Colorado Springs, CO, April 12, 2017 – When it comes to urban mass transportation, all you economists, toss out all your usual rules and conclusions. Public transportation, as an economic subject, is perplexing, irrational, and downright stubborn. With WMATA’s current budget crisis, most in the public transit field might be excused for yawning and saying, “So what else is new?”
Item: Empty appearing buses often bring in more revenue than full appearing buses. Studies have placed “ankle counters” in the forward stepwells and provided this information to transit operators. Peak hour Bus A travels to its farthest most point during the am rush hour, empty, ready to fully load suburbanites bound for the city. Motorists see the full bus on its way to town and applaud their “successful” bus company. Bus B travels all day long across town during off-peak hours. It appears to be mostly empty. Except, as the passenger counters revealed, what occurred with Bus B was three riders on, two, off; one on, two off; five on, six off, and so on throughout the day. Added up, Bus B carried far more passengers than Bus A.
Item: Transit authorities typically recover twenty percent (some more, some less) of their operating costs through the farebox. Because, transit recovers such a small proportion of its operating budget (and none of its capital budget) through the farebox, and since most municipalities would like more people on transit to alleviate traffic congestion, the industry ran a free fare experiment in Denver many years ago. Not only did they not gain more riders, they gained fewer riders. It seems that unless people pay for a service they no longer consider it valuable. An interesting quirk on our spending motivations!
Item: Transit, to be a desirable choice for riders, must be frequent and convenient. As revenues dwindle for transit operators, they inevitably cut service frequencies to stop the loss of money. This begins a downward spiral: less frequent service means less dependability for riders, and fewer riders as they opt for more convenient forms of transportation such as carpools and driving into town solo.
Item: Buses, which have a shorter life-span than trains, must be replaced as one transit manager used to say, “as you would replace your socks.” If you wait until they are all the same age, it’s already too late. Operators end up with old, broken down buses that are undependable, with high maintenance costs and increased rider dissatisfaction. When new buses are introduced into any system, there are concomitant re-tooling costs associated with the new equipment. You guessed: even adding new equipment can increase maintenance costs, at least in the short run.
Item: Economic analysts like to point to private transit operators as “the way to go.” However, when one looks at private transit’s claims of financial solvency, they overlook all the attendant statistics. Perhaps the private carriers are using retired school teachers as drivers resulting in dismal safety records. Perhaps the private carriers, who typically fill in where public transit cannot, provide only peak service on highly dense routes. If public transportation could operate that way, at will, to congested areas only during high peak hours only, they, too might show higher revenues. Here it is a case of “figures don’t lie, but liars can figure.”
Fact is, no public transportation operator operates at a profit. Ever. The privates may claim to, but when one views their actual service locations and times, one learns they merely are picking the ripest fruit, leaving others transportation-less. (Assuming the private carrier is the only one in the area.)
Yes, WMATA and others have a budget crisis on their hands. No, they did not “replace their socks,” er, their rail cars, with systematic regularity. And yes, tough ongoing budgetary decisions understandably over the years have not been made. Needed replacements and routine maintenance clearly have not taken place. However, as one follows WMATA’s current budget troubles, one would do well to understand that there is far more to transit economics than the simple, ‘normal’ rules of supply and demand.
One last thought: WMATA, unlike any other operator in the country, must operate within three separate state jurisdictions. That means, for them, three different sets of politicians, three separate state budgets, the complexities of serving the nation’s capital, and maintaining its budget.
Someone once said that Ginger Rogers could do everything on the dance floor that her famous dance partner Fred Astaire could do, except she did it all backwards and in heels. Similarly, transit can simulate a business in every way that private enterprises do, except transit must do it all with uncommon mandates, expectations, and complexities unique to the industry.
WMATA, you’re not off the hook. You must repair and rejuvenate what once was the best transit system in America.
Washington Metro riders and voters: You must work with your elected leaders to facilitate WMATA’s renaissance. Not to work together, understanding transit’s economic realities, only will result in an eroded and less attractive urban area. Washington and metropolitan Virginia and Maryland all count on WMATA as the glue that holds the region together.
Now, everyone, get busy!