Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Recessions Hurt Transit

TOLurker asks several involved questions. I will use these spaces to address them.

I said; transit saw its’ highest usage in 40 years at exactly the same time gasoline was at its’ lowest inflation adjusted price ever. Real transit advocates should be pushing for cheap gas but their emotional desire to punish autos in a misguided belief in a zero sum game and will instead continue to shoot themselves in the foot.”

TOLurker asks; Why? Could this be directly a cause of a booming economy and more commuters, rather than low gas prices directly equals an increase in the number of transit users?

Acouple things come to play. People can only afford effective transit in good economic times. A recession is a qquadruple threat to transit. First as you note, fewer users. This means the same fixed costs and reduced incremental revenues. The 11th rider on a bus is nearly free to service, their incremental fare no matter how small is still above the average of the original 10 riders. Second, People don't have either thee time or money to utilize transit unless there is a good economy. Third, for the same reasons taxpayers are less willing to tolerate the extremely high expenses and inequitable provison of transit when they feel a squeeze. Finally, transit is slow and resistant to reducing costs thus a spiral of reduced services hetrodynes into reduced ridership and the cycle reinforces.

Higher -energy- prices are also a variable cost of transit provision. Since transit users pay none of the capital costs and a fraction of the operating costs, 1.4th to 3/5ths generally, a rise in energy costs disproportionally squeezes transit prices. On a cost basis transit and POV are a wash but that isn't the problem here. A 20% incrrease in fuel costs for a POV is something like a 5% increase in out of pocket costs but if passed on a 20% increase in transit energy costs would be a 15% increase in fares if actually passed on as increases. Transit being extremely elastic vice POV the 155 is usually delayed an rather expressed in delayed expenditures, reduced service, etc.

Hopefully this will stimulate the discussion. It is by no means pontification or tablets from the mount just my resonable take on asubject I know a lot about.


Anonymous said...

OK, Thanks Robert, so in this instance the pro-public-transit should really be promoting a good economy in conjunction with low oil prices for maximizing transit usage. B///ut I'm still waiting on the other 7 (particularly the 8th one :) )

(I really need more squirrels ripping shingles off my roof and causing roof leaks so I have a good reason to stay at home (waiting for the roofer) and catch up on the threads... ;-P )

Rob Dawg said...

Patience. You want quality or quantity?

Bob said...

On your first point -
from 40 years ago forward, can you correlate low gas prices/positive economic environment with public transit ridership/investment? I just think declining ridership has to do with the disappearance of public transit systems in former industrial cities (e.g. Rochester, NY) over that period. Or maybe I misunderstood the point altogether.

Rob Dawg said...

Lex, this is another variant on the GM killed the streetcar conspiracy. No, transit declines precede service cuts nearly all the time. Ridership is in a generalized decline except for a blip in WW-II and a reporting artifact in the 1990s.

I don't see what gas prices have todo with anything unless youare using it as substitute for mobility costs. On that level the cost of POV travel has been falling fairly steadily for the last 40 years while the costs of transit have risen a lot.

Bob said...


"...transit declines precede service cuts nearly all the time."

I agree -- that's exactly what happened in Rochester, e.g., and for that matter, with the companies that provided rail service into NYC.

As to the rest of it, it appears that you see mass transit ridership and investment positively correlated with good economic times and low energy costs. I'll agree that governments need "disposable income" to make mass transit work; I don't think the elected officials or the NGAs responsible for divvying up the transit $ look at it that way. Looking at the last federal transportation bill and and the state variants here in the Northeast, the die has been cast that transit money is going for public, not POV, transit regardless of what happens to the economy or energy prices.

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