Riders on the Strom*?
Public transport ridership is in serious trouble.
We know that having the average American commuter move an average car weighing 4,000 pounds 41 miles across a highway is an inefficient way of getting a human from point A to point B. While we are all excited about the prospect of a fleet of electric vehicles charged with power generated by unicorns on treadmills, that future still assumes a society organized around cars. One reason cities like Atlanta have a footprint 12 times the size of comparably populated cities like Barcelona is the lack of solid public transportation systems and a culture that makes this a normal way of life. Electric buses and trains massively decrease emissions of local and global pollutants, significantly drive down congestion and generate time for their riders to read a good book or get a referee report done. I will acknowledge that on the other hand – in most cases – it still takes more time than driving. I also think the resistance to sharing personal space remains a major barrier for multiple reasons.
Ridership in public modes of transportation in the US was dismal prior to the pandemic but has taken a massive hit since. I took BART the other day at 8:30 on a Monday morning and got a seat! Pre-pandemic one often had to let two trains pass by, as they were so full no one could fit. As a seasoned instructor of statistics, I am always worried about samples of size 1, since it’s hard to fit a line through a single point. (Well actually, it’s super easy, since any line goes, but you learn nothing.) So thank you American Public Transportation Association for providing a bunch of high-frequency (estimated and reported) data on ridership across the United States.
The figure above displays the massive hit public transportation ridership took during COVID and the sloth like recovery we are experiencing. While some systems are back up to 70% of pre-pandemic ridership, a number of large systems are still down by 50%. But, hey Max, glass half full. If one fits a line through this recovery trend, we’ll be back to pre-pandemic levels in a year or so. While that might be possible in some areas, the heterogeneity in the recovery of ridership across systems is massive. Some systems are seeing increases in ridership shares, but others – and some very large ones – have seen a disastrous collapse. Nowhere is this more evident than in the bay area. Caltrain (think San Francisco hipsters taking trains to work in Silicon Valley) and BART (Max and friends going to work and the airport) are reporting 70% and 60% decreases compared to pre-pandemic levels. So no. Not glass half full. Is this just a bay area thing? Because after all, we’re a bit weird over here. Let’s plot the ridership data for the first week of February from 2018/19 against the percent change in 2023 over the same week for 2018/19.
I made the panel dark, because it’s a grim picture. There is a clear negative trend (note that the x-axis is a log scale). Bigger systems (dots on the right) have larger % decreases in ridership. Why is that? Are we more worried in bigger crowds? Maybe. Is this richer areas? Maybe. I think I might have to follow up with another blog post exploring these patterns.
Why is this so problematic? Let me count the ways (using BART as an example).
First off, while public transport is subsidized, fares in many cases are the main source of system revenue. In other words, that ticket you buy to park your car at a BART stop and the fare card you purchase keep the trains running. If you no longer park your car, but hop on the highway instead, the oil companies and refiners get that cash, and the pollution generated ends up in everyone’s lungs. If revenues are down, costs need to come down, which means fewer trains, which means less convenience, which means more driving.
But Max, I think you got this wrong! Everyone I know is working from home! The country is so different than it was pre-pandemic! Most of us own fewer work pants and more sweats. I bet you people just drive less. Nonsense. If you like hanging out on government websites, I suggest checking out the pages of the Office of Highway Policy Information. Vehicle Miles Traveled are back baby! In 2019, Americans traveled 3,270,385,000,000 miles on all roads. Yes 3.3 trillion miles. In 2020 that “dipped” to 2.9 trillion, but by 2022 it was back up to (drumroll) 3.26 trillion miles. That is the same as driving to the sun and back 18 times. So no, we’re still taking lil’ Timmy to the little league game in 6000 pounds of steel, but we are staying away from trains.
Why is this so bad? While Americans will never rival Europeans in their willingness to forego car travel, redesigning urban plans (especially around new construction) with high rises near public transportation hubs has to be a significant portion of getting us to our ambitious emission reduction goals. In order to do so, we need more trains going to more places. But if no one wants to ride these trains, we have a real problem. Currently, the federal government is keeping a number of public transit systems afloat. BART for example, is getting $1.6 billion in federal aid to help keep service going, but the funding is likely going to run out in 2025. Yes, I know many readers like to lecture this economist on how subsidies are unfair yadda yadda. Zip it Milton. In this case the implicit and explicit subsidies cars receive are orders of magnitude bigger than those going to public transport.
If you came here for hope, I got none. I am truly deeply concerned that public transport in many places will not recover from this and we will end up in an equilibrium where ridership is significantly lower than the already anemic levels prior to the pandemic. If that is indeed the case, we are staring down another car-centric future with all of its consequences for society. There are some small glimmers of hope as I see more of my Hoka wearing fellow dads tool around downtown on E-Bikes instead of their Teslas, but I am afraid that in the grand scheme of things that might just be a drop in the bucket.
*Yes. Strom is the German word for electricity and I love(d) The Doors song. And it’s my cleverest blog post title yet.
Keep up with Energy Institute blog posts, research, and events on Twitter @energyathaas.
Suggested citation: Auffhammer, Maximilian, “Riders on the Strom*? ”, Energy Institute Blog, UC Berkeley, February 13, 2023, https://energyathaas.wordpress.com/2023/02/13/riders-on-the-strom/
Maximilian Auffhammer View All
Maximilian Auffhammer is the George Pardee Professor of International Sustainable Development at the University of California Berkeley. His fields of expertise are environmental and energy economics, with a specific focus on the impacts and regulation of climate change and air pollution.
This article makes many common errors. It looses sight of the fact the only way we are to reduce CO2 and other green house gases (GHG) is by rigorously using the most cost effect method per tonne of GHG reduction. The USA produces about 15 tonnes per capita of greenhouse gases. https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/EN.ATM.CO2E.PC At a cost of $100/tonne of GHG reduction to get to zero will require a cost of $1,500 per person or $6,000 for a family of four. Politically this is probably the maximum that is feasible at the moment. Any proposal that claims to reduce GHG without a price per tonne reduction is meaningless. These recent mass transit projects are far too expensive to be a cost effective way of reducing GHG emission: BART extension from Fremont to San Jose, https://www.mercurynews.com/2021/10/25/federal-government-awards-2-3-billion-for-barts-san-jose-extension/ the extension of Caltrain into downtown San Francisco, https://www.smartcitiesdive.com/news/high-speed-rail-tunnel-caltrain-san-francisco-california/641046/#:~:text=The%20newly%20projected%20cost%20to,Joint%20Powers%20Authority%20last%20week or California High Speed Rail https://www.constructiondive.com/news/california-high-speed-rail-costs-rise-to-105-billion/618877/ Therefore any claims of these being a cost effective way of reducing GHG emissions seems highly unlikely.
CONCLUSION: Any claims of GHG reduction must have a cost per tonne reduction to be meaningful.
Another error in this article is:
“Yes, I know many readers like to lecture this economist on how subsidies are unfair yadda yadda. Zip it Milton. In this case the implicit and explicit subsidies cars receive are orders of magnitude bigger than those going to public transport.”
Besides making the “two wrongs make a right fallacy” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Two_wrongs_don%27t_make_a_right (because cars are allegedly subsidize there is no reason to subsidize anything else, why not no subsidy for all?) the article has no reference to the subsidy per passenger mile. The author ignores per passenger mile cost of the subsidy and the cost that automobile users pay in gasoline and other taxes. At least according to this reference: https://ti.org/antiplanner/?p=18116 in 2019 subsidies for cars light trucks and motorcycles were about 1.1 cents per passenger mile compared to 36 cents per passenger mile for Amtrak passengers and $1.09 for transit riders. CONCLUSION: When discussing subsidies compare cost per passenger mile.
Another error is making comparisons of cities such as Barcelona and Atlanta without comparing housing size:
“One reason cities like Atlanta have a footprint 12 times the size of comparably populated cities like Barcelona is the lack of solid public transportation systems and a culture that makes this a normal way of life.”
Barcelona is a very crowded city with many people living in small crowded apartments. Most N. Americans simply don’t want to live like this but prefer single family homes. This includes most advocates of higher density housing. In my experience most transit advocates expect other people to live in high rise multi unit dwellings usually under the guise of giving them a choice. I feel anyone saying others should live in high rise dense housing should state what they live in (usually a single family house with a garden,) and then explain why they don’t live in a high density structure, but expect others to live in high density.
CONCLUSION: Recognize the way people want to live, and build that.
Another error: Claiming that transit is a good way to read a good book or get work done.
“Electric buses and trains massively decrease emissions of local and global pollutants, significantly drive down congestion and generate time for their riders to read a good book or get a referee report done”
I commuted on BART for years and if I could get a seat I could indeed read. As the author admits:
“I took BART the other day at 8:30 on a Monday morning and got a seat! Pre-pandemic one often had to let two trains pass by, as they were so full no one could fit.
Since I couldn’t usually get a seat but had to stand, it was difficult to read a book, and impossible to work. I could now listen to books, but I now do in the car. However, claiming that crowded standing room only commuting with personal schedules delayed by full trains passing by is not a way to get any useful work, or much reading done.
CONCLUSION: To get any useful work done on transit one must have a seat.
I have to leave my critique there due to lack of time.
Note: If anyone asks why the US should start reducing GHG before developing countries: Because of the long residence time of CO2 in the atmosphere, what really matters is the cumulative production per capita over time. One reason western nations and the US in particular have such a high standard of living is that the cumulative production of GHG per capita since industrialization is high. See https://www.withouthotair.com/c1/page_14.shtml for a full description where the UK and Germany are not far behind N. America in cumulative per capita emissions. These are some of the first countries to industrialized first.
Affordable EVs such as Aptera that go 1,000 miles on a charge and include solar panels that can gather up to 40 miles per day of solar electricity would go a long way to addressing this issue.
Why then is Aptera not eligible for the $7,500 federal tax credit?
First, to look at the relationship of transit and car use, you need to look at commute mileage, not total. I don’t have those statistics, but we do have stats on downtown office space use–San Francisco is down 69% and San Jose 32% (https://www.sfchronicle.com/sf/bayarea/heatherknight/article/downtown-business-mayor-breed-17775196.php). Bay Area transit is built around a hub and spoke with SF at the center, with San Jose as a belated afterthought. Workers are staying home here, and probably instead running more errands from home. Which brings us to the second problem.
American land use is built around the spread out single-family home and the automobile enabled this development. European nations (and Japan) have three distinct characteristics that has delayed this development. First their core cities were built centuries earlier around pedestrians. American cities outside of the half dozen major Eastern Seaboard ones expanded rapidly with the arrival of cars. Second, many of their cities were damaged or destroyed in World War II and they had to build back with some level of planning which included incorporating transit (while the U.S. was retiring systems like the Red Line in L.A.). And third, as a result of WWII, people in those countries couldn’t afford to buy either cars or detached homes through the 1950s. (Even neutral nations were affected by this.) The achieve large gains in transit using the European/Japanese model will require a transformation that is not possible with the current land use distribution. Building a few high rises around transit stations focused on hub and spoke configurations will only have a marginal effect given the proportion that live in suburban configured communities–even the Berkeley Hills are not transit friendly. History and initial conditions matter, much to the frustration of many economists.
In addition, transit agencies have had problems balancing how to serve three master (while completely ignoring a fourth). Commuters are often highlighted but they are only a third of total VMT. And that usually conflict with serving low income communities and the elderly that need a network with milk runs rather than hub and spoke with express service. And then there’s tourists for the larger cities who need more midday service along with routes from the airport. Meanwhile, service for errands in higher income communities which covers another third of VMT is generally ignored.
The solution will require radical rethinking by transit planners. Fixed rail probably is no longer useful. Even the High Speed Rail probably is better done with high speed electric buses that have flexible stops (see Holland.) Run a dedicated set of lanes down Highways 99 and 101 and over the Grapevine. This has to be a fraction of the cost. A grid network, even using dedicated bus lanes like those i the San Fernando Valley, with smaller transit vans that use personal scheduling apps could address some of the always-unmet transit demand. And we may need to go to free fares, just as driving on the roads are free. Yes, buying gas has a cost, but as an economist, walking to a bus or train station has an equal opportunity cost. There are probably better ideas out, so let’s hear them!
Indeed vehicle miles traveled (VMT) is back. I started my career in transportation, and keep one toe in that world. The best researcher on this topic for the past four decades is Todd Litman, Victoria Transport Policy Institute, http://www.vtpi.org
Todd has a new piece out: Are Vehicle Travel Reduction Targets Justified? Why and How to Reduce Excessive Automobile Travel https://www.vtpi.org/vmt_red.pdf
There are several factors interplaying here. Yes, lots of people are working from home, at least a few days per week. That reduces traffic. Yes, lots of people are foregoing transit due to Covid, which increases traffic. Carpooling is down for the same reason.
A more complex question is whether transit use reduces energy requirements for transportation. At only 30 passenger-miles per gallon of diesel fuel, my local small-city transit system quite clearly does NOT achieve that. Urban systems do better. Electrified systems are doing better on carbon emissions as the electricity supply is decarbonized, but not necessarily on a btu/passenger-mile metric.
My local transit system (Olympia, Washington) is doing just fine financially. They eliminated fares as year before Covid hit, relying entirely on tax revenue for operations. [Why do we pay a fare for transit horizontally (buses), but not vertically (elevators)?] So the loss of farebox revenue (it was only 9% to start with) is a non-issue. With fewer passengers, they have an easy time maintaining buses. They are, however, still short of drivers, and would like to return to their previous late-evening schedule, but cannot find qualified drivers. Our school bus fleets are having the same problem, with more parents driving kids creating traffic messes near schools, but not enough staff to run a full schedule of lightly-loaded buses.
That merits a different column. Where have all the workers gone? Long time passing. Gone to Amazon, every one? Some time ago. Apologies to Pete Seeger.
Every time I decided to ride public transportation, I would come down with a cold or flu within a week. The shared, enclosed spaces spread air born viruses and unless we go back to the small comportment type of public transportation, like on the old trains in Europe that had individual compartments with their own separate carriage doors, the fact of air born spread among passengers remains a real concern. I remember the old “people Mover” ride at Disneyland where the individual cars were set up to move passengers in their own family compartment, on a set of tracks, instead of one large multi family or multi person 40 to 80 passenger car. Maybe, the small “Smart Cars” that look like enclosed “golf Carts” would be better for commuting rather than the SUVs that all the Manifatture’s are pushing these days.
…and there’s the crime and personal security in many US States’s public transport systems. Smoken dope if you think this is going to change particularly with the insessent ‘progressive’ push, plans and ideologies of the last several decades.
You can hope, and dream,.. and use ‘magical thinking’ ,… but simply ‘reimagine’ what the culture ‘could be like’ ain’t going to solve the problem and real risks of using public transport in highly concentrated areas in the USA.
Some of the new EVs weigh as much as 5 tons; is that better?