent gain in bus ridership and a 2.5-percent gain in rail ridership for a net increase of nearly 4 percent.
- Pittsburgh transit continued to decline. Despite an increase in light-rail miles, rail ridership fell by 7 percent and bus ridership by 3 percent.
- Portland, aka Mecca, was a wash: It expanded its light-rail miles by 14 percent, but it lost a bus rider for almost every new rail rider, gaining a pathetically small 0.03 percent for the year. Driving increased more than 5 percent.
- Sacramento opened a new light-rail line, increasing its rail mileage more than 40 percent and adding 24 percent more rail riders while losing many of its bus riders. The result was a net gain of 6 percent.
- Salt Lake City rail ridership grew by 2 percent, but the Transit Database says bus ridership fell by 26 percent. However, the FTA calls this "questionable"; according to the American Public Transportation Association, Salt Lake bus ridership also grew by 2 percent. Driving grew by 5.4 percent.
- San Diego, the other big success story in Rail Disasters 2005, did poorly in 2004: rail ridership increased by 5 percent, but bus ridership fell by 10 percent, for a net loss of 5.5 percent. Driving increased by 3 percent.
- San Francisco-Oakland had mixed results: a 5-percent increase in Muni light-rail ridership, a 4-percent increase in BART ridership, but bus and commuter-rail ridership both declined because, some say, the region has neglected its bus systems as it spent billions on BART. Still, overall ridership grew slightly faster than driving.
- San Jose transit continued its downward spiral due to rail-related financial problems. Rail ridership fell 10 percent and bus ridership 16 percent for a net loss of 15 percent and a cumulative loss since 2001 of 32 percent. San Jose's transit agency plans to ask voters for another tax increase for more rail construction, but at the rate things are going there won't be anyone left to ride it.
- Seattle-Tacoma's transit ridership grew by 5.5 percent. The region nearly doubled its miles of commuter rail service and opened a light-rail (really a streetcar) line in Tacoma, but nearly four out of five new riders took the bus.
- St. Louis transit continued to decline despite being once upheld as a model of light-rail success. Rail ridership fell by more than 2 percent, bus by nearly 1 percent, for a net loss of 1.2 percent. Driving, meanwhile, grew by nearly 4 percent.
- Washington DC gained 2 percent more transit riders compared with a 1.7 percent increase in driving. Maryland increased its commuter rail miles by 22 percent to get 6 percent more riders. More important, DC subway ridership grew by 3 percent, while bus ridership remained flat.
Growth in Bus, Rail, & Total Transit Ridership and Driving, 2004 vs. 2003
Bus Rail Total Driving
Atlanta 1.9% -3.9% -0.9% 24.5% *
Baltimore 3.5% -9.6% 1.1% 0.5%
Boston 10.1% 16.8% 14.6% 1.9%
Buffalo -3.0% -6.5% -3.9% 1.2%
Chicago 0.9% -1.0% 0.1% 3.1%
Cleveland -2.2% -6.5% -3.0% 1.9%
Dallas-Ft. Worth 2.1% 0.5% 1.8% 3.9%
Denver 6.3% -5.7% 4.7% 4.6%
Houston -3.1% 2.8% -1.6%
Los Angeles -5.2% 2.8% -4.3% 1.3%
Miami-Ft. Lauderdale 12.5% 12.8% 12.5% 8.7%
Minneapolis-St. Paul -12.5% -8.4% 0.5%
New Orleans -16.5% 40.7% -10.1% -3.1%
New York -0.9% 3.4% 1.7% 2.7%
Philadelphia 4.9% 2.3% 3.8% 2.8%
Pittsburgh -2.7% -7.0% -3.1% -0.2%
Portland -0.5% 1.2% 0.0% 5.4%
Sacramento -1.9% 24.4% 5.8% 1.7%
Salt Lake City 2.2% 2.1% 2.2% 5.4%
San Diego -10.0% 5.4% -5.5% 3.1%
San Francisco-Oakland -1.0% 4.3% 0.9% 0.4%
San Jose -16.1% -9.6% -15.1% -4.7%
Seattle-Tacoma 4.3% 185.0% 5.5% 4.0%
St. Louis -0.7% -2.3% -1.2% 3.7%
Washington 0.4% 3.2% 2.0% 1.7%
Number that grew 11 16 14 21
* Atlanta's large growth in driving is partly because the Georgia Department of Transportation's redefined the Atlanta urbanized area to include 72 percent more land.
In short, of the twenty-five rail cities considered here, only eleven increased both rail ridership and overall transit ridership -- and in Houston's case it was only because of the distortion caused by the Superbowl. Three more gained transit riders but lost rail riders. The remainder lost transit riders.
So, where has rail transit been a success? If "success" is defined as all forms of rail ridership are growing and transit's share of travel is growing relative to the automobile, then seven regions have successful rail transit systems: Boston, Miami, Philadelphia, Sacramento, San Francisco-Oakland, Seattle, and Washington. Actually, Boston doesn't quite qualify because its commuter rail lost riders, but its light- and heavy-rail gains were so large that I include it anyway.
Of these seven regions, Seattle and Miami successes are due mainly to their bus systems. Sacramento's share only grew because it opened a new rail line; in the four previous years, transit's share shrank. The other four successes successes all have dense inner-city populations and job centers. This suggests that rail is not going to do much good in regions such as Phoenix and Charlotte, where population densities are low and jobs are decentralized.
You can download the National Transit Database in three different ways. First is an easy-to-read file format that is difficult to manipulate. Second is an easy-to-manipulate format that is difficult to read. Or you can download profiles for individual transit agencies.
Because the above data files are unwieldy, I have created a half-megabyte Excel spreadsheet summarizing the 2004 data including ridership, passenger miles, operating costs, capital costs, fares, vehicle miles, and vehicle hours for every mode of transit and transit agency. The file also sums ridership data by mode for each of the 100 largest urbanized areas and includes the amount of driving in each urban area from the 2004 Highway Statistics.
If you have a copy of Rail Disasters 2005 and want to see the charts updated to 2004, you can download an 800-kilobyte spreadsheet with updated data and charts. The spreadsheet notes and corrects a few places where 2004 data are not consistent with prior-year data.
Please feel free to forward or reprint this article with appropriate citation.
| Vanishing Automobile