Thursday, July 28, 2011

Does Metro Transit Know Why Ridership Is Up?

In the Twin Cities (Minnesota), transit ridership is up. Here is a press release from Metro Transit:

July 27, 2011

MINNEAPOLIS – (July 27) – In the first half of 2011, customers boarded Metro Transit buses and trains 39.6 million times – 1.2 million more rides than the same period last year (a 3.2 percent increase). Ridership in the month of June of this year is up 6 percent over June 2010.

“Transit ridership has continued to grow through the second quarter as more commuters choose to avoid high gas prices and congested freeways,” said Metro Transit General Manager Brian Lamb. “If this pace continues, it appears that 2011 could rival the record ridership of 2008.” In 2008, regional transit ridership was the highest in half a century.

“As the region continues its gradual economic rebound, Metro Transit is well positioned to continue to grow as more people return to work and assess their commuting options,” Lamb said. “Already nearly 80 percent of customers are using buses and trains to get to work and school.”

Lamb said bus maintenance reliability is at an all-time high and bus on-time performance is approaching 90 percent despite widespread road construction projects.

“Real-time technology has taken the guesswork out of transit punctuality and getting timely information about trips is easier for customers than ever before with our web and phone tools. The increases in ridership reflect the improved quality of the transit system,” Lamb said.

Comparing bus ridership with the same period last year, urban local service is up 4.1 percent, express service is up nearly 3.3 percent and suburban local service has increased 3.4 percent. Northstar commuter rail had a 4.4 percent ridership increase over the first half of 2010. Ridership on the Hiawatha light-rail line is down 2.3 percent compared with the first half of last year. In the month of June, the line celebrated its seventh anniversary of service with ridership nearly 5 percent higher than June a year ago. Customers rode the Hiawatha line a record 10.5 million times in 2010.

In each of the past four years, ridership on Metro Transit vehicles has exceeded 76 million – a benchmark that had not previously been surpassed since 1982.
Metro Transit is a service of the Metropolitan Council. Customers boarded Metro Transit buses and trains 78 million times in 2010.

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The StarTribune picked up the story and gave it a headline: "Higher gas prices = higher ridership"

I'm happy transit ridership is up, but to infer any causality to why from that press release is silly. What Metro Transit is claiming is that people have shifted from driving to transit, yet there are any data on driving. It could be that there are more people in the Twin Cities, the economy is better, fewer people can afford cars (nevermind the gas), etc.

I don't like these stories that only have percentage changes, either, as they cloud the total effect. For instance, the Northstar commuter rail had an increase of 4.4 percent. Great! Sounds like a lot. But there are less than 1,000 people using the train daily. (David Levinson explains the train here.) A 4.4 percent increase isn't that much. Is it actually noteworthy that 40 or 50 more people are riding the train this year compared to last?

A final problem with releases and stories like this is it sets up transit as something necessarily opposed to driving. You either drive or take the bus. But many people switch from walking to transit. We ought to be able to consider transit a success if it is well-run and people use it regardless of what happens with driving. In the Metro Transit case, does the increase in riders lead to improved financial conditions for the agency? It should, and that is something to promote that has nothing to do with drivers.

***I have no idea what this means (from the release):"Already nearly 80 percent of customers are using buses and trains to get to work and school." He can't mean that there is an 80 percent mode share for transit, I hope.
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