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Death of a Transit System

On Sunday, Cleveland’s RTA implemented across-the-board service cuts. The changes are pretty devastating, depending on where you live and how you depend on the service. In my opinion, Clevelanders will probably look back at Easter 2010 as the day public transit became hopeless and unsalvageable. Even among those of us who support it the most, it's hard to see any glimmers of optimism.

(from Flick user peterskim)

When the cuts were initially announced, I predicted that ridership would fall off a cliff. See… even if the same number of people ride RTA post-cuts (a bold assumption, I know) so long as they ride fewer times per week, ridership is going to take a hit in the chin.

This is exactly how I’ve responded. In the past two weeks, I haven’t ridden RTA at all… nor do I plan on riding it much this month. This is a huge change for someone like me who was consistently riding at least two or three times per week. Now, I use my bike to get to all of the places I want to go, even to the places where I could use RTA, because the service is now so poor that it isn’t even worth the effort of trying.

It’s a brutally vicious cycle because the next time RTA goes to make cuts, they will use poor ridership statistics to justify those cuts. The logic will go: people aren’t using the service, therefore we don’t need the service. Instead, the reality for many people is: I don’t use it because the service has been sliced so thin that it isn't worthwhile anymore.

Let this be a word of warning to cities that have sustainable, albeit struggling transit systems. People respond predictably to service cuts. If you don’t take control and maintain good levels of service, very bad things are going to happen. If the signs of declining revenue are evident, don't wait around, because before long it will be too late.


Stephen said…
I think this signals the need for (A) a more diverse funding mechanism, (B) larger reserve requirements, or (C) both.

Like many other transit systems across the country, RTA is solely* funded by sales taxes. From your economics background, you know this to be a highly volatile funding mechanism. Where other sectors may be able to scale back in response to fluctuations, transit has a difficult time for two major reasons.

First, transit is labor-intensive. Vehicles require drivers and drivers cannot pull "double-duty" to reduce overhead (i.e. cutting in half the service frequency/drivers and doubling the length of a train/bus will not be a successful cost-saving mechanism.)

Second, the success of a transit system is due in part to predictability. People like knowing which routes to take for different trips. Regularly changing service routes/levels in response to revenue falls would make transit systems less predictable, harming ridership. Therefore, the number of drivers and routes must remain constant from year to year. So operations will not only be the largest share of a transit system's budget--it will also be constant.

Given that a large portion (70-85%) of a transit system's budget is inflexible, it makes little sense to fund transit with such a sensitive revenue stream like sales tax. Capital and operating reserve requirements help cover short-term hiccups in the economy. For a prolonged recession, though, the reserves are quickly depleted. That is the scenario in which RTA finds itself, along with most other transit systems in the US.

I believe that a healthy transit system is one major element of great urbanism. Variously, it represents choice, connectivity, mobility, density, progressivism, and/or environmentalism.

As such an important part of a given city/region, I think the way we fund transit should be reconsidered. A blend of high- and low-volatility revenue streams could help smooth over recessions, while also injecting a financial boost during times-o'-plenty for build-out of service and infrastructure.

Additionally/alternately, I would be willing to accept higher reserve requirements in anticipation of tough times IF the split between road and transit funding were more balanced.

Bottom line: no transit system wants to cut service levels, because they are well aware of the negative impact it will have on ridership. But because most are financed with such a fickle revenue stream, they have burned through reserves, slashed non-essential admin jobs, and now have no other choice but to scale back until the economy rebounds.

*I say solely. According to the National Transit Database, <1% of the budget comes from gas tax revenue. The other 99+% comes from sales taxes.
jviv said…
You're very correct about choosing to opt out of a transit system once debilitating cuts are made. I rely on RTA and Laketran (Lake County) to get me to Willoughby to teach. Talk about an awful system- Laketran charges 1.75 per ride (no transfers or all day passes) and only runs once an hour. In addition, the routes end at 6pm. I now avoid Laketran as much as possible- whereas I used to ride all the time.

Perhaps I look at RTA as the lesser of two evils, but I too will be biking it more often this summer.
John Morris said…
This is also true even in NYC. Service at night, weekends and holidays is not good, probably partly due to union contracts requiring premium pay and also because of the staggering amount of needed track repairs.

But also, it's because the MTA always shows lower ridership figures.

I guess the question with Cleveland is since service is now so poor, do they legally ban competition?

In NYC, dollar vans compete on all the poorly performing bus routes. This is what happened in places like Peru, where informal bus routes gradually become formal.

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