Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Transit Tuesday - metrics to be proud of (in the past)

Something I meant to comment on, but must have gotten distracted.

Last month there was a PG story on a Forbes article that listed Pittsburgh as one of the most commuter friendly regions in the country. The Pittsburgh profile points out a few reasons why including a high percentage of people who get to work by means other than driving.

That's great. Kind of not mentioned is that the metric used data from 2006 and 2007, mostly all of which came before the Port Authority cut so many routes. Even with some gas price induced ridership gains here, those gains pale in comparison to the increased ridership in most other major transit systems.

Bottom line, I can pretty much guarantee that we have moved down that list of most transit-friendly regions since 2006, and looking to move down even further as time goes by. Since so many routes were cut, the potential gains are proving to be that much less than what other major transit systems are experiencing right now. Where once we were ranked pretty high in transit usage, the only question at the moment is how far we have fallen. Will have to wait for some more data for answer that for sure, but that was the cost we will pay for the route cuts last year.

Don't believe that, or think it's just a marginal shift... I have taken the bus ridership trends from the American Public Transit Association which has this table of data through the 2nd quarter of 2008 and all I did was plot out the year to date percentage change in # of rides... We show up dead last by far. What's that new feature in the Post-Gazette these days??? facts that speak for themselves:

Some of the few regions that come close to our drop include yet again New Orleans and other places with some severe economic downturns of late such as Cleveland or places hard hit by the housing crunch including Los Angeles. In lots of ways we are doing ok economically compared to those places, so if you took those factors into account our transit drop off would compare even worse. Though what it means to be worse than last I am not sure.

So yes, a part of the explanation for that are the route cuts, but that is the point. Even if high gas prices gets ridership to sustain itself at where ridership was before the cuts, look at the big jumps elsewhere. Given our historically high ranking in terms of transit usage, you would think we have the potential to show some of the largest transit ridership increases. There is no reason that instead of minus 5%, we are not at plus 10% where several regions are or even greater. How much gas does 15% (-5 to +10) of 230K daily riders add up to? I bet it's enough to negate just about all other recent energy conservation efforts in the region combined and then some.


Anonymous Ken Zapinski said...

Underlying your premise is that more ridership is the appropriate goal for the Port Authority (or any transit agency.) All things being equal, the more passengers, the better. But all things are never equal.

The way the system has developed here, increasing ridership did not lower the overall cost of operations (i.e., economies of scale.) Rather, it increased the average cost per rider. So, each time the system was expanded to capture more riders, it became increasingly expensive to serve each rider.

There's no trick in designing a system that would attract 100 million riders per year (a 50% increase.) But it might cost $1 billion (or almost three times as much as the current system.) Ridership gains have to be weighed off against costs.

Right now, the Port Authority bus system is about 24% smaller than it was in August 2003, yet bus ridership is up almost 3%. Have other systems shown greater increases? Certainly. Could Pittsburgh afford the larger system it used to have? Absolutely not.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008 9:00:00 AM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

Ken, some systems have at this point seen increases up over 20% or more.. So that 3% is meaningless in the sense you use it. We did lose a lot of riders, a lot more than the 3% implies and as I point out I bet it is more in the long run. Talk to people unhappy with how crowded and infrequent their regular routes have become since the cuts. They will be moving toward cars. Just imagine how many people would have jumped from transit if downtown parking were not just so expensive, but just plain unavailable. So you are talking about trapped riders (for the moment). Bottom line, there is nothing to be proud if in the scale of the cuts. Again.. we can argue about the exact number, but 30-40K daily riders amounts to how much forgone energy savings? That isn't showing up in the cost-benefit analysis that some have narrowed this all down to.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008 9:06:00 AM  
Anonymous MH said...

As a regular rider, I'd have to agree that service quality is very low. But, at least I can go under the Allegheny instead of over it if I ever wanted to go to the North Shore without driving. (Speaking of, I've been blaming Murphy for that boondoggle. Is that stretching?)

You mention crowded buses and infrequent service, which seems true from where I sit. Most days I see dozens left on the curb because they can't fit on the bus. It probably doesn't take too many days of being late before you find other arrangements.

While I'm not opposed to transit as a temporary savings measure, the current service is simply too unpleasant to use in the long term. I put myself back on the Pitt parking waiting list immediately after turning in my parking pass.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008 9:44:00 AM  
Blogger rachel c said...

Ken, you just said that increased ridership should not be the goal of the Port Authority?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008 11:29:00 AM  
Anonymous Ken Zapinski said...

Rachel, it's a question of what we as a community want our transit system to do. A transit system designed specifically to handle daily Downtown commuters would look and operate differently than a system that is geared primarily towards providing primary transportation for transit-dependent populations.

Is a system that transports 60 million people a year, all of whom own cars and could afford to drive them, better or worse than a system that moves 20 million people a year, none of whom own cars?

Should everyone have access to public transit no matter where they live in the county? Or should service be concentrated in a few areas so that there isn't service everywhere, but where there is service, it's incredibly convenient and reliable?

I don't think there is a right or wrong answer to any of these questions. But how they are answered affects what ridership numbers would look like and how much it would cost to provide service.

And yes, as much as we might wish it were otherwise, cost is one of the necessary (and appropriate) goals that must be taken into account.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008 1:34:00 PM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

You know, as much as we have been disagreeing I would say I agree completely with the very first sentence of Ken's last comment there. FWIW. Whether that is the way the debate is being framed downtown is another matter altogether.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008 2:40:00 PM  
Anonymous Jerry said...

Ken, that seems like an odd argument. I realize you are using broad generalities, but can you please describe how your suggested scenario (the 60 million/20 million thing) would come about?

That is, what decisions could Port Authority possibly make that would result in 3x greater ridership from people who own cars over people who don't own cars?

It sort of looks like you're setting up a completely implausible situation for the sake of argument.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008 2:42:00 PM  
Blogger EdHeath said...

Or to come at this from a different direction, the Port Authority is a public agency. It is supposed to serve the public, not operate at a profit. It is supposed to achieve goals that advance the public good. So having 20 million trips of x number of people without cars is a good thing, to be sure. But the amount of pollution reduced, the amount of gas saved and traffic accidents reduced by taking 60 million trips with cars is also an unabashed public good. But you are saying the management of PAT consciously decided to develop a system that could not do both? That’s virtually criminal, especially in this time of unsteady but ultimately rising gas prices.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008 5:06:00 PM  
Anonymous MH said...

Wouldn't it be impossible to do both, at least to any great degree, without being hugely expensive. To serve people without cars, you need to go everywhere, but you can go slow and infrequently since most of those without cars don't have a great deal of choice in the matter. To reduce pollution, you need to serve commuters with cars, but you don't need to serve all of them. You can pick the low-hanging fruit first. You can get the most cost-effective gas/pollution savings by going from the densest residential neighborhoods to downtown or Oakland. But you need to do it frequently enough (and fast enough) that the bus service is competitive with driving. Using both strategies at once would take a lot of buses.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008 5:18:00 PM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

this is great discussion, but one less than obvious point I will have to dedicate it's own post to later on.. servicing the population without cars is typlically not the relatively expensive part of the equation since they are often living in dense areas. It's trying to get true commuters onto transit that requires you to provide service on less efficient, and thus more costly, routes... and as MH points out to, since they have choices you have to provide a level of service that is in some ways more attractive than driving alone which is even more expensive. Some can talk around it all they want, but there is no getting around that fundamental fact of life. If you want higher transit utilization it will indeed be more expensive than the minimalist system that many downtown want. That minimalist system would be cheap for sure but it would greatly increase residential segregation and the problems of spatial mismatch and I'll leave it at that. Those non-monetary costs never come up in the public debate.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008 6:00:00 PM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

and I would point out that we have enough of a problem with residential segretation as it is... those cuts that some think of as purely cost-effective don't realize how much worse it makes dealing with equity in both housing choice and job availability. Worse yet, the method they used to cut routes actually reinforced the patterns we have been trying to overcome. Transit is the single biggest policy tool impacting both issues.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008 6:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What is being left out of this conversation is the funding mechanisms put in place by Act 44. One of the primary "scores" is fare recovery vs. hours of revenue service. Legislatively, that seems to indicate that the debate of public good vs. environment vs. broad utilization led to valuing high density, high usage service (think East Busway All Stops) over the airport and Cranberry routes. Not to steal KZ's thunder from his website, but that right or wrong, Port Authority is being forced to design service to "score" higher and get more funding (or at least maintain its current funding).

Tuesday, September 23, 2008 7:58:00 PM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

that's a tough argument to push... that something was passed in Harrisburg it must make sense.

but I grant the practical point on funding except that a bigger weighting in the Act 44 formula is number of senior citizen passengers. So by that logic they should be designing a system to be more helpful to seniors, not looking to gut the number of stops which is by far the most important thing for elderly riders. Those extra blocks may be nothing to you and I, but mean the difference between usable and not usable for the majority of elderly with some mobility restriction.

As best I can tell there has been just about no outreach to seniors for this new route initiative they have. So I would go agree with that logic a bit if they would actually follow it across the board and not just in ways that suits this same cost minimization arguement.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008 8:19:00 PM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

I tell you what. If I ever have time and the data I will try and work through what their Act 44 revenue would be if the cuts had not happened vice the current situation. or at least I will if I could ever get PAT to give me the data I would need for that. someday. I take your word that it's less but I wonder how the different parts of the formula balance out. those lost passenger's add up to a fair bit of lost revenue I have to believe.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008 8:26:00 PM  
Anonymous ken zapinski said...

What a great conversation thread, focusing on the real issues at hand -- that designing a system requires choices: How big? How much is the community willing to pay? What should it look like?

The multiple bus stops that make transit more useful to the senior citizens as Chris notes work directly against Downtown commuters who want quick direct routes and a high level of service -- or they'll forego transit because they can. So do both, right? Then how do you pay for it?

We know how much money the Port Authority has available. And we know how much an hour of bus service costs. If you want more of those hours, how do you increase the amount of money available? And what is the impact on the rest of the system?

It's all about choices.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008 9:45:00 PM  
Blogger Cowboy Neal Cassady said...

Ken, I'm curious, do you ride the bus?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008 11:16:00 PM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

hmm.. since I know you are trying to be accommodating I won't ask why you have that data and the rest of us do not. I stopped asking the Port Authority for even simple information years ago because it just was just such a waste of time. But I was referring to the metrics that go into the Act 44 formula allocation. But I will touch base if I really get into that calculation.

The many stops/convenience tradeoff is real but isn't really an issue at hand right if indeed we are talking about costs and funding. Remember we had high transit usage. and high transit usage especially along the routes that I think have the most stops. So it may be inconvenient, but people were still choosing to ride the bus... it also has little to do with route cuts, since without the route folks have no choice to begin with.

but its a big topic. express/local routing seems like obvious answers, but of course its not that simple. Express buses that pass stops on the EBA only infuriate folks... even if its more de facto express runs because buses are filled and can't take on more passengers. I have a blog post in my head on some of the misconceptions out there on short runs.. some of which I addressed in the past on the cost inefficiencies of smaller buses that some like to think are a savior to the system. but big topics each unto themselves.

any former NY denizen's out there? Timing the express/local runs on the NYC subways was something of an art... and crucial to getting around quickly.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008 11:20:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chris, with respect to senior funding, Act 44 (and lottery funds) only provide the minimum base fare, regardless of where the seniors ride. From a fare collection POV, seniors underpay every time they ride out of zone 1.

Also, I think that Act 44 was passed AFTER PAT cut the routes, so assessing whether or not they could have gamed the system better to get more funding is a little unfair.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008 7:16:00 AM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

I'd be interested in the stats but I am pretty sure the vast majority of senior rides are pretty short. My mother is on the bus I bet 4 times a day and the revenue she generates for the 6 block trip to the store is probably a good deal for PAT.

I thought there was an overweighting for senior riders as well? no?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008 8:44:00 AM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

and the anonymous comment (not sure if its the same anonymous) brought up the connection between the funding formula and routes or system design as if one justified the other. Thus my response to question just how effective the big system change (the route cut) could have impacted formula-driven revenue. I think that is actually an important question. I really do wonder how that works out in PAT's case. Not quite a simple question since you have to work it out for other systems as well to get to a final $.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008 8:49:00 AM  
Anonymous MH said...

I don't have any data about senior rides either, but the rides I see seniors taking are very short, mostly up and down Murray in Squirrel Hill.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008 1:03:00 PM  
Blogger charlyn20 said...

I am a public transportation rider since 1995. I moved to the North Hills from Plum
Borough 2 years ago. Having ridden the HP for many years in the comfortable, smooth-riding coach buses to the tin cans of the 13A and 13B, I can't help but wonder where all the money is being spent from ridership or funds from drink tax or bail-out funds. There are buses with duct tape holding parts together, windows that won't close in 20 degree weather, doors that have gaps in them letting either the searing heat in or the freezing cold. Not to mention, the rain pouring in cracks and windows when it rains, causing puddles in the seats and on the floors. I rode on one last week that the huge grate in the back of the bus was swung open and the Port Authority actually let that bus go into service that way. There are times when the smell of either furniture polish or antifreeze is overwhelming throughout the bus. I have also ridden on buses that the drivers tell us the air conditioning is broken, but when we try to open the windows, they are locked shut and the driver won't utter a word or lift a finger to help us. And I pay $90.00 a month for a monthly Zone 2 pass for this privilege.
Now, as for service and driver customer service. Oh, wait, what driver customer service. Very few drivers are trained to work with the public. Many look like they just stepped out of the 60's or rehab and are the most miserable employees I've ever dealt with. The amount of money they make and the benefits they receive, let alone being able to retire after 25 years of service, should make for a pleasant employee. There are drivers who refuse to take the shortest route home, letting riders (the paying customers I might add)sit in a hot, smelly bus because they have a grudge or just plain hate the passengers. Some drivers don't give a crap about the buses they drive - driving them over curbs with a vengeance, or hitting every pothole they find. Perhaps if they were accountable for their equipment they are provided to do their jobs, they might save us some money by taking care of the bus like they do their own vehicles. Some of the routes are ridiculous, such as taking a so-called "Express" bus through Braunlich Drive or Corbett Court for about 5 riders that would save tons of money by eliminating, and therefore making a true "Express" bus. There are 12A's to do the short-runs to the Mall, the hospitals, or the long-term care facility off McKnight which they could incorporate from.
Talk about eliminating routes is the most ludicrous thing I've ever heard to save money. How can you save money by cutting routes? What, pack the buses with people sitting maybe on the roofs because there sure isn't enough room inside the buses now. Oh, yes, and when one breaks down, we pack the next bus with two full buses. This is really safe.....In a city where you get a ticket for not wearing a seat belt, I just don't understand how you can let 20 people stand on a bus during rush hour on a highway going 60 MPH.
The bottom line is that these drivers make more money than any other transportation system in the country from what I've read. Their legacy costs for retirees are exuberant, and the Executives make more money than God. The trick is to cut costs - tighten the belts - SERVE THE PUBLIC.

Sunday, October 26, 2008 12:58:00 PM  
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