Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Could Metro face a bus rider revolt?

So Metro's Jan-April 2005 stats came out recently, and the rail ridership is pretty healthy, but overall system ridership is down 3% and several bus routes are being cut. This drop is common in cities where previously continuous bus routes are forced to transfer to new rail lines - the extra delays incent people to find alternative transportation if possible. I came across this blurb in an email newsletter I get, and I could definitely see this happening to Metro in the future if these trends continue.

CIVIL-RIGHTS ADVOCATES SUE OVER BAY AREA RAIL TRANSIT

Low-income residents of Oakland are suing the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, charging discrimination because the commission gives most available funds to rail transit to affluent white neighborhoods while bus transit in poor minority neighborhoods are starved for funds. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) is the regional organization that distributes federal transportation funds to Bay Area transit and highway agencies.The suit points out that MTC's regional transportation plan failed to provide $700,000 for bus transit improvements in a black neighborhood, but it did fund $1.5 billion for commuter trains and $4 billion for a BART extension to San Jose. MTC's own analysis said that the unfunded bus service would have added new passengers at a cost of just 75 cents a ride, while the commuter trains would cost $26 per new ride and the BART extension would cost up to $100 per new ride. This suit resembles a suit brought by the NAACP against the Los Angeles transit agency in the 1990s. That suit forced the agency to slow or halt its rail transit plans in order to restore bus service to minority neighborhoods. More information about this suit is available at http://tinyurl.com/8otrw

For an interesting history of the Los Angeles Bus Riders' Union suit by one of the organization's leaders, see http://la.indymedia.org/news/2005/05/126280.php

(Anne also has a good post on this topic over at blogHouston)

7 Comments:

At 9:33 PM, May 25, 2005, Anonymous Richard R. Johnson said...

The 2 Metro rail lines that were submitted to FTA for New Starts money in 2004 were the southeast corridor and the near northside. Almost the entire length of both corridors can be described as minority neighborhoods. Of the other two lines working their way towards New Starts, only the Westpark line can be described as serving affluent white neighborhoods, and that would be only along the inner loop portion of the line. So I really don't see any parallel between the Oakland story and local conditions.

I think the inner city minority neighborhoods would have grounds to complain loudly about the amount of money spent on highways serving the affluent white suburbs (in fact, my professional experience related to public hearings for the future I-45 widenings is that this is a common complaint), but I don't realistically see any action resulting from this.

 
At 10:10 PM, May 25, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Actually, I see your point on the new lines. Maybe Metro learned from mistakes in LA and SF.

 
At 9:25 AM, May 26, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Although I still think they may be in trouble if bus service cuts continue instead of the huge expansion promised in the referendum.

 
At 4:01 PM, May 26, 2005, Anonymous Richard R. Johnson said...

Well there may indeed be a critical threshold beyond which additional bus service cuts could trigger backlash. In absence of an organized transit-riders advocacy group, I believe that the threshold in Houston is probably a bit further beyond what it would be in other cities.

3% is not a huge drop in ridership, and I recently heard Mayor White chalk-up some of the service cuts to issues related to fuel prices. And we've heard others give different and altogether reasonable explanations that will work in the short term. But you did raise a key point, and that is promises made. If it turns out that the planned massive bus improvements in the referendum were completely or mostly bogus, then there will be lots of trouble, and rightfully so.

 
At 8:48 AM, May 27, 2005, Anonymous Anne said...

A 3% drop in ridership is very important considering that it's the second year in a row ridership has declined.

It has Metro officials so worried that they have commissioned a study to tell them why ridership has declined:

http://www.bloghouston.net/item/798

Also, Metro doesn't count paid fare on the light rail, because it runs on an honor system with random checks for fare payment. Therefore, a declining ridership hits Metro hard in the bank account, and in fact, Metro has had to face a huge revenue shortfall for the first time ever:

http://www.publiustx.net/index.php?itemid=1631

Service cuts are not related to gas prices. Service cuts are related to Metro's debt problems due to the light rail and Metro's continuing goal of feeding bus routes to the light rail to boost ridership on the train.

http://www.chron.com/cs/CDA/ssistory.mpl/special/04/lightrail/2604402
http://www.publiustx.net/index.php?itemid=1143

 
At 11:06 AM, May 27, 2005, Anonymous Richard R. Johnson said...

Regarding the connection between service cuts and gas prices, I am merely paraphrasing what I heard Mayor White say in person a few weeks ago. As I explained, he attributed some of the service cuts to fuel prices, not all. Now I realize that just because he said so doesn't make it true, but I am inclined to accept the fact the increasing fuel costs do play a role in the ability of a transportation provider to offer service at a fixed price.

 
At 7:42 PM, May 29, 2005, Anonymous Vox UO said...

A few corrections and clarifications...

"3% drop in ridership is very important considering that it's the second year in a row ridership has declined."

Actually, this is the fourth year in a row that ridership has dropped. Systemwide boardings per day peaked at about 340k in 2000, and began declining in 2001. Now they're hovering just north of the 300k mark.

"Also, Metro doesn't count paid fare on the light rail, because it runs on an honor system with random checks for fare payment. Therefore, a declining ridership hits Metro hard in the bank account, and in fact, Metro has had to face a huge revenue shortfall for the first time ever"

Not exactly sure what you mean by this, becuase the fares collected by the automatic ticket vending machines are included in the farebox revenue ledger. However, since farebox revenue accounts for only about 15% of METRO's operating revenue, declining ridership doesn't hit them "hard" at all. Declining sales tax revenue is what really gets them.

"Service cuts are not related to gas prices. Service cuts are related to Metro's debt problems due to the light rail and Metro's continuing goal of feeding bus routes to the light rail to boost ridership on the train."

METRO is indeed taking a big hit from rising gas prices as well as rising health insurance premiums. METRO has had some success at hedging their fuel purchases, and that's helped somewhat, but overall, operating costs continue to rise.

Service cuts have been a reaction to these higher operating costs, which are primarily influenced by bus operations - the daily number of revenue hours operated by the train is miniscule in comparison to the daily number of revenue hours operated by the bus network. To say that METRO is cutting service "because of the train" is a bit misleading - the train might be part of the story, but it ain't all of it.

It should be pointed out that many of the routes that were eliminated had very poor ridership. The 70 University carried 103 passengers per day. The 84 TC Jester carried fewer riders than that. The 210 West Belt was by far METRO's worst-performing park and ride and should have been eliminated years ago. In that regard, I don't consider all of METRO's service cuts to be "bad." I do, however, believe METRO took the cuts a bit too far; the 55 Kingwood - IAH was cut after only about twelve weeks of service, before it even had a chance to build ridership, and the slow strangulation of the downtown trolleys was a huge mistake IMHO.

As far as METRO's "goal" of feeding bus routes into the train: well, of course! One of the goals of building high-capacity transit like light rail is to replace the bus lines that previously ran along the same corridor; you're basically "bundling" a bunch of bus lines into a train, which improves operating efficiency. Why would METRO (or any other transit agency in the world, for that matter) build high-capacity transit (like light rail) if they weren't going to eliminate some or all of the redundant bus lines that ran parallel to it, like the 2 Bellaire or the 4 Beechnut or the 15 Hiram Clarke or the 65 Bissonnet, etc.?

 

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