Transportation Policy

Golden State Off the Rails As Mass Transit Ridership Plummets

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What do people in the world's tenth largest economy do in a severe recession? They stop taking the bus, fill up their tanks, and start driving. It's happening all over California.

The San Jose Mercury News has an entertaining story on BART defectors, solid Bay Area liberals who have given up on the Bay Area Rapid Transit system:

For three years, Veronique Selgado took BART from the East Bay to her job working for an airline at San Francisco International Airport. But she recently switched to driving because BART raised fares and upped its SFO round-trip surcharge from $3 to $8, boosting her daily trip cost to nearly $20.

"It's outrageous," Selgado said. "At what point do they stop raising the prices,  when it's $50 a day to go round-trip to work? At what point does BART stand back and say, 'People can't pay that much to commute'?"

Unfortunately for Selgado, BART fares are in fact too low. The system is so far from being self-sufficient that it required $318 million in local, state and federal tax support in 2009 [pdf].

Covering more than 100 miles and featuring a superhumanly annoying fare payment system, BART has a good claim to be California's greatest civil engineering project since the 1960s. In my experience, under very rare and narrow circumstances, BART can be a good way to get to either San Francisco or Oakland Airport. The Merc points to low gas prices to explain the drop in ridership, although San Francisco gas prices have been more or less stable for the last six months, after rising substantially in the six months before that. It's unclear whether BART's ridership decline is also reflected in ridership for San Francisco's bus-dominated (and fairly useful) Muni system, as Muni has not put out recent boardings statistics.

Even Eddie Valiant needed a toon car to crack the case.

The desertion of the riders is also taking place outside the Bay Area. Los Angeles' Metropolitan Transportation Authority reports ridership down over the last two years for all its lines except that great Valley Zephyr, the Orange Line [pdf], a bus route which runs from Warner Center to North Hollywood and, in a rare reversal of transit policy, was actually developed to service proven demand. L.A. rail boardings are way down.

Ridership is also falling sharply in Sacramento [pdf] and Orange County. I am unable to decipher this report from San Diego's Metropolitan Transit System, which is confusingly titled "MTS Third Quarter Ridership Sees Increases in 2009" but is dated April 27, 2009. This North County Times story has San Diego MTS ridership down 15 percent from 2008 to 2009.

Declining service is frequently named to explain why nobody takes mass transit—obviously because this helps make the case that the government needs to invest more. Yet several of the transit systems mentioned above are reporting improvements in on-time-performance in 2009. I take L.A. mass transit frequently and have never had a complaint—though as always, the key to transit happiness rests in taking buses and avoiding trains.

We all learned (from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? if nothing else) that the Golden State once boasted popular and successful light rail systems, which were undermined by greedy industrialists. Mass transit advocates might point to the state's continued spending on highways (three times the national average per road mile) and the various "raids" on mass transit budgets to say this kind of thing is going on right now. But this version of history always leaves out the customer. As Yogi Berra would say if he were paid to say it by a libertarian foundation, if people don't want to come out to a station, covered in flop sweat and carrying heavy packages in both hands, to wait for an inconviently scheduled train full of heavy coughers, nothing's gonna stop them.