Trainspotters: Deriving Numbers by Counting "Nonsensical," "Intellectually Dishonest"

Reviews are in for Scott Shackford and my estimate of riders on the new Expo Line light rail project in Los Angeles.

James Sinclair of the Stop and Move blog, Angie Schmitt of Streetsblog.net and commenters aplenty are panning our rail-rider head counts for three big reasons: 

"Too soon!" 

"Methodological contortion!"

"Kochs!"

In order: 

1. The too-early-to-judge complaint is one you hear all the time about rail, but curiously never about cars, movies, burgers, condominiums, software, new fashion lines, tech gadgets, or pretty much any other product that is brought to market. For all the palaver about "soft launches," "slow rollouts" and the like, your opening sales figure is almost always a good indicator of how you’re going to do over the Long Tail. That’s why they call it the "Long Tail" and not the "Long Trunk" or the "Long Opposable Thumb."

So it is with mixed emotions that I must report that when Shackford and I said our estimate was unduly charitable to the Expo Line, we were telling the truth. L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky announced that actual daily ridership was a pitiful 9,000. (I have no idea where that number’s coming from. As noted in the original story, there is no visible system for ticketing. Maybe they’re reviewing security camera footage?) 

A second problem with the "Hey, give the thing time to catch on" argument is that it doesn’t address why the builders of the train gave inflated ridership estimates in the first place. After all, if there’s some mathematical formula for how ridership grows as a line remains in place (and unlike a bus, a railroad can only remain in place), then our numbers for opening week should be fully usable. There is, of course, no such mathematical formula; like all arguments for resurrecting locomotives, this one is faith-based. The MTA's ridership statistics (woefully incomplete; more on that in a moment) certainly don't support the argument that we'll see natural growth in rail ridership as more people become aware of the Expo Line, adapt their daily commutes to it, etc. 

Finally, if we just need to wait for ridership to grow, what time frame are we talking about? Because the MTA has been cutting bus capacity at a vastly faster clip than it has been adding new train capacity.

Since 2001, total rail ridership in Los Angeles County increased at a little less than 2 percent per year. Since Silver Age rail construction began in 1985, overall mass transit use in L.A. has actually declined, and rail today moves only about a fifth of mass transit passengers in the county. Buses carry all the rest. Yet MTA cut bus service by 4 percent in 2010 and 12 percent in 2011.

One of those terminated bus lines alone, the 305, carried 3,000 people a day. If you multiply the total number of daily MTA bus riders (1,130,482) by the amount MTA has reduced its bus service in 2010 and 2011 (16 percent), you get 180,877 daily riders whose services have been eliminated while we're waiting for rail ridership to increase.

It seems to me stranding 180,000 people just to move 9,000 on the preferred mode of rich people is a step backward. 

2. Schmitt’s "methodological contortion" claim raises the important question: Is that a compliment? I figured the comical part of our "comically flawed research" was going to be that there is indeed something goofy about two grown men spending two days engaged in the low-tech business of counting people on trains and train platforms.

But that's not really what Schmitt's exercised about. "They stood at the station on two of the first several days this rail line was open and counted passengers," she writes. "Too bad that’s a nonsensical way to judge how many people will be riding the line a year from now." 

A few months ago, in "Why More People Should Ride Mass Transit," I noted a strange phenomenon of mass-transit punditry: that people’s support for and expertise about rail seem to increase in inverse proportion to their willingness to use public transportation of any kind. But even given fans’ reluctance to engage with the grimy realities of transit, I don’t understand this complaint. Is Schmitt saying it’s wrong to try and figure out how many people are riding a train by counting the number of people riding the train? (For the record, we made no calculations about future ridership, merely noted that at present rates the train can only be described as a dud.) 

Schmitt and Sinclair both point to a chart put together by The Transit Coalition that shows how the Los Angeles MTA’s Gold Line, after increasing its capacity by 60 percent in 2009, saw ridership rise by about 48 percent. (I’m comparing Novembers – 2009 and 2011.) It’s true, that’s an increase in total ridership for a line that has been plagued by disappointing ridership. The Transit Coalition shows that just prior to the capacity increase, ridership was between 20,000 and 25,000.

But here’s a funny thing: According to a 2003 Los Angeles Times article, Gold Line ridership was already 20,000 to 25,000 soon after the line opened. That means it did not grow at all over six years. According to this study by Cal State Pomona [pdf], ridership may actually have declined in the interim.

So again, what time frame are we talking about? As I have noted previously, the MTA disappeared its pre-2007 statistics, so there’s no way to make a historical survey. But Schmitt and Sinclair’s logic seems to be that ridership will remain flat and abysmally low, and then it will spike when you add new capacity (and the spike will be smaller than the capacity). That sounds like losing on every sale but making it up in volume. 

3. Sinclair says Reason’s reporting should be ignored because we’re just doing the bidding of our corporate masters at Koch Industries and Exxon Mobil. He also seems to have a less-than-healthy fixation on junk food: "That’s time wasted," Sinclair writes, "that would have been just as effectively been spent questioning the ‘all natural’ claims on bottles of soda, or the ludicrous lies sent out by Pizza Hut when they say you can get ANY pizza with ANY crust for $10 (and then charge extra for stuffed crust)... The article is an ad by an oil company, and as such, should be held to the same standard as health claims on bottles of soda and the word ‘any’ in fast food advertisements."

This is a 21st Century continuation of the Bradford C. Snell conspiracy theory (the most scholarly treatment of which can be found in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) about how L.A.’s Red Car line was wiped out by GM and Big Oil. 

But if our goal is to get more people burning gasoline on white-line-nightmare freeways, pointing out that new rail construction screws bus riders is a funny way to do it. The scrupulously "green" L.A. bus fleet runs on compressed natural gas. The MTA retired the last of its diesels in 2011. 

If transit buffs like Schmitt and Sinclair were honestly committed to getting more people to ride transit, they would acknowledge that rail sucks up resources from all other forms of transportation, resulting in demonstrably lower use of mass transit.

In the event, L.A.’s MTA has accomplished the kind of anti-transit miracle piggy oil bazillionaires can only dream of: Since 2009, it has added several billion dollars worth of rail service, and made the number of daily transit users go down by 5 percent. (The chart above right is from the MTA’s own site.) You don’t have to be an oil tycoon, a bus aficionado like me, or one of the far-left characters at the Bus Riders Union to know that that’s no way to run a railroad. 

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  • AlmightyJB||

    Al Qaeda bomber was CIA informant

    http://www.foxnews.com/us/2012.....cials-say/

  • Paul.||

    OT: Why Obama will win the next election:

    Gay marriage leaders here give Obama a pass on 'evolving' view

    "I want him to get there in a way that's smart for the issue and smart for the party," Murray said. "The last thing I want is the president to lose swing states because of this issue at this point."

    "We respect the personal journey the president is on with regards to marriage for same-sex couples and expect him to draw the same conclusion as millions of Americans who have traveled that same road, including Gov. Gregoire," said Zach Silk, campaign manager for Washington United for Marriage.

    [Emphasis mine]

    The level of delusion is nearly incomprehensible. It's like they're truly seeing beyond.

    http://seattletimes.nwsource.c....._give.html

    On topic: Tim, who took that picture of you getting your ticket from the machine?

  • Scott S.||

    It was me. I will be engaging in more comically flawed research tonight by hanging out at the Pico station to see if it gets any better use for the Lakers game. Feel free to stop by everybody and tell us how we're all wrong and stupid in person!

  • wareagle||

    agree Obama will win but you are leaving out a couple of other reasons:
    --the looter class is outpacing the productive class
    --there is ZERO appetite for actual budget cutting. Saw a story about a House bill to cut 380 billion. Over TEN YEARS. Never mind the annual budget approaches 4T. Those are not cuts, they are not even tip money.
    --a fair percentage of traditional Repub voters won't pull the trigger for a Mormon. Period. For Obama, it's addition by subtraction.

    Nope, the die has been cast and we are on the road to being Greece. The train hasn't just left the station, it is going too fast to be stopped. History will remember Obama as the man who ended the empire. Nothing of substance will happen until bottom is hit and, even then, it will be with no small amount of denial that a problem exists, as we see in Europe.

  • Paul.||

    I should have written, "yet one more reason why obama's going to win"

    It's to the point where obama could be photographed in an suv, running over a baby seal while screaming homophobic insults, driving across a UAW picket line to attend a koch fundraiser to pay for the george hw bush library... And they'd chalk it all up to his "personal journey of enlightenment".

  • Brandon||

    Don't be ridiculous. The George HW Bush library already exists at Texas A&M University.

  • Paul.||

    You're right, what was I thinking. That scenario would be totally forgivable.

  • RFID||

    History will remember Obama as the man who ended the empire.

    Putting it that way it sounds almost sympathetic. FOUR MORE YEARS!

  • scareduck||

    The level of delusion is nearly incomprehensible.

    They voted for him, no?

  • pmains||

    the ludicrous lies sent out by Pizza Hut when they say you can get ANY pizza with ANY crust for $10 (and then charge extra for stuffed crust)

    Not just lies. Ludicrous lies. When you see the ads, you will fall out of your chair laughing because it's such an outrageous and impossible promise. Of course, the laughable, unbelievable lies that no sane person would believe because they are ludicrous also require serious inquiry by a crack team of investigative reporters.

    My cake. I will have it and eat it, too.

  • MJGreen||

    Oh, so that's a thing? It read like some personal vendetta by the complainant, like he really got screwed over by Pizza Hut, is mad as hell and will not take it any more!

  • juris imprudent||

    He must've confused Round Table with Pizza Hut.

  • pmains||

    It is a personal vendetta by the complainant. I've seen the ads, and did not even find them amusingly improbable, much less ludicrous. Maybe the complainant should grab his SWAT gear and get to the bottom of this.

  • SIV||

    Entertaining and informative as always Mr Cavanaugh. I read every word. Including the links to your LA Times works on the bus auction and Bus TV.

  • The Derider||

    Your response to #2 is completely non-responsive. Gold line ridership is growing long after the line was opened. You can't predict the ridership of public transportation by frequency counts the first week.

    You also completely ignore this point: Never mind that nobody expects the line to pay for its construction costs, just like nobody expects roads to pay for themselves. Moving on.

    You can't judge public projects by the profit they return, because they aren't designed to be rent seeking. You have to look at the consumer surplus they generate. By your standard, every non-toll road ever built is a loser, because they make no money.

  • Paul.||

    "You can't
    predict the ridership of public transportation by frequency counts
    the first week."

    Fair enough. Why do hsr boosters claim they can predict ridership before they've built an inch of track?

  • ||

    More to the point, Paul, and have yet to get an answer from boondoggle proponents is: How long a time, a discrete amount of time, would be acceptable to justify expenditures for said boondoggle? A year? 90 Days? Two years? Ad infinitum?

    Without breaking windows, please.

    Also, why don't these boondoggle proponents ever suggest cutting local spending to offset the cost of these boondoggles?

    Quothe the Iron Law:

    If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority

  • Mr. FIFY||

    Hey, Derider, how about the rail system break even, at the very least? Not profit - which is a dirty word for you liberals - but make just enough to pay for its own upkeep.

    And stop using the "roads" analogy. Next thing you know, you'll be using the word "Somalia", another tired liberal fuckbucket point.

  • Rimfax||

    He acknowledged that Gold line ridership grew long after the line was opened, after capacity was raised. He also pointed out that the money spent on the Gold line has failed to service a fraction of the riders as a comparable expenditure on bus service.

    He never asserts that the line should pay for itself with fares or should be self-sustaining. He merely points out that it fails to service a fraction of the numbers of riders as a comparable investment in bus service, and that it has zero flexibility in that can only go where the rail goes.

    In his first analysis, not the above re-rebuttal, he mentions how the capital investment won't be paid of for over a century, and perhaps he shouldn't have distracted you with that triviality.

  • WarrenT||

    If it doesn't make a profit or break exactly even it is a waste of precious resources.

  • RFID||

    Never mind that nobody expects the line to pay for its construction costs, just like nobody expects roads to pay for themselves.

    Why does no one expect the line to pay for itself and/or the roads not to pay for themselves? I'd expect both of those things to happen.

  • Spartacus||

  • Peter L||

    "You also completely ignore this point: Never mind that nobody expects the line to pay for its construction costs, just like nobody expects roads to pay for themselves."

    There is always opportunity cost. I think the point the writer was making was that these trains take from the same transportation budget as busses. How many busses could have been bought with the money spent on this train?

  • wareagle||

    Tim,
    there is a much easier calculus than the thousand or so words you used: consider who the detractors are. They are folks with a vested interest in seeing projects like this succeed, despite ample historical evidence that they will not. You could have run the same report in six months and they would find fault with it. When in doubt, shoot the messenger.

  • edcoast||

    This is exactly the same crap they are pulling in Portland. From the very beginning through the current $1 billion-plus boondoggle rail line no one wants, they have reduced bus service, allowed the bus fleet to age, and continue to allow vast numbers of people to ride free on the trains (it's basically a giant honor system). Good, well-timed bus service using clean (and clean burning) equipment does far more good for far more people for far less money that any train system in the US.

  • Aresen||

    I would have to agree that your ridership estimates were wrong.

    In your original review, you said that you guessed about 13,000 riders.

    The MTA's estimates were 9,000.

    Looks like a 40% overestimate to me.

  • johnl||

    It was a fairly accurate estimate.

  • Aresen||

    I was attempting to make an ironical comment that Tim's estimate was 40% higher than the numbers provided by the MTA.

    Meaning that Schmidt's deriding of Tim's methodology was misplaced in that his estimate was more favorable to her viewpoint than the actual figures.

  • ||

    I was attempting to make an ironical comment that Tim's estimate was 40% higher than the numbers provided by the MTA.

    I'm glad you clarified that, Aresen. I looked at that and scratched my head a bit, then I got it. The way you wrote it, it appeared that you were questioning the veracity of Timmy C's numbers. Which you weren't; it just seemed a little ambiguous upon cursory glance.

  • ||

    Cavanaugh, Koch-sucker! Anything remotely related to they-who-must-not-be-named is immediately invalidated in the eyes of a left-winger. That's why Scott Walker is Satan, HSR will work in California, and outrage over the Keystone Pipeline is manufactured by corporations.

  • Sevo||

    Oh, boy! The dipshit checks in!
    The Derider|5.8.12 @ 8:02PM|#
    "Your response to #2 is completely non-responsive. Gold line ridership is growing long after the line was opened."

    Numbers, dipshit. REAL numbers. Not '100% increase' when two people get on instead of one.
    ----------------------------------
    "You can't predict the ridership of public transportation by frequency counts the first week."

    Numbers, ditpshit. Tell us *when* you'll admit it's a failure, not 'pie-in-the-sky' bullshit
    ---------------------------------
    "You also completely ignore this point: Never mind that nobody expects the line to pay for its construction costs, just like nobody expects roads to pay for themselves. Moving on."

    Oh, boy! Now we got the 'it doesn't matter what it costs' bullshit.
    Numbers, ditpshit. Tell us how much money has to be poured down that rat-hole until you accept it's a failure.
    ------------------------------------
    You can't judge public projects by the profit they return, because they aren't designed to be rent seeking. You have to look at the consumer surplus they generate. By your standard, every non-toll road ever built is a loser, because they make no money."

    Sorry. dipshit, it does matter what it costs and what it returns.
    Numbers, ditpshit. Define the "the consumer surplus they generate." and tell us when you'll admit it's a failure.
    NUMBERS, dipshit, numbers. Let's see 'em.

  • ||

    "You can't judge public projects by the profit they return, because they aren't designed to be rent seeking. You have to look at the consumer surplus they generate. By your standard, every non-toll road ever built is a loser, because they make no money."

    Well it's a great thing the city of Los Angeles has such a giant budget surplus so they can afford to run this project at a perpetually loss.

    Note how the Derider moves from the attack Tim's data collection, to arguing the importance of public transportation, to covering his ass by saying it was never intended to be profitable. Him and other leftists know this is a losing proposition but they push forward anyway because it's other people's money at stake.

  • Sevo||

    "Note how the Derider moves from the attack Tim's data collection, to arguing the importance of public transportation, to covering his ass by saying it was never intended to be profitable..."

    Without arguing profitability, s/he is simply saying it doesn't matter what it costs compared to any metric of what it delivers. S/he likes it and s/he's willing to send any amount of *your* money to get it!
    Liars of more sophistication (and liars they are, too) at least claim that 'the new sports stadium will mean X increase in business...'

  • juris imprudent||

    If it was honest it would call itself "The Deluder".

  • ||

    The Derprider. (Hat tip to heller)

  • johnl||

    I would expect a 20% drop in ridership next week as the novelty wears off.

    Scott S you might see more people tonight but it really does take time to get the people going to games informed about the new option.

  • Scott S.||

    Yup. It just so happens the Pico station serves both the Expo and the Blue line. Most everybody who got off there came from the Blue line. When I verified with one game attendee, she didn't even realize the Expo train stopped at Pico.

  • johnl||

    The Coaster has big Padres banners up and NCT runs advertisements at Petco and Fox Sports. So people know and the game trains are packed.

    Angels are playing in Petco the 19th. There is a 9:40 Surfliner out of LA that gets in just in time. Or an 8:30 that gets in early enough for you to stop in Oceanside and take the game Coaster for the full experience. Anyone interested? They can't both lose.

  • rho||

    If you cast public transportation as a means to manage urban growth, the numbers start making sense.

    Short of living in Main Street USA, where the library is next to the post office, and City Hall is next to the grocery store, urban planners think in terms of traffic corridors bringing people who live in A, B, or C into X--where X is downtown.

    Where adherents to buslines and rail fall down is that they are competing against 50+ years of city, state and federal agencies building roads to accomplish the same feat.

    If you wanted to build a successful high-speed rail project, you'd do better to send that line into a tract of attractive, but completely inaccessible and unserved landscape. In an ironic turn, a Train Track to Nowhere is probably the key to making public transportation work.

  • Paul.||

    "Short of living in Main Street USA,"

    But what about Arab street?

  • rho||

    Arab Street, home to the best falafel shops and the worst home decor shops.

  • ||

    Boy! A falafel sounds really, really good right now!

  • Sevo||

    rho|5.8.12 @ 10:04PM|#
    If you cast public transportation as a means to *MANAGE URBAN GROWTH*, the numbers start making sense."

    Fuck you and your 'management'.

  • Sevo||

    And somewhat OT:
    Reading McCullough's Truman bio. Truman graduates from high school and 'sponsors' the year book. It is dedicated to the (translated Cicero) notion that "The people's good is the highest law".
    Note the location of the apostrophe; Truman never supported that.

  • Rrabbit||

    Public transport has to pick people up where they are, and bring them to where they want to go. And it has to do that efficiently, fast, and safe.

    Trains can transport massive numbers of people, but it makes no sense to rail tracks go to nowhere. "Nowhere" can easily be served by buses.

    Many cities in other countries get public transport done fine. Many US cities are a blatant failure at it, and LA provides a prime example. The LA region has a whole bunch of airports, and the LA Metro Rail provides service to none of them. That's all you need to know.

  • Cyto||

    His point was that new highways and traffic corridors lead to urban sprawl and development. So by extension if you built a nice, high-capacity express line to the middle of nowhere you'd get development at the end of the line designed to take advantage of the given mode of transport. It's a fairly interesting take.

    I also like your point about rail going to the airport. Having lived for a while in Atlanta, the line to the airport was the only useful thing about the metro rail system. You had to get a bus transfer to go to a game at the stadium.

    Now living in South Florida I can sympathize with the crappy rail service in LA. Down here we have something called the "tri-rail". It also goes nowhere useful. It is a straight line up and down the coast that goes to none of the regional airports nor any of the sports stadiums. Business is diffuse, not centralized in high-rise buildings. With the weather in south Florida, your mode of transport had better drop you off pretty close to your destination if you are going to make regular use of it. Too hot and humid to walk far, too much rain to consistently walk far... yet the train closely follows the interstate. It is like an interstate for people who don't have cars.

  • James Sinclair||

    I just want to point out for the record that not all James Sinclairs are inclined to make such spurious accusations. Some of us honestly don't give a shit about the Kochs, and are cynical enough to assume that everything is influenced by shady billionaires. Reason's not special (in that way).

  • WarrenT||

    Yeah? What shady billionaire influences you?

  • Brandon||

    Where can I sign up for shady billionaire support?

  • WarrenT||

    No comments on either of Tim's Times articles.

    Sad. What happened to our social consciousness?

  • Sevo||

    WarrenT|5.8.12 @ 10:31PM|#
    "Sad. What happened to our social consciousness?"
    Definition, please.

  • ||

    You all have it wrong. Cavanaugh is in the pocket of Big Bus.

  • johnl||

    And the far left Bus Riders Union.

  • Mendicant Optimist||

    How many catchpoles would you find in the Withlacoochee area?

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