Back in February, it was all over the news: even with "record numbers of riders," transit agencies were cutting service and raising fares. On Tuesday, Transportation for America released a report giving more details about the service cuts and fare hikes.
Lots of people have been baffled by this, including your Cap'n. We had images of packed buses making their way through cities and money pouring into fareboxes, while guys with green eyeshades still sadly shook their heads: not enough to overcome the declining tax revenues. My first guess was that the agencies simply weren't charging enough. That's a factor, but it's not the main factor.
I finally had a chance to sit down and crunch some numbers from the National Transit Database, and I've figured out that the main factor is that those buses aren't packed. "Record numbers of riders" means that the buses were going by with fourteen people instead of the usual ten.
I took the NTD figures for the 374 bus services "directly offered" (on an individual basis, not under contract to some other entity) for 2007, the latest year we have data for. Some of the systems in the Transportation for America report weren't in there, but I marked all the ones that I could find, 46 of them. On most of the systems identified by T4A as facing service cuts, the average number of passengers was 9.9. The nationwide average number of passengers per bus per revenue mile was 10.8; not too different. The average farebox recovery for the systems facing service cuts was 21%, which is below the nationwide average of 27%.
The Transportation for America authors use some 2008 data; I can't find it on the NTD website. T4A gives some numbers in their report, but some of those are for agencies that run both rail and bus services (maybe ferries too), and that's hard to tease apart. So I figure I'll just do a hypothetical: imagine that the buses were all packed, with forty people on each one. I know that when buses get full, fuel costs and dwell time go up, but for now let's assume that operating expenses stay the same.
With forty people on each bus, farebox recovery goes up to 86% for the services facing cuts, and 94% nationwide. With only twenty people on each bus it still goes up to 43% and 47% respectively, but the systems in Gary and Baton Rouge both make a profit.
So clearly my initial guess was wrong, and the ridership gains were much more modest. It is possible to run a bus without subsidies in any city in the country, if you can get enough people to ride. Of course, that's the big "if"! I'll talk about that in future posts.
If you'd like to play with the data, the spreadsheet is here. Also I'd like to note that some states have no systems facing cuts. For example, no one is stranded in Iowa.