Once in a while, a published article is so thought-provoking, or so filled with concern, that the thoughts are echoed that same day in multiple other publications. Today’s piece (October 6, 2023) in the NYTimes (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2023/11/06/business/economy/commuting-change-covid.html) about commuting triggered a spin-off in The Hill (https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/4292731-biden-funding-amtrak-northeast-corridor/) and the excellent daily post by Matt Daus. Less talked about in these articles were the implications for transit ridership – although some frightening figures about this were cited in the NYTimes piece. Reworking these thoughts for the transit and motorcoach industries, I am presenting them below.
Despite the last few tumultuous years, most Americans still commute every day. Certain phenomena like COVID-19 periodically affect key indicators – like average travel time – although as a nationwide average, the best to the worst varied only from about 19 to 22 minutes.
Related to traffic volumes, this average typically forms an hourglass-shaped curve:
- When streets begin emptying out, travel time lessens.
- When traffic decreases, more vehicles jump into the empty space (transportation planners call this phenomenon “latent demand”)
- The resulting increase then chases more vehicles back off the roadway and traffic returns to normal
But many phenomena are hidden within this pattern. Factors like housing costs in job centers increases commuter trip lengths as workers are forced to move further away. But other indicators are startling – like the decline in automobile and, particularly, transit ridership. And they portend poorly for the future of both fixed route and motorcoach service, in particular. This is especially true as these modes continue to fail to adjust to the demographic realities that so strongly affect travel behavior.
Factors and Failures
America’s worst transportation problems may be recent. But they had their roots in a century of serious mistakes, even if, in fairness, many were not foreseeable nearly that long ago. Among them:
- Compared to many countries with a fraction of our resources, America made no efforts to decrease traffic levels by creating new major cities – like Brasilia and Tel Aviv (the latter of which had recently been its nation’s capital; the former still is).
- While our urban sprawl created an escape, for many, from our crowded cities, it was not accompanied by the development and growth of nearly enough public transportation service to accommodate it, and the facilities (e.g., feeder services, park-and-ride lots, etc.) needed to support them.
- Many effective solutions – many emerging in the 1970s – largely disappeared from the landscape since. Most are rarely discussed today. Among them are feeder service, park-and-ride lots, HOV lanes, ridesharing, alternative work schedules – and transportation professionals actually designing systems (see https://transalt.com/article/making-public-transportation-work-part-3-feeder-service/; https://transalt.com/article/making-public-transportation-work-part-2-park-and-ride-lots/; https://transalt.com/article/making-public-transportation-work-part-6-high-occupancy-vehicle-lanes/; https://transalt.com/article/making-public-transportation-work-part-5-ridesharing/; https://transalt.com/article/making-public-transportation-work-part-1-alternative-work-schedules/; https://transalt.com/article/survival-and-prosperity-part-4-service-concepts/ and https://transalt.com/article/making-public-transportation-work-part-4-system-design-and-networks/).
- We made a mess of our hierarchy of modes – prioritizing energy-hogs like short-distance commercial airline flights over motorcoach service (see https://transalt.com/article/expanding-the-mode-split-dividing-line-part-1-exponential-airline-industry-corruption/).
- We failed to optimize the features of many ground transportation services that would have mode split countless single- or low-occupancy personal vehicle trips to more efficient services – features like first class compartments in transit buses and motorcoaches, subsidized fares (fares that could be covered by increases in first class fares), reduced subsidy costs (also covered by increases in first class fares (see https://transalt.com/article/survival-and-prosperity-part-1-magic-corridors/ and https://transalt.com/article/survival-and-prosperity-part-2-the-magic-coach/).
- We introduced unbridled corruption and waste into the non-emergency medical transportation (NEMT) service sector (see https://transalt.com/article/uber-and-lyft-even-worse-than-expected/ and https://transalt.com/article/defending-contractors-part-3-the-whistleblowers-song/).
- To lower costs at the expense of decreasing service quality, public agencies increasingly contracted out service to private companies and. more recently, diluted service and invited exponential corruption and waste by engaging brokers (see https://transalt.com/article/defending-contractors-part-1-lead-agencies-and-brokers/; https://transalt.com/article/defending-contractors-part-6-contracting-fixed-route-transit/ and https://transalt.com/article/defending-contractors-part-2-the-history-of-contracting-and-brokerage/).
- We allowed corrupt new services (TNCs, like Uber and Lyft) to decimate grossly-underutilized services (like taxi service) that could have combined to form an intelligent hierarchy of modes (see https://transalt.com/article/bad-regulations-and-worse-responses-part-1-introduction/; https://transalt.com/article/bad-regulations-and-worse-responses-part-2-the-rise-fall-and-transformation-of-supershuttle/; https://transalt.com/article/bad-regulations-and-worse-responses-part-3-invasion-of-the-tncs/; https://transalt.com/article/bad-regulations-and-worse-responses-part-4-judicial-heroism/; https://transalt.com/article/bad-regulations-and-worse-responses-part-5-executive-branch-responses/; https://transalt.com/article/bad-regulations-and-worse-responses-part-6-industry-and-association-responses/ and https://transalt.com/article/bad-regulations-and-worse-responses-part-7-conclusions/) .
- We squandered enormous resources on a poorly-structured, nationwide rail system (see https://transalt.com/article/covid-19-shenanigans-and-liability-part-2-making-money-by-compromising-health/ ) – a system recently awarded $66B (much of which to upgrade 100-year-old infrastructure).
- We allowed the urban and suburban backbone of our transportation system – fixed route transit and passenger rail – to waste extraordinary amounts of funding, such that many systems are in threat of soon disappearing (as they practically did in the 1960s before being rescued by former President Johnson). A few have already abandoned charging fares altogether: With such little ridership, it cost more to collect the fares than they covered.
- We failed to spread peak service demand over a broader number of hours -- despite a small arsenal of tools (fare discounts, tax incentives, etc.) that could have triggered this change (see https://transalt.com/article/making-public-transportation-work-part-1-alternative-work-schedules/).
- We dozed off for decades during which our public and private modes could and should have gradually been electrified (AMTRAK and some other passenger rail lines excluded).
- Around the edges, we allowed the operation of extraordinarily-wasteful, unneeded modes for the filthy rich --- like electric VTOL taxis to operate from helipads on skyscraper rooftops, squandering energy during take-offs and creating noise pollution for those residents and workers on the top floors.
- We subjected passengers to extraordinary risk by legitimizing dangerous services, like “party buses” (see https://transalt.com/article/the-party-bus/).
- We totally ignored any efforts to match our drivers’ sleep/wakefulness cycles to the hours they are signed to operate (see https://transalt.com/article/bio-sensitive-driver-assignment-part-i/ and https://transalt.com/article/bio-sensitive-driver-assignment-part-ii/), subjecting them to what I coined as “bus lag” (see https://transalt.com/article/bus-lag-part-1-non-driving-off-duty-and-awake-the-whole-time-on-hos-requirements/; https://transalt.com/article/bus-lag-part-2-on-duty-driving-and-sound-asleep-the-limits-of-hos-requirements/; https://transalt.com/article/bus-lag-part-3-the-invisible-log/; https://transalt.com/article/bus-lag-part-4-the-invisible-log-redux-logs-black-boxes-and-spoliation/ and https://transalt.com/article/bus-lag-part-5-skipping-the-in-between/).
- We continue to subject our most vulnerable passengers to the greatest risks (see https://transalt.com/article/safety-compromises-part-11-wheelchair-and-passenger-securement/ -- as well as failing to perform safety-related tasks that a seeing eye dog would recognize as dangerous (see https://transalt.com/article/safety-compromises-part-8-boarding-and-alighting/ and https://transalt.com/article/safety-compromises-part-5-failing-to-kneel-the-bus-or-coach/).
- We postponed improvements to the infrastructure – roadways (particularly in rural areas), bridges and tunnels – needed to support these services and permit them to operating efficiently, including those which could have operated safely at significantly higher speeds.
- And as though these failures failed to waste enough money – notwithstanding their being compounded by costly lawsuits – we continue to make efforts to eliminate drivers altogether (see https://transalt.com/article/autonomous-and-inevitable-part-1-what-is-to-come-and-what-is-already-here/; https://transalt.com/article/autonomous-and-inevitable-part-2-invasion-by-mode-small-vehicles/; https://transalt.com/article/autonomous-and-inevitable-part-3-extraordinary-developments-and-tough-choices/; https://transalt.com/article/autonomous-and-inevitable-part-4-invasion-by-mode-large-vehicles/; https://transalt.com/article/autonomous-and-inevitable-part-5-the-regulatory-environment-initial-thoughts/; https://transalt.com/article/autonomous-and-inevitable-part-6-the-transition-to-complete-autonomy/; https://transalt.com/article/autonomous-inevitable-part-7-cameras-and-sensors/; https://transalt.com/article/autonomous-and-inevitable-part-8-access-and-accountability/ and https://transalt.com/article/autonomous-and-inevitable-part-9-conclusion-the-best-of-both-worlds/).
Thought and Ignorance
Now, boys and girls, snap on those thinking caps once again, and let us try to answer the basic question this article began with: Why is transit and motorcoach ridership declining?
It is hard to imagine more stupid decision-making than what our industry has collectively churned out over the past several decades. Perhaps the term ‘hard’ is too soft. But on the brink of losing backbone services like fixed route buses, motorcoaches and taxis, it would seem impossible to recover from the cluster of mistakes identified above. Without the replacement of key missing elements, the hierarchy of modes needed to form a seamless network of services that would provide what we need is, frankly, impossible. Yet here we are.
The freedom falsely attributed to America in general effectively became the freedom to create dysfunctional and fragmented modes and services, corruption and waste. Our regulatory and legal systems have been powerless in shaping transportation services to meet our needs. Grossly unsafe practices – like the failure to secure wheelchairs – actually triggered some tantalizing, alternatives with enormous potential, like MCI’s lower-floor, ramp-equipped “vestibule coach” – the MCI D4500 CRT LE (see https://transalt.com/article/a-paradigm-shift-in-motorcoach-accessibility-part-1-the-mci-d45-crt-le-commuter-coach-2/; https://transalt.com/article/a-paradigm-shift-in-motorcoach-accessibility-part-2-the-mci-d45-crt-le-commuter-coach-2/ and https://transalt.com/article/paradigm-shift-in-motorcoach-accessibility-part-3-the-mci-d45-ctr-le-commuter-coach/). Of course, as one might expect from the countless articles cited above, hardly anyone purchased any of these vehicles. So the thought of coupling this brilliant starting point with the features of a far-more-competitive coach designed to mode split hoards of passengers away from short-distance commercial airline flights (see https://transalt.com/article/survival-and-prosperity-part-2-the-magic-coach/) was unthinkable.
Bigger and Less Flexible
One can learn a lot about a nation’s culture by examining its children’s toys. British children, in particular, often have sizeable collections of buses. One can Google hundreds of them. Here, our children do not have toy buses. They have toy cars, toy train sets and toy airplanes.
But the fascination with (or addiction to) toy trains does not stop when our children grow into large bodies. In the late 1970s, former Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley realized that he had no shot at the governorship coming from a major city without a heavy rail system. So helping to fund one by scavenging the City’s bus system, Los Angeles County built the first three of its now nearly dozen subway lines – a venture that placed the County $7B in debt. With tens of thousands of transit-dependent bus riders suddenly losing their only affordable means to travel to and from work (among other badly-needed destinations), they formed the Bus Riders Union. When this organizations reached a scale of roughly 25,000 members, the Union filed a class action lawsuit (BRU v. LACMTA (or Bus Riders Union v. Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority) to force the County to restore its bus network. The court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, and ordered the defendant LACMTA to purchase an additional THIRTY TWO HUNDRED buses. (Through a variety of shenanigans, barely more than 500 were actually purchased – alongside the continued expansion of the County’s subway system.)
So once again, should we wonder why transit ridership has been declining?
Part 2 of this short series of installments will stray from the mild abstractions noted above and focus largely on the numbers: The actual declines in ridership in a few dozen major U.S. cities in only the past few years, and their interrelationships with traffic and other dynamics which strongly affected ridership. These dynamics will be coupled with excerpts from the extensive explanations for this decline outlined in at least a decade’s worth of National Bus Trader articles cited above.
National Bus Trader cannot save the nation’s public transportation network from its self-flagellation. But perhaps it can wake up a handful of its readers. Creeping up on those readers not noticing, with more Americans working remotely, a frightening sample of ridership declines between personal automobile ridership and bus ridership should knock one out of his or her seat. As extreme example. From 2019 to 2022, automobile ridership in New York City declined by roughly 16 percent, while transit ridership (bus and passenger rail combined) declined by roughly 25 percent. But that is the City with the closest disparity in comparative ridership decline between POVs and transit. Citing just the lowlights from an eye-opening article in the NYTimes (see https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2023/11/06/business/economy/commuting-change-covid.html), during this same three-year period [beginning before COVID-19 began to affect declines in ridership to a period two years after it had waned to practically disappear):
- In Boston, automobile ridership declined by 17 percent, while transit ridership declined by 64 percent;
- In Chicago, automobile ridership declined by 24 percent, while transit ridership declined by 68 percent;
- In Miami, automobile ridership declined by 19 percent, while transit ridership declined by 74 percent;
- In Houston, automobile ridership declined by 19 percent, while transit ridership declined by 76 percent;
- In Atlanta, automobile ridership declined by 19 percent, while transit ridership declined by 82 percent;
- In Nashville, automobile ridership declined by 12 percent, while transit ridership declined by 88 percent;
- In Detroit – the “car capital” -- automobile ridership declined by 27 percent, while transit ridership declined by 91 percent.
As abstractions, these figures should panic both providers of public transportation and their passengers. But as abstractions, they miss the point. These figures have significantly, if not exponentially, more impact in context. And that context is that, even with these figures, we still experience heavy traffic. So what is being missed is that a bus with every seat filled (forget the standees) carries as many people as roughly 40 cars (with standees, even more). In other words, the decline in automobile ridership is having only a minor impact on traffic reduction. What is keeping traffic levels up is the decline in transit ridership.
As I have written about before, automobile passenger reduction strategies like ridesharing (see https://transalt.com/article/making-public-transportation-work-part-5-ridesharing) do not significantly reduce traffic. That is because we have crafted ridesharing to simply reduce the number of personal occupancy vehicles (POVs) on the roadway – at its best. More realistically, our ridesharing efforts have positioned POVs – albeit slightly more filled – to square off with, and replace, transit. As the figures of automobile (or POV) versus transit ridership declines cited above illustrate – particularly in the context of barely-noticeable decreases in traffic – reductions in automobile (or POV) ridership may actually be increasing traffic levels, because ridesharing competes with transit.
Want Versus Need
Mick Jagger famously crooned, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” In the car country, where most transit riders tend to be poor (the major fault for this lies with transit “planners”), the majority of Americans would prefer to travel in their own, small personal vehicles (the “one car ride” from origin to destination). And where traffic volumes are thick, there are no advantages to using transit: Making multiple stops, and with slower acceleration and less maneuverability, travel times by transit are longer. (Drops in the bucket like congestion pricing may have a marginal effect on this dynamic – from which the Poor will suffer far more than the Rich.) Otherwise, transit passengers cannot personalize their travel conditions nearly as well as they can in their own personal vehicles, where they can adjust their seats (and for the driver, the seat-spacing between the seatback and steering wheel in front), interior temperatures, humidity, interior lighting, and fill the areas around them with all kinds of accommodations ranging from personal food and beverages to access to other conveniences to a much greater degree than they can as transit riders. What they cannot do as individual motorists is control their vehicles’ travel speeds in the operating environment surrounding them. This can only be optimized as a societal or institutional matter (like congestion pricing among many other, more powerful tools, some of which were noted above).
One might think that, conditioned as we were growing up in the car country, driving the vehicle is also fun. But this clearly becomes less true as traffic increases and travel speeds decrease. The fact that the mass of a bus or coach makes traveling on either far more safe than traveling in a personal occupancy vehicle rarely enters the equation. Safety is almost never marketed as a transit or motorcoach benefit. Ironically, the luxuries of better car radios and increasing choices for content have been minimized by portable entertainment equipment on a motorcoach comparable or even superior to that available to a motorist (at least a seated one). The greatest achievement along these lines that ironically has not translated into more transit ridership has been the emergence of cell-phones, laptops and tablets – allowing the passenger to enjoy or otherwise take advantage of visual entertainment and/or get work done, two things a motorist can do only to a limited extent, replete with the dangerous distractions that accompany them – and limited to those moments when the POV is not moving. Transit riders have access to wifi and even charging units. Motorcoach riders can watch TV or movies on small TV-sized screens – in addition to the more-personal choices they can access on their tablets or cell-phones. Yet these obvious travel experience upgrades do not appear to have contributed to increased transit ridership – if the figures cited above reflect. The most plausible explanation for this failure is that these benefits have been so strongly offset by the range and diversity of downsides from our failure to optimize the significant number of factors that affect the use of public transportation noted above.
Failures and Consequences
Both as taxpayers and those too impoverished to quality, the numbers cited above, for even a handful of well-known cities known for their traffic, should be harrowing. At this rate, political support for public transit is likely to disappear altogether, in countless cities, in a precious few more years. But this time around – compared to the near-disappearance of transit in the late 1960s – the FTA (UMTA at the time) will not be around to rescue us. Even forgetting that people with money paid taxes in the 1960s – the top tax rate during the Eisenhower years was 92 percent, with precious few loopholes – UMTA began paying for 80 percent of the buses in 1964. When the U.S. Department of Transportation was created in 1967, UMTA was almost immediately transferred into USDOT, and began paying for a large percentage of these vehicles’ capital costs (as well as other capital costs). Yet a mere decade later, fares covered only about 50 percent of our nation’s fleets’ operating costs. By 2018, only 35 percent of these costs were covered by farebox revenue in the nation’s most efficient city’s transit system (the New York City Transportation Authority). They covered 13 percent of San Francisco’s MUNI bus fleet’s operating costs. And fares covered only nine percent of the operating costs of Los Angeles County’s combined bus and passenger rail services (see https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/09/upshot/transit-battered-by-coronavirus.html?action=click&module=Top%20Stories&pgtype=Homepage).
In terms of the declines in transit ridership cited above, combined with the dramatic decreases in the percentage of operating costs covered by fare revenue, why should we expect transit to even survive? What percentage of our transit bus fleets’ costs will taxpayers soon need to pony over to restore our fleets to a level of only four years ago? Ninety-five percent? Ninety-seven percent? Ninety-eight percent? Or, like music, must transit service become free for it to survive? For those in need, is transit service more important than food? Clean water? Heating? As we continue to fritter away our bounty mistake by mistake, how much will the taxpayers who actually pay taxes (clue: few with any real money) be willing to pay for buses – particularly as they will be used more and more by poorer and poorer passengers, and as they become emptier and emptier (and, as electrified, more and more costly to construct)?
Even for the minority of Americans concerned about the environment, vehicles – including personal automobiles – are increasingly consuming less and less energy compared to buildings and other infrastructure. A salient example is New York City – an example employed, once again, because its transit system recovers the nation’s highest percentage of its costs from the farebox. But NYC also has the nation’s most dense volume of buildings per square foot. One recent estimate about which I was told was that the energy needed to heat, cool and provide energy for NYC’s mass of skyscrapers and other mostly-tall buildings is four or five times the energy needed to propel its bumper-to-bumper traffic. One City official told me that no affordable number of wind turbines and solar panels could possible provide for these energy needs – especially as more and more taller and taller buildings continue to be erected, despite vacancy rates declining noticeably (offset partly by more and more of them being occupied by the City’s 120,000 otherwise homeless residents).
Obvious Solutions, Obvious Blame
Perhaps not as troubling as the overall essence of problems overviewed above, some of the most brilliant pro-transit and pro-motorcoach solutions have gone unpublished and unspread. During the four years during which I served as a teaching assistance and, then, an instructor in a graduate course titled “Transportation” in the George Washington University’s school of engineer, the brilliant professor in charge – Dr. Joseph Foa, not even a transportation expert – suggested that, to discourage single occupancy vehicle commuting, fees in parking lots should be “scaled.” For example, in Today’s Manhattan, where downtown and mid-town parking fees can reach nearly $100 a day (and more than 90 minutes’ worth often exceed $60), an example of scaling might involve:
- Parking fees for cars driven in by single driver might be $125.
- Parking fees for cars containing two passengers might be $60.
- Parking fees for cars containing three passengers might be $25.
- Parking fees for cars containing four passenger could be nothing.
Revenue lost (if any) by parking garages cost be subsidized. Otherwise, the costs could be shared by the vehicles’ occupants – where these costs would be almost trivial. Sure, the ridesharing that such policies would induce could indeed compete with transit. But just as often – and far more so if some of the other measures discussed above were added to the equation – such an approach would almost surely increase transit and motorcoach ridership. But this cannot be the only new idea in the universe (and it was proposed 50 years ago). Where are the others?
Consolidating all these thoughts – particularly the figures of declining transit ridership throughout the country and the decreasing percentage of transit operating costs covered by those individuals who use this mode – the reality is that the only solution is to encourage travel by larger and larger vehicles, not smaller and smaller ones. Simple arithmetic renders this conclusion unavoidable. If we fail, our cities will begin to fail.
It has been fun being a magazine writer (among other things). But if I turn into a mere historian, I will manage. I own a car and a truck. I live and work in a huge house in the NYC countryside. I do not have to commute. And almost everything and anything can now be delivered. But those less fortunate should begin worrying. So too should transit officials and motorcoach manufacturers, owners, mechanics and drivers. So too should taxpayers in all but the top sliver of those too rich to pay any taxes, too clever to miss the cornucopia of loopholes, and too slick to be held accountable for circumventing the rules that apply to almost everyone else.
Just wait for the next installment when I discuss the numbers cited above at greater length. Does a three-year decline in transit ridership of 91 percent -- in the nation’s car capital – trouble anyone? It might be helpful if it did. Perhaps with artificial intelligence and 3-D printers, affordable magic carpets may not be far behind. But I would not bet my last dollar on such technology. Even if Elon Musk is able to colonize the moon, the rest of us will have to cope with the problems here on Earth. Earth-to-moon travel costs are likely to lie beyond reach for most of us. And forget the costs of constructing the infrastructure needed to make living “up there” essential – despite the lower energy costs associated with far less gravity that could make vehicle travel cheaper.
When one considers the hard evidence of these problems and their dynamics, much less the cost of reversing them if that were even possible – and coupled with the costs needed to reverse our global melting and burning (the GMB), the future looks dim, literally and figuratively. Perhaps this is why hardly anyone even discusses most of these things.
As a well-known cartoonist (Charles Schulz) once wrote in Peanuts, “We have seen the enemy, and it is us.”
Or as three songwriters (Herb Ellis, Johnny Frigo and Lou Carter) put it:
Smooth Road, Clear Night
Oh lucky me, I suddenly saw the Light
I’m turning back away from all this trouble
I can see the Detour Ahead