Sunday, February 11, 2007

Bus economics and the (proposed) demise of the 28X Airport Flyer

A side issue in the entire Port Authority/transit funding debate, but why exactly is the airport bus (28X) being eliminated? Everyone seems to agree that the route is great, yet PAT thinks it must go. Why the disconnect? The answer gets to the fundamental question of whether to evaluate public transit as a public good or purely as a business.

Some background. The 28X is actually a new route by PAT standards. For decades there was no such route and it was only in 1996 that PAT created the route in the first place. Before then and likely in the future, the only way to the airport other than ones own car was a taxi or a fairly costly shuttle that ran from fewer local stops.

One of the most vocal groups to oppose the demise of the 28X are college students who say the route is a great benefit to them. Realize that a lot of students and university staff ride free under the agreements several schools have with PAT. So PAT is not getting much incremental revenue from all those buses filled with students. This gets to the issue of what incentives PAT is operating under. If a big piece of service provided to the university comes in the form of this airport service, then does Pitt get to renegotiate a lower payment to PAT if that route goes away? That would reset those incentives pretty quick. Yet PAT may be of the opinion that this service is not really part of the deal with the schools. In the original deal PAT actually forced Pitt into the deal in the first place because some of the local shuttles Pitt used to operate violated PAT's legal monopoly on public transit. Alas, I digress into a different issue that could waste paragraphs. Maybe later.

but back to the 28X... if you look at PAT's detailed scorecard of what routes should be cut you see a lot of obvious things. What metric caused the demise of the 28X? It came in last in the measurement of riders-per-mile. That really set it apart from a lot of other routes and went a long way toward putting it on the chopping block by my reading of PAT's own analysis.

This gets to a very core point of where the question of efficiency fits into the whole public transit debate. From an internal cost-benefit perspective, it makes perfect sense to measure the number of riders-per-mile of service and to use that as a metric for evaluating routes. If this were a for profit company you would have to do just that. Yet it is a little perverse that the 28X is being cut because it provides more service per rider than almost any other route. It is almost too successful as a route, or too necessary depending on how you look at it. It borders on a tautology that any long transit route would score badly by that measure. By this logic, if I were to create an ever more redundant route that only ran between Oakland and Downtown, I am sure that route would attract a fair number of riders over a relatively short distance. It would look great by the metric of riders-per-mile and be saved... all while the 28X got axed.

So let's just take PAT's numbers where they calculate a cost per rider metric for each route. The 28X comes with a score of "7" which they say equates to a range of $10.50 to $12.00 per rider. I am a little dubious that that is the marginal cost and not the average cost, but be that as it may let's take those numbers for granted. Given that the service is slated to be replaced by a private sector service at a cost of $19 per trip you still have to wonder about the entire process. The fact that a service PAT itself provides for at most $12.00 per rider is going to be replaced by a (less frequent and less extensive) private sector service that costs at least 60% more is the clearest example of how applying narrow cost-benefit analysis to a public service leads to inefficient outcomes.

And none of that begins to address workforce issues. If the airport and airport corridor is really one of the economic growth engines of the county, without bus service is it possible for low income workers to ever participate in that growth? Even if deeply discounted, they sure are not going to be taking $19 commutes to work each day. Yet, none of that is captured in PAT's internal accounting. If I were to guess, the only reason you do not see more angst among airport employers over the potential loss of employees is due to the particular circumstances of late at the airport. Right now we are at the tail end of a lot of airport employment downsizing, which has affected all jobs out there. Thus there is a very short term dynamic going on where most employers out there are not in a hiring phase. The result is that the need for the 28X in the short term is mitigated. If that were to change??

and no... I am not so naive as to believe PAT really wants to cut the 28X. It is a high visibility route across the region, much more so than a lot of more local routes. You have to believe there are routes thrown to the wind just so they can appear to be 'saved' in the end. Anyone want to bet the 28X is the first route that is retracted from the list. It will give the appearance that the entire public comment process had some superficial impact despite being predestined. In the end if the 28X is the only route to be saved it will be a very subjective, if not hypocritical, decision. The logic to save the 28X applies to most of the routes being eliminated and if the 28X should be saved there are a bunch of others that should arguably be saved before that.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Speaking on behalf of the Allegheny Conference, I'd like to applaud Chris for providing a public service by by analyzing the Port Authority from a number of perspectives. In the interest of helping the debate, I'll pass along a few more facts about the 28X and how it compares to other routes.

At $10.57 cost-per-rider, it is the 28th most expensive route in the system, at 2.5 times the system's average cost-per-rider, which is already significantly higher than the national average.

The 28X is also the 7th biggest route measured by hours of service. No other route has such high cost combined with high frequency.

The 28X has seen a 31% ridership drop over the past 4 years, making it the 22nd worst performing route over that period.

Interestingly, the very popular 61C has shown a 26% decline in ridership over the past four years. This, despite the fact the route travels through dense neighborhoods where bus commutes are relatively short and mass transit's appeal should be the greatest. The 61C's cost-per-rider ($2.49) is less than one-quarter of the 28X's.

Yet the 61C has lost more riders in the last 4 years (2,489 per day) than the 28X carries today (1,567 per day.) Some of those 61C riders no doubt have migrated to other routes like the 61A, which is carrying 235 more people today than four years ago.

Our working hypothesis is that understanding *why* those 2,500 people trips left the 61C and addressing those concerns (cleanliness, waiting time, reliability, schedule, routing, etc.) would likely serve a lot more people per day at a lower cost than maintaining other more inefficient routes in the system.

That is the sort of route analysis and restructuring the Port Authority will undertake in its Transit Development Plan to turnaround the agency. It's the sort of analysis and restructuring that should have been going on in recent years, but was never done.

Monday, February 12, 2007 1:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's a thought. Remember when Murphy closed the pools - and it got the general public to finally take notice of the city fiscal problems? Maybe cutting the 28X will solidify student engagement in the coalition to find sustainable funding after the cuts are made. (I am assuming that this is one of the few "student" routes that is slated for significant cuts...)

It's a risky move, but dire times...

Monday, February 12, 2007 1:31:00 PM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

what you are sort of saying is that the 28X is the epitome of the "Long Squiggly Line That's Killing Our Transit System". I have no reason to doubt the numbers confirm that. but there are a lot of costly things worth supporting.

I agree that the overall trend numbers are a much bigger issue to address. When you consider them in light of the fact that gas prices have been skyrocketing over that period of time, they are even more striking. Wholesale gas prices are up 70-80-90% over that period give or take. but there is also a fare increase in there as well that must be accounted for if you start asking why.

as for the pools.. many are still closed aren't they? Maybe it is declining service and amenities in the city that are pushing people out and exacerbating these transit ridership trends. To be clear, that is a question, not a statement. What people do not account for is that all these issues are linked together far more than we acknowledge.

Monday, February 12, 2007 1:48:00 PM  
Blogger Jim Russell said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

Monday, February 12, 2007 5:51:00 PM  
Blogger Jim Russell said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

Monday, February 12, 2007 6:31:00 PM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

no... I believe it would be possible for the universities to provide some service to the airport.. PAT can not get mad about someone providing a service that they choose not to.. thus Airlines Transportation company is allowed to offer such a service. its when someone tries to compete against PAT that they can try and block you.

Monday, February 12, 2007 8:00:00 PM  
Blogger Adam said...

Re the 61C: check the ridership on the 61D, 61F, 59U. Two of these are new routes and one is running more frequently. Also, outbound from Oakland at the end of the day, one never knows if one will actually manage to get on a 61C. So I (and I don't think I'm the only one) take the first available bus to Forbes and Murray and walk the rest of the way.

Re the 28X: yes it's expensive for the Port Authority but some kind of public transportation to the airport is essential. Period. I'm surprised the Allegheny Conference is taking such a narrow view of this.

Re comparing the 28X and the 61C: huh? Apples and oranges.

Monday, February 12, 2007 8:56:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ken, what relationship does the ACCD perceive between the proposed route cuts and the Transit Development Plan? Is it possible to support PAT's intent to analyze and perhaps fundamentally re-structure its route system while opposing the cost-saving measures currently on the table?

People who oppose the route cuts are worried about the long-term impact that these cuts will have on transit ridership in general. People who rely on transit can't afford to wait a year or two before their bus service is re-instated -- if they're able, they'll make big changes in the immediate near-term, whether moving, or changing jobs, or choosing alternate transportation. The fear is that once PAT gets around to restoring service, in whatever fashion, to the neighborhoods that will suffer most from these cuts, the population needs will have altered.

Is it not possible for PAT to institute efficiency measures in the near-term that don't involve cutting out service to entire neighborhoods? Reducing frequency is one possibility; altering some overlapping route patterns may be another.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007 10:50:00 AM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

I hate putting Ken on the spot since he didn't need to engage here in the first place. I suspect he is having a busy month all around. So if he can't reply here I would not hold it against him, maybe people should send him questions directly.

nonetheless, I would expand that question a bit just because it is so important. How do the Port Authority cuts fit with the Allegheny County Comprehensive Plan that has been worked on for the last couple years, or SPC's Project Region and their Long Range Plan set to be finalized in June or any other long term planning going on at the City?

Tuesday, February 13, 2007 11:27:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the feedback, which is very useful.

Re 28X: I did not say that the Allegheny Conference supported cutting the 28X. We have not taken a position on any specific route cuts, only that restructuring is necessary. All I did was to introduce additional facts re: the 28X to provide a broader context for people to make their decisions. (The Conference's full statement on the transit cuts is available at:

Re other 61C replacement routes: Hat tip to Adam for citing specific routes that function as replacement routes for the 61C. The changes in 61A, 61B, 61D, 61F, and 59U result in a net gain of 2,217 riders on those routes compared to the loss of 2,489 riders on the 61C. So far, so good. But nearly all of those riders cost at least 41% more to move than on the 61C. Were those route additions, which we've concluded are more expensive replacements for existing service, a good deployment of resources?

They do illustrate the strategy the old Port Authority undertook for many years -- trying to maintain market share (i.e., ridership) by spending more and more and more per rider to do so. It may work for awhile, whether you're talking about a transit system or an auto company. But the trend lines eventually catch up.

I know people don't like to talk about cost -- and it isn't the only consideration -- but it has to be one consideration, and a major one at that. The trick is not to design a system that provides 70 million rides a year; the trick is to provide a system that can provide 70 million rides per year at an affordable cost. What constitutes "affordable" is a values debate that needs to take place. But no matter the definition, there has to be an upper limit. And no matter where that upper limit is, there will always be people on the far side who want transit service but can't get it.

What, then, is the appropriate dollar level of public support (state and regional) for mass transit in Allegheny County and SW PA?

Finally, to respond to Andrea's question: The opportuntiy for that scenario -- reassessing the system strategically while a fiscal Band-Aid alleviates the need for deep cuts to keep the system solvent -- was in 2004, 2005, and 2006, when the Governor provided extra "flex" funding to the old Port Authority management and other agencies. The luxury of time that money afforded did not result in major changes; it simply delayed the day of reckoning and the region is now having to pay the price.

In order to have a reduced system in place by the start of the July 1 budget year, the cuts must be approved by the end of March. Why? Because under union rules, the drivers pick their summertime routes in April. I believe the Port Authority will do everything it can, given the time available, to redesign routes, merge routes, and make other changes to minimize wholesale route elimination. But if this discussion should illustrate anything, designing a transit system is no easy task, and it requires time. Time that the Port Authority does not have at its disposal at the moment.

I'm happy to continue to participate on this thread, or others. But if anybody wants to follow up offline, I can be reached at But I've always been a big believer that people can disagree without being disagreeable.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007 11:44:00 AM  
Blogger Richmond K. Turner said...

Can I just point out one little thing that I never see mentioned anywhere? You know those deals that PAT has with the universities, where one need only flash a student ID to get a free ride? It's a nice idea, but it's being abused beyond belief. I know at of at least three of my former co-workers at UPMC who registered for a single class at Pitt, got their ID, dropped the class, and have been riding for free with those IDs for several years.

I don't even know if those Pitt IDs are even current any longer. For a long time, the IDs were current and there was simply no way that they could have even been questioned about useing them. But it's been several years now, and the ID cards have probably expired. But they still use them, and nobody every notices.

Don't get me wrong. It think it's great that students can ride the busses by flashing their ID cards. It lets them live further away from the campus and encourages the use of public transit instead of filling up Oakland with student automobiles.

But there have to be some more controls on this system.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007 2:16:00 PM  
Blogger Adam said...

I hope Ken did not think I was being disagreeable (the "huh" was meant to be colloquial not antagonistic) and I am grateful for the additional information that he provides.
I do think that unless one makes cost the primary consideration then the comparison of the 28X and the 61C is inapt. The 28X serves commuters, like the 61C, but it also serves visitors to the region and local travelers. It also serves a public relations and economic development purpose that goes beyond its status as just another bus line. (Perhaps for that reason its extra cost should be borne not by PAT but by economic development agencies, the convention/visitor industry, the airport authority, and perhaps the universities and the business community.) This is more or less what I meant by my perception of the Allegheny Conference taking a "narrow" view.
I do agree that a comprehensive redesign of the public transit system (that takes cost into consideration) is in order, but as the Allegheny Conference statement points out, this is 18 to 24 months away. So perhaps another fiscal band-aid from the Rendell administration combined with reductions in frequency of routes would have been in order rather than the massive cuts proposed. As Andrea points out, once routes are "permanently" gone, people will make decisions accordingly. I would have been pleased to see the Port Authority announce a year-long process of comprehensively redesigning the system with public input.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007 4:22:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, Adam. I didn't mean to imply anything about you or Andrea, or Chris or anybody else posting on here. I was just protecting myself in case some folks decided to send me emails that were, um, somewhat less cordial than the very beneficial discussion going on here. As you might expect, I've seen a few over the past few months.

And I think Adam's analysis of the 28X are on the money (no pun intended.)

Wednesday, February 14, 2007 5:18:00 PM  
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