Transit’s Native Habitat

Jake Anbinder had an interesting, challenging piece in The Week a couple of weeks ago about the question of whether now-lower gas prices would hurt the recent gains in transit ridership. He argued that while transit as a whole has made statistical gains over the last several years, in fact numbers have declined in many Sunbelt cities, even as some of them build out impressive new transit systems.  Jake wrote that “The key indicators for mass transit will come from those booming urban areas in the south and west of the country — cities in which people own cars, but where effective land use and transit planning have the potential to reduce the need for them.” In other words, the key test for transit in the 21st century is its ability to adapt–to conquer–an environment that’s entirely hostile to the factors that traditionally support it.

Jake’s piece got me thinking about the opposite question. If transit has been struggling in the sprawly Sunbelt, how has it been doing in the dense, walkable cities of the Northeast–cities that, though mangled by urban renewal, often retain the “good bones” that reflect the transit-dependent way they developed? In other words, if transit faces an uphill fight in its battle to seize new territories, how is it doing at defending the heartland? We all know that transit systems in major cities like Boston, New York, and Philadephia have seen a revival in recent years–in fact, Jake wrote that “The increase in New York’s subway ridership was actually larger than the net growth nationwide, as the latter statistic included decreases elsewhere in the country.” For me, the much more interesting test is how transit did in second-tier, midsize Northeastern cities–cities that are walkable and fairly dense, but much smaller and with much less traffic congestion than NYC or Boston, and that have little or no fixed-guideway transit infrastructure.

As such, I gathered up some of the same data Jake did–the American Public Transit Association‘s factbooks, covering ridership data from the years 2006-2012 (the data lags two years behind real time, so 2013 isn’t yet available). I looked into the ridership numbers from a number of transit systems in midsize Northeastern cities. Here are the results. I make no claim that this is comprehensive or that I chose systems to look at by any scientific standard–indeed, cities like Newark and Trenton are excluded in part because it’s hard to disentangle ridership on the various parts of the New Jersey Transit system. Apologies that the sheet is something of a mess; I’m keeping it open for editing when newer data becomes available. Trips are unlinked.

(you may find it easier to just look at the spreadsheet un-embedded here).

By and large, Northeastern transit has more than held its own. Of the 18 systems I looked at, only 3 lost ridership between 2006 and 2012. A few showed anemic growth, and a few made spectacular gains. Of course, we’d expect transit to gain ridership during a recession, but the growth has apparently continued even as the country slowly pulls itself out of recession (something I know to be true at least for the major systems in Upstate New York).

Here’s a crude visualization of the geography of gains and losses:

Northeast transit 2006-2012

Zoomed in on Southern New England:

southern new england transit 2006-2012

Across all 18 systems, the average growth in ridership was 11.06%–well above population growth or economic expansion (indeed, many of these cities are shrinking). To be fair, much of the additional ridership is tied up in Rochester’s 44% gain (I have no idea what happened there!), but many of the other areas more than held their own. The three metros that lost ridership–Manchester, Binghamton, and Scranton–seem to suffer from a combination of suffering economies and cultural conservatism.

Transit is still a difficult business in smaller and midsize cities. Smaller cities employ fewer of their own residents, so their geography of employment is less transit-friendly. Smaller metros are less likely to be able or willing to levy dedicated taxes or other funding streams. Weekend service is a dicey proposition financially. Smaller systems usually have lower farebox-recovery ratios than larger ones. And in general, discussions about transit tend to be dominated by bigger, flashier systems and infrastructure projects. In Connecticut, for example, the state has–justifiably–invested in bus rapid transit and better commuter and intercity rail, but has largely allowed the bus systems that feed them to deteriorate.

And yet, in many midsize Northeastern cities, transit has thrived in recent years. And in general, it’s done so without much support from state-level policymakers. Perhaps the most glaring example is right here in New York, where (among other abuses) Governor Andrew Cuomo’s 2015 budget proposes putting $150 million into suburban park-and-rides on Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road,  while keeping Upstate transit operating assistance flat (as it has been for the last five years). Keep in mind, Upstate transit leaders are asking for a modest $25 million in operating assistance in the new budget–1/6 of the amount proposed for those park & rides. The doomsday appeals coming from Upstate transit agencies have been particularly colorful this year, with Syracuse threatening to cut late night service and all service on Sundays, and CDTA (Albany/Troy/Schenectady) saying the budget places its two planned BRT-lite routes at risk.

Upstate Transit 2006-2012

Ridership growth in Upstate New York, 2006-2012

Realistically, transit in Upstate New York and in these other cities will keep plugging right along. But as the extremely modest request for additional funds from Upstate transit agencies illustrates, the success midsize-city transit has found in recent years is fragile, and hinges upon (by transit standards) extremely small amounts of money. When it comes to bang-for-taxpayer-buck, there are few transportation investments that can make as big an impact for as small a cost as helping out transit agencies in cities that are naturally conducive to walkability and transit. How much would it cost New York State to provide enough operating assistance for all Upstate transit agencies to run their key routes every ten minutes throughout the day? Flashy, important projects like NYC’s Second Avenue Subway are great. But let’s not forget the unsung heroes of transit’s success story–the little agencies fighting for scraps and still showing some spunk.