by James A. Bacon
Where have all the riders gone? That’s the question transit agencies are asking nationally, but nowhere more urgently than in the Washington metropolitan area. Rail and bus ridership for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) fell 6% in the fiscal year ending July 31, a decrease of 20 million trips. Ridership had been forecast to increase slightly, according to the Washington Post‘s Martin Di Caro.
The fall-off in Metro rail traffic, which tumbled 7%, is at least comprehensible. Metro has been plagued by accidents, delays, interruptions and maintenance backlogs that have left many commuters disgusted with the service. But ridership on WMATA’s bus lines declined, too, while New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and other cities with large mass-transit systems have seen falling ridership.
It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. This decade was supposed to experience a great mass transit revival as growth and development shifted back to the urban core, and as Millennials and Empty Nesters gravitated to walkable, mixed-use communities served by commuter rail. Millennials were supposedly abandoning the idea of car ownership in favor of walking, biking and transit.
Although there are plenty of theories about what’s happening, no single explanation has emerged as decisive. Ridership was down across all time periods, days of the week, and nearly all individual stations, although losses were especially severe in off-peak periods,” states one WMATA document cited in the article. Di Caro summarizes the possible explanations:
Demographic changes, the rise of telework, the proliferation of transport alternatives such as Uber or Capital Bikeshare, the economic downturn and reductions in federal spending, constant weekend track work over the past five years – all have combined with consistently poor rush hour service to drain Metrorail ridership.
Mass transit authorities across the country are focusing on the dramatic ridership gains by Uber, Lyft and other “e-dispatching taxis.” Their effect seems to be most pronounced late at night and early at morning when transit service is spottiest. But there is no research to support a conclusion that the Uber revolution is capturing millions of commuter trips.
Demographic changes should be favoring mass transit, not hurting it. So should the economy, which, though sluggish, is growing. As for Capital Bikeshare, total ridership ran about 2 million last year. Any increase in ridership could have diverted only a tiny percentage of Metro passengers.
Bacon’s bottom line: I have no explanation for the decline, which I didn’t anticipate. I have never been a transit utopian, but I thought that social and economic trends did portend at least a modest shift from single occupancy vehicles to bus and rail. Clearly, I was wrong.
What set me apart from other transit advocates was a reluctance to spend heavily to build expensive new commuter-rail facilities that had no hope from the get-go of supporting themselves financially. Private developers, not government entities, should take the risk that notoriously unreliable traffic projections would pan out.
WMATA, already facing a multibillion maintenance backlog, now must divert millions of dollars slated for critical preventive maintenance to cover the the operating the revenue deficit. The authority is staring at a vicious cycle. Less maintenance = poorer service = fewer riders and revenue. The WMATA board is considering a fare hike to help cover the revenue gap. But higher fares drives off riders as well. The deficit could surpass $150 million this year.
Until the dynamics driving mass transit ridership are better understood, it would be advisable for Virginia localities to revisit their assumptions underpinning proposed projects like Virginia Beach light rail and Richmond Bus Rapid Transit. Their ridership and revenue projections are almost certainly flawed. The same applies to toll-funded highway megaprojects, such as the $2 billion in Interstate 66 improvements. Given the precarious condition of the global economy, the fragility of the sovereign debt bubble, and the vulnerability of Virginia to cutbacks in federal spending, we need to be more disciplined than ever with our capital spending.