What do we make of APTA’s Ridership Numbers: Fundamental Shift or Much Ado about Nothing?

June 11, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: The Right Answer 

“It’s funny how day by day, nothing changes. But when you look back everything is different.” –Calvin & Hobbes

With great fanfare, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) announced on March 10, 2014 that overall transit ridership in 2013 was the highest since 1956. Naturally, the anti-transit crowd (plus a few neutral observers) threw torrents of cold water on this statistic, finding fault with APTA President Michael Melaniphy’s statement that “there is a fundamental shift going on in the way we move about our communities.” In Newgeography.com, Wendell Cox opined that not only was there “no fundamental shift to transit: [but] not even a shift.” Three professors from Columbia University, Cornell University and Rutgers University respectively stated in a Washington Post op ed that “the association’s numbers are deceptive, and this [APTA’s] interpretation…wrong.” Strong words, to be sure.

Some facts are in order to put APTA’s announcement in the proper perspective. Since 1920, government highway spending has undermined tax-paying, payroll meeting transit companies, contributing mightily to their demise. Other factors of course came into play, including inability to raise fares to recapitalize the streetcar infrastructure, onerous requirements to maintain streets with streetcar tracks, the Public Utility Company Holding Act of 1935, predatory strategies by General Motors and fellow travelers, cheap government-guaranteed mortgages (after WW II), and the Interstate highway system as it increasingly penetrated our nation’s downtowns (much to Eisenhower’s consternation). It should be no surprise that, by 1963, transit finally became unprofitable in the aggregate. This signified another milestone in the plummeting (at the time) prospects for transit. Transit could ultimately have become completely marginalized in the U.S., relegated to vestigial or legacy services, as private transit company after private transit company threw in the towel.

That this did not happen can be attributed to the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964 and the formation of the U.S. Department of Transportation. The UMT Act of 1964 provided funds to localities to purchase the assets of private transit companies across the country and preserve transit services that would have otherwise disappeared or been further curtailed. These acquired assets served as the foundation for preserving and expanding transit operations in many of our nation’s metropolitan areas. Transit ridership reached its nadir in 1972, before the trickle of federal monies initiated in the previous decade could begin to have any impact and help address the hemorrhage of transit riders (caused in large part by the federal government’s own policies).

Critically, research has found that even today fully 50% of Americans do not have access to transit. In order to take transit, it must exist. A recent vote to provide funds to expand transit in the Atlanta metropolitan region foundered on this very fact. Vast swaths of suburban Atlanta are bereft of transit, rendering the question moot for thousands of ‘no” voters who saw no reason to give transit additional resources when they detected no transit service at all where they lived. Never mind that those “no” voters were inextricably tied to their automobiles for even basic mobility (and they certainly did not fare well in the snow and ice catastrophe of this past winter).

While the anti-transit crowd puts much weight on the great recession as temporarily depressing auto travel while transit ridership essentially plateaued, there is growing evidence that a fundamental shift in basic attitudes and behavior toward mobility is occurring, exclusive of the economy. Much has been made about Millennials and their willingness to forego a driver’s license or even owing a car, but these may be symptoms of a larger, more momentous cross generational catharsis. The long term trend of reduced or tiny increases in vehicle miles of travel (VMT) likely points to fundamental shifts on how (and whether) people travel. One can certainly see manifestations of the concern the automobile industry has for the younger set. No auto (or light truck) commercial I’ve seen lately has a gray hair (or wrinkle) in sight. It appears that auto (and truck) commercials are exclusively targeting the 18-33 year old age group. The automobile industry knows that the grayer we get, the less we drive and the fewer autos we acquire.

Much has also been made about the 85% increase in population since 1956 suggesting that transit should have been making much greater strides than APTA is trumpeting. This point is irrelevant when you consider the tremendous resources that have been devoted to highways since 1956 compared to the relatively miniscule transit investment made over the same period. From 1956 to 2011, highways consumed 91% of available capital, while transit collected a paltry 9%. Quite a disparity, you might conclude and reason enough to easily (and rightfully) conclude that the mode with the most resources will dominate.

The primary advocate for highway building during this period, the state highway departments, now called DOT’s, have wielded overwhelming influence in determining the direction localities take. Buttressed by a federal highway program that essentially puts state DOT’s in the driver’s seat, these state agencies have dictated the terms of the transportation future. Transit was relegated to subsist on the crumbs. The Golden Rule applies here, that is, he who has the gold, certainly rules. Localities that wished to fund transit initiatives did so largely or exclusively on their own nickel. Not so for highway improvements, which state DOT’s were (and, largely, are) quite willing to fund (and that friendly federal highway program would fund some improvements with an 80 to 90% federal share). Thus localities were faced with the choice of raising the money themselves for major transit projects (with some federal funds) or choosing highway improvements that were either fully or largely funded by the state (including using federal monies from the (now-approaching bankruptcy) Highway Trust Fund). It is odd when the anti-transit crowd disparages local rail projects as a waste of money when it is clear that localities that choose to build transit do so knowing that they will bear much higher costs for transit improvements than for highway projects (and likely take much longer to implement). That they still proceed reveals that they do so because they are finding that transit offers a better long term investment to achieve true mobility and real choice.

Transit has come a long way and the progress made is truly amazing when you realize these obstacles most localities have faced and some have overcome. Hostile state DOT’s, hostile state legislatures, and exceedingly well funded lobbies at the state and federal levels intent on maintaining their place at the transportation trough have all stood in the way of transit expanding as it should.

This hostility has not melted away with the years. For example, just recently, the Indiana legislature sought to prohibit the city of Indianapolis from even placing rail alternatives in the city’s planning process. And a U. S. congressman from a district that includes parts of Houston, TX, inserted a provision in the latest federal Omnibus funding bill to prohibit the city of Houston from building light rail in his district. The Tennessee legislature adopted legislation that would require the city of Nashville, TN to secure state approval for a local BRT scheme. The Governor of Ohio withdrew previously approved state funds for the Cincinnati Streetcar in a blatant attempt to stop that project (he failed). And finally, the state of Wisconsin is doing everything in its power to stop the city of Milwaukee from building its own streetcar line. These efforts are desperate attempts to stave off change, which threatens the current order, the status quo. Transit patronage gains across the country reflect the changes that are happening in cities, large and small, across the country, in spite of those counter-forces.

No doubt, the population of the U.S. has surged since 1956, but transit spending levels necessary to provide for and sustain real alternatives to the automobile did not happen until the late 20th century. The dearth of transit spending at all levels of government that existed for at least the previous 50 years has, until recently, severely retarded transit’s ability to compete with and also complement the automobile. Furthermore, the lack of resources resulted in deferred maintenance and deferred projects, conditions that persist to this day. For critics to point out that the population of the U.S. has increased by 85% since 1956 while serving up only self-serving homilies masquerading as serious analysis as to why transit hasn’t kept pace is, frankly, inexcusable. Superficial (or lack of) analyses, cherry-picking figures and ignoring history as the axe grinders have done only solidifies their reputations as shills for a certain point of view, regardless of the facts.

The bottom line is transit has indeed reached the ridership level last achieved 57 years ago. This IS momentous. Transit has reached that decisive point where its relevance to the economic health and vitality of our metropolitan areas is apparent and increasingly accepted. We now need to move further into the 21st Century with the goal of providing true mobility and choice to all our citizens, whether they be young, old, high, medium or low income groups, in short, all strata of our society. It won’t be easy, for nothing is more powerful than the status quo, and nothing harder to dislodge. We need look only at the difficulties currently being encountered to secure long term federal transportation legislation (and long term funding) as proof. We, however, can settle for nothing less; otherwise we’ll find ourselves mired in a bleak future, bereft of smart choices of where, how, when or whether to travel.

Glen D. Bottoms serves as Executive Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation