Tuesday, March 13, 2012

US transit ridership rises, but continues falling in Fresno

The New York Times reported yesterday that transit ridership in the US has increased drastically in the past year.

Americans took 200 million more rides last year on subways, commuter trains, light-rail systems and public buses than they did the year before, according to a new report by a leading transit association.

Americans took 10.4 billion rides on public transportation in 2011 — a billion more than they took in 2000, and the second most since 1957, according to a report being released Monday by the American Public Transportation Association.
New York Times


The NYT attributes that increase both due to falling unemployment numbers, and also rising gas prices. I agree with that those factors do play some part, but it's not the whole story. Unemployment is still quite high, by historical standards, and yet ridership is the highest it's been since the 1950's. That indicates that some people are shifting their mode of travel, even with the availability of disposable income.

Part of the reason is that the last decade saw a fair amount of investment in transit. While 2008-2012 did see service cuts and fare hikes around the country, due to massive holes in tax revenue predictions, riders were still able to enjoy a decade of expansion in transit infrastructure. In the 2000's, around the country, new buses hit the roads, light rail systems and streetcars were deployed, subways saw extensions, and commuter rail lines were restored on lines abandoned 40 years earlier.


Now, if you're thinking "hold on a second, where I live, the trains are falling apart!" then look back at what the transit system you used looked like in the 1970's when investment in transit was at an all time low. Odds are, that train you're complaining about didn't even exist, or was on the verge of being eliminated.

New York, for example, has come a very long way from looking like this

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But while most of the country DID see investment in transit over the past decade, Fresno did not. In fact, entire lines were eliminated, fares were raised, and the buses follow routes that do not reflect what the city looks like today.

From 1990 to 2010, Fresno grew from 354,202 to 494,665 and yet the transit system actually shrunk.

One might expect that at worst, ridership would grow only at the rate of population growth, and not a person more. But that's not true at all.

As the Fresno bus system has become less and less useful in meeting the transportation needs of 2012, ridership has fallen. Simply put, the routes don't connect people between where they live and where they want to go. And the routes that do exist are infrequent and don't run past 9:30pm.


So while APTA reports that ridership around the country is on the way up, their numbers show that ridership in Fresno is on a continuous downward slide.

One would expect a fall in 2009, as gas prices bottomed out and unemployment skyrocketed, but if the only factor at play were those, than ridership would be on the way up, like everywhere else. Sadly, that's not the case.

Here's a look at ridership from October 2007 to December 2011. The vertical axis indicates total rides for the month, in '000's.

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The highest ridership in 2011, March with 1,042,300 was actually lower than the lowest ridership number in 2009, which was 1,060,100 in July of that year.



Yes it's true that unemployment is still very high. As the Fresno Bee reported last week, unemployment is still at 16.9%.

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Now, while unemployment is still high, its down from 18.3% a year ago. But no spike in ridership.

So unemployment IS falling, but ridership is as well? What's going on?

The question is, how big of an impact are employment rates and gas prices on ridership? One way to see how the exact same variables influence ridership is to look how neighboring transit systems are doing.

Bakersfield (2010 pop 347,483) has shown that ridership in its system doesn't really vary at all.

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That same October 2008 spike is there, but besides that? Pretty damn steady. Down, yes, but not nearly as much.


Meanwhile, Visalia (2010 pop 124,442) has shown continuous growth in ridership on their smaller system. That same October 08 burst is there, but the system has since exceeded it by a fair margin.


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So the US, on average, has increasing ridership. Other nearby cities are increasing or holding steady.

Clearly Fresno is doing something wrong. Maybe it's time the council and the mayor acknowledges that FAX exists and actually does something to fix it?


Budgets are still tight, but FAX is sort of, you know, important. And we all know that the local government has no issue with splurging when it comes to road projects. Want to help lower unemployment? Then maintain a system that lets people get to work.

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