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!"


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.