Sunday, January 24, 2010

The 2008 farebox numbers

The National Transit Database has released its figures for 2008. One of these figures is the "Fare Revenues per Total Operating Expense (Recovery Ratio)." It shows, for each transit "agency" (including for-profit companies) that reports to the government, what percentage of the operating expenses are covered by the fares paid by passengers. Here are the top ten bus agencies:
AgencyFarebox Recovery Ratio
Trans-Bridge Lines, Inc.114.9
Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA, Trolleybus only)110.6
New Jersey Transit Corporation-45 (NJTC-45)104.7
Community Transit, Inc. (Community Transit)101.3
Trans-Hudson Express100.2
Orange-Newark-Elizabeth, Inc. (Coach USA)100.0
Olympia Trails Bus Company, Inc. (Coach USA)99.3
Martz Group, National Coach Works of Virginia (NCW)98.0
Hudson Transit Lines, Inc. (Short Line)94.2
Suburban Transit Corporation (Coach USA)87.6
Academy Lines, Inc.84.1
Adirondack Transit Lines, Inc. (Adirondack Trailways)81.4
DeCamp Bus Lines80.9
Rockland Coaches, Inc.77.0
Lakeland Bus Lines, Inc.74.9
Monroe Bus Corporation73.7
Monsey New Square Trails Corporation73.6
Blacksburg Transit (BT)57.3
Chapel Hill Transit (CHT)56.8

The numbers are roughly the same as 2007. The Gainesville and Davis transit systems have been edged out by SEPTA's trolleybuses, which seem to be reported separately this year, and by the Martz Group (which appears to have started reporting just in 2008). Some agencies, like Bonanza and Trans-Bridge, made a relatively large profit, while some of the others lagged.

I noticed that after the Lincoln Tunnel buses (and the SEPTA trolleybuses), the other bus companies that have relatively high recovery ratios (i.e. over 37%) are all college towns (and NJ Transit): Virginia Tech, UNC, Florida, Penn State, James Madison, Texas Tech, Georgia, etc. This fits with Jarrett's observation that cities with low car ownership tend to either be old, poor or college towns.

Interestingly, there's not much overlap between the college towns that have low overall car ownership and those with high farebox recovery. I'm guessing that that's because the towns on Jarrett's list are mostly cities with additional populations, including a number of low-income riders, so they run a lot of unprofitable routes that offset the profitable student routes.

Finally, I took a peek at non-bus numbers. There are some oddities, like the inclined planes (funiculars) of Chattanooga (186%) and Pittsburgh (115%), which cater more to tourists these days. There are the ferry routes operated by New York Waterway (139%) and BillyBey (115%) across the Hudson between New York and New Jersey, which are profitable by the same principle as the Lincoln Tunnel buses.

Then we get to rail: the NYC subways (67%), BART (65%), WMATA (61%), the MBTA light and heavy rail services, Metro-North, SEPTA commuter rail, NJ Transit commuter rail, SEPTA subways, and the light rail systems of San Diego and Denver (all between 50 and 60%).

There seems to be a definite pattern:
Farebox Recovery RatioAgencies
70-200%Lincoln Tunnel buses, inclined planes, Hudson River ferries, SEPTA trolleybuses
40-69%Big city rail, college town buses
30-39%Big city bus and light rail
0.1-29%Small and medium city bus and light rail, plus assorted boondoggles
0Free services

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The good and the bad of jitneys

Most of the world's population lives in cities, and most of this urban population doesn't own cars. They get around by foot, by bike, and by transit. In many poorer cities, there isn't much in the way of rail transit, and people travel mostly by bus. Sometimes this bus service is government-run, scheduled service, but mostly it's private jitneys.

Jitneys are buses that don't run on a set schedule. If they start at a popular terminal, they wait until they are full. If they're running at rush hour, they simply keep going. Otherwise, the driver makes an educated guess as to when to leave. How soon after the previous bus will there be enough passengers to make the run worthwhile?

The run has to be worthwhile because the jitneys usually operate on a for-profit basis. The cost of labor in these cities is so low that the fare can pay not only gas, vehicle maintenance and the driver's salary, but also a cut to a jitney syndicate. It usually also pays for a conductor, who also acts as a security guard and tout, announcing the route, inviting passengers, enforcing seating arrangements and collecting fares.

Because of this arrangement, after the driver pays for gas, maintenance, the conductor and the syndicate, everything else is the driver's to take home. This means that the more fares the driver collects, the bigger the take at the end of the day. If there are too few fares, it is possible that the driver will not actually make any money. The driver thus has an incentive to collect as many fares as possible.

There are problems with this arrangement. During off-peak times, drivers will often wait at the terminal, taking a break, instead of wasting gas on a run that will not make any money. If the bus isn't full, they will go slow to allow passengers to accumulate at future stops. They will stop at any sign of interest from people on the sidewalk, even if they're not at a designated bus stop, blocking traffic and causing crashes.

During busy times, drivers often try to pack as many people into their vehicles as possible to maximize their take. They will often skimp on maintenance, leading to hazardous conditions. The buses are poorly regulated, leaving most of the management to the syndicates, who represent only the interests of the owners. In some cities there are rival syndicates that use violent tactics like smashing windows and worse to defend their routes.

That's the way jitneys work in developing countries around the world. Many transit advocates, quite understandably, want nothing to do with a form of transportation that packs people into badly-maintained buses and drives them erratically, while leaving passengers with spotty service during off-peak times. Few people in a developed country would want such service for their city.

Jitney service doesn't have to be that way, though. Many of these problems are the result of breakdowns in governance, and proper regulation can ensure that the buses are well-maintained and not overcrowded. In fact, when "dollar vans" started running in Brooklyn and New Jersey they had problems with overcrowding, bad maintenance and unlicensed drivers, but those problems have largely been resolved through regulation.

There are two problems that remain with these services, both related to their profit orientation. The buses can still move erratically during peak times, and service during off-peak times can be slow and infrequent. The problem of reckless searching for fares can be discouraged through greater enforcement by police. The problem of inadequate off-peak service requires the government to subsidize the route in some way, either by running its own buses or by paying the syndicate to run service at a minimum frequency.

Why bother, though? What do we need jitneys for? I'll discuss that in a future post.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Senate 12: Exchanging bad for worse

Gay marriage advocates have something to cheer about, but transit advocates are facing unpleasant prospects in Senate District 12. George Onorato, who recently voted against the same-sex marriage bill, announced that he will not seek re-election to the Senate seat he has held for 27 years. Assemblyman Michael Gianaris from Astoria, who publicly criticized Onorato for his position on marriage equality, announced that he would run for the seat.

Transit advocates in District 12 have long been frustrated with Onorato's lack of interest in the system that helps most of his constituents get around every day. Despite the fact (PDF) that 56.8% of households in District 12 are car-free, and only 3.7% of commuters drove to Manhattan for work, Onorato was initially undecided on congestion pricing and then made more and more negative statements. Streetsblog today described him as a "road pricing skeptic."

Gianaris meets with Richard Ravitch in February 2009 to try to find a way to pay for the MTA "without imposing new bridge tolls." Apparently, they failed. Photo: Queens Gazette.

However, that skepticism pales by comparison with Gianaris's outright hostility to road pricing. Streetsblog's characterization of Onorato was based on a quote pulled from a Queens Gazette article about a January 2008 town hall meeting to discuss congestion pricing. But the town hall meeting was sponsored by the publisher of the Gazette and Gianaris, who both spoke forcefully against it. Here are Gianaris's statements as quoted in the article:
I oppose it. A big concern is people will park in Astoria and Long Island City and hop on a train [to Manhattan]. I would hate to displace the [traffic congestion] problems of Midtown Manhattan to us.

It's really a way to tax people who don't live in Manhattan. It's not only who's paying but who's not paying-the wealthiest of the wealthy. I am not going to support a plan to make Manhattan a rich person's paradise.

There are people who do not have easy access to mass transit. It's a long way to go before this (congestion pricing) becomes a reality. I am going to fight this.

In December 2008, when Gianaris and his colleagues in the Assembly had succeeded in defeating congestion pricing, he had this to say about Richard Ravitch's follow-up plan to use bridge toll revenue to pay for the MTA:
Any solution that disproportionately burdens middle- and working-class people who live in the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn is not a fair way to deal with this, and that’s what tolling the bridges would do.

In February of 2009, when Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver proposed a compromise bridge toll plan, here's what Gianaris had to say:
Honestly, I'm still evaluating it. This idea is certainly better than the Ravitch plan, but I remain very apprehensive about any tolls on the East River crossings.

Keep in mind that Gianaris's Assembly district 36 (PDF) is only slightly more car-oriented than Senate District 12: 51.4% of households car-free, and 4.4% of commuters to the Central Business District traveling by car alone. But while Onorato waffled, Gianaris was in full-throated opposition, with the kind of dramatic rhetoric we mostly heard from legislators representing much more car-dependent districts, like Richard Brodsky or David Weprin.

By last May, Gianaris and Onorato had won: Governor Paterson conceded that he would have to accept the plan devised by Senators Kruger, Espada, Monserrate and Diaz. At the time, it was widely acknowledged by everyone outside of the legislature that this plan would just postpone the crisis. Streetsblog noted that all three dailies panned it. The Times: "Albany’s latest M.T.A. plan fails to provide enough steady revenue for the authority’s capital needs." The News: "there will be scant money to maintain the system, starting riders on a trip back into the nightmare of broken-down trains and filthy stations." The Post: "their plan makes scant provision for the future. Indeed, it follows precisely the logic that led to the system's demise in the '70s: Put off needed funding today, and worry about it tomorrow. Only "tomorrow" never comes." As far as I remember, the MTA was silent, preferring to let the politicians decide.

Well, now the crisis predicted by the editorial boards has come to pass, maybe a little sooner than expected. The MTA, facing a $600 million deficit and a fare hike already scheduled for 2011, has proposed a set of service cuts. In response, craven lawmakers from around the city have been holding bogus rallies where they criticize the MTA as though their own actions had nothing to do with the current situation.

The rally held in Astoria last week by Gianaris and City Councilmember Peter Vallone Jr. seemed by most accounts to be typical of these things. But the Gazette had the most damning quote from Gianaris (emphasis mine):
The MTA is looking to scare us. The city makes us pay more taxes each year to keep trains like the W line running. And now, despite heavy taxes, the MTA has lied to us and they are threatening to cut our services.

Whatever taxes "the city" is making us pay, its contribution to the MTA has been going down for the past sixteen years, so it's not going to the W train. I'm sure the MTA has lied about something, and they're clearly looking to scare people and threatening to cut services. But Gianaris surely knows that the State contribution has been going down - he voted for the 2008 budget that cut $50 million - and probably the same for the city.

The MTA is simply not responsible for the service cuts that Gianaris is protesting, the State Legislature is - including himself and Onorato. There are two possibilities. Either Gianaris has knowingly forced the MTA to cut service and is lying about it, or he just blindly protested bridge tolls and voted to cut state funding, and was too stupid to figure out that there was no way for the MTA to pay for its operations without them. One way or another, he's not someone I want representing me in the State Senate.

Before Onorato retired, there were rumors that Gianaris would run for Attorney General and leave it to a junior political figure to challenge Onorato in the primary. Now that Gianaris has said he will be running for Senate, there's the question of who will run for his seat in the Assembly. One of the favorites to challenge Onorato was lawyer and activist Jeremiah Frei-Pearson, and we can imagine that Frei-Pearson will at least consider running for Assembly. I wish I could say that Frei-Pearson would be an improvement over Gianaris in the Assembly, but he showed up at the same rally where Gianaris said "the MTA has lied."

Frei-Pearson's statement at that rally just addressed the impact of the proposed service cuts, not the question of blame or solutions, so it's possible that he just doesn't know the extent to which Gianaris is responsible for the current situation. Let's hope that he's better than Gianaris, figures out what's going on soon and shows true progressive spirit. Otherwise, the chances for Astoria's transit riders look pretty slim.

Addendum: Streetsblog today linked to an article in City Hall News about possible contenders for Gianaris's seat. Unfortunately for those of us who care about a candidate's position on the issues, this article comes from an exclusively horse-race perspective. All we learn is who's got what connections, and that one Republican thinks the 36th is "definitely a conservative-leaning district." Thanks, Chris Bragg!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Quote of the Week

"Getting dedicated right-of-way for buses on the freeway is cheap: you just repaint the thing and make new signs. Maybe you build some fancy stations. It is incredibly cost-effective. The cost is so low that it isn’t mutually exclusive with rail, but it is politically difficult because of SOV interests. Unfortunately, BRT “advocates” spend all their time arguing with rail advocates telling them how to do their project better instead of doing the actual, necessary work of building a coalition to make this lane conversion happen."

-Martin H. Duke, "Bus vs. Rail Again," Seattle Transit Blog.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Separating transit from charity

In the past I've talked about the consumer surplus: the fact that there are plenty of people who would be willing to pay a lot more than $2.25 (or $1.84 or whatever it comes out to) for a subway ride. If you ride the #6 train downtown in the morning, you'll be riding with bankers, executives, all kinds of people who make more than $100,000 a year. I don't know how many millionaires there are, but there are plenty who would be happy to pay $5 for a quick ride downtown. If we could get enough people to pay enough money, then the government wouldn't have to spend as much to subsidize the subway system.

The problem, of course, is that along with those bankers and executives are plenty of people who live below the poverty line and are heading downtown to make a very small amount of money. Tripling what they pay for the subway would cut into their income at a time when lots of people are struggling to make ends meet.

This is not a unique problem. We have a similar one for food. Food can be very expensive, especially here in New York, but there are lots of people who can't afford to buy enough food to live. For them, we have food stamps. They get a plastic debit card with a certain amount deposited to it every month, and they can use it to buy food. Grocers can charge what they want, and the government helps people buy it.

So let's do that for transit. The MTA is planning to implement some kind of new payment system. What if we make it at least partially compatible with the EBT cards? We could give everyone with one of those cards two rides a day. Same thing for anyone receiving unemployment benefits.

This has been done in the past. In Curitiba, the municipal government accepted recyclables from residents and paid them in bus tokens. The poorest people had the time to scavenge for recyclables and bring them to the collection centers, so they benefited the most from this policy.

Since these are for the poorest New Yorkers, who can't afford enough food for a healthy diet, the fare should probably be free. With more than a million food stamp recipients in the city, if everyone used the benefit it would come to $2 million a day, or $730 million per year.

But what about those who are not unemployed or poor enough to get food stamps, but who would still have a hard time paying $180 a month to ride the train? For them, I think an expanded TransitChek program would work. The government currently exempts TransitChek purchases from taxes, but it could go beyond that and contribute a percentage.

Of course, with the poorest taken care of, the MTA could raise fares to the market rate for the rest of the population. I don't know what market rate would be for the non-poor, but if it's $1.50 over the current rate, that's an extra $3.75 billion a year, more than enough to pay for the free rides for students, the unemployed and the poor, and probably senior citizens too.

That wouldn't mean that the city and state governments would have no responsibility to the MTA. They should be required to pay back the $34 billion that the MTA has borrowed because of the state aid cuts. Once that's taken care of, then maybe they can see if it would work to stop subsidizing things.

The bottom line is that transit should not be charity. Charity should be charity. If we want the government to offer cheap rides for the poor or the working class, we should subsidize it for just those groups, not hold down fares across the board.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The next City Council transportation chair

The News reports (thanks, Streetsblog!) that the New York City Council will be voting on its leadership positions by the end of January. For the past eight years, the Transportation Committee has been chaired by John Liu of Flushing, who has now been elected as City Comptroller. This is a critical moment for advocates of transit and sustainable transportation, and it's important for us to make our priorities known.

Liu has had a mixed record on these issues. He has supported congestion pricing and the bikes in buildings bill, but in a pretty lukewarm way. More importantly, he has an annoying way of treating transit riders like we didn't exist. Many times when the subject of bridge tolls came up, he acted as though everyone drove everywhere.

I got the feeling that some of this was political calculation. Liu represented a red district, where only 38% of households were car-free in 2000 (PDF). Sometimes when the subject of bridge tolls came up, his reaction seemed mostly to be frustration that the Mayor and the Governor were pushing something that he felt was politically impossible for him to get behind. In fact, I would say that he adopted pro-transit, pro-livable streets positions about 38% of the time.

The News says that the top contender to chair the Transportation Committee is James Vacca of the Bronx. Vacca comes from the reddest district in the Bronx (PDF), with only 39% of households car-free. He represents the most sprawling, suburban part of the borough: Throgs Neck, City Island, Morris Park, Pelham Bay and Pelham Parkway. He sees transportation mostly through a car windshield. He voted for congestion pricing, but he was also a major sponsor of the idiotic, pandering five-minute grace period bill. He has protested the proposed elimination of the Bx14 bus, but his counter-proposal would do nothing to solve the problem long-term, and did not place the blame where it belonged: on the state legislature.

According to Streetsblog, there is an alternative to Vacca: Dan Garodnick of the Upper East Side has expressed interest in the chairmanship. He represents a yellow district: 70% of households are car-free (PDF). Garodnick is not perfect: he signed David Yassky's moronic letter that claimed it was "blatantly unfair" for people from Brooklyn or the Bronx to pay as much as people from New Jersey to get into Manhattan.

Garodnick has a lot to recommend him, though. He was one of only two Councilmembers who refused to vote for the parking grace period. He recently helped corral a number of his fellow Councilmembers into coming out in support of physically separated bus and bike lanes on First and Second Avenue, which is a big deal. He gets good marks from Glenn McAnanama of the organization Upper Green Side, which is a very good testimonial. Unlike Vacca, he has actually served on the Transportation Committee. He is probably the most progressive member of the Council on transportation issues, and would be the ideal candidate.

Streetsblog commenter "Niccolo Machiavelli" speculated that Quinn may want to give the committee chairmanship to someone from the Bronx, to secure their loyalty. If so, Vacca is really one of the worst possibilities. The Bronx councilmember who's most progressive on transportation is probably Joel Rivera, but he'll probably be re-elected Majority Leader, which is more senior than Transportation. Oliver Koppell voted for congestion pricing and sponsored the bikes in garages bill, and has been a member of the Committee, so he would probably be better than Vacca. Please let me know if you're aware of any indications to the contrary.

Larry Seabrook voted for congestion pricing, is a member of the Committee and has come out in favor of legislation to crack down on unlicensed drivers.

Maria del Carmen Arroyo and Annabel Palma voted for congestion pricing, but otherwise they seem to have no interest in transportation at all. Helen Foster famously skipped the congestion pricing vote. The useless Maria Baez has been replaced by unknown quantity Fernando Cabrera, who until 2008 was a registered Republican living in the suburb of Pelham (a fifteen-minute walk from the train station), and like most Bronx Latino politicians campaigned using a truck with loudspeakers.

The next Transportation Chair should be Dan Garodnick. If it has to be someone from the Bronx, and can't be Rivera, then it should be Koppell or Seabrook. The next choices would be Arroyo and Palma, in roughly descending order by car ownership in their districts. Vacca would actually be my fifth choice.

This decision will affect how transportation policy is framed in the city for the next four to eight years, possibly longer. It's too important to be left to power politics and back-room deals. I encourage you to contact your councilmember and Speaker Quinn. Tell them that the next Transportation Committee Chair should be Garodnick, Koppell or Seabrook.

Update: Frank Lombardi of the News is now reporting that "the powers that be are pushing" for Vacca to be Transportation Chair. Time to do some pushing back, if you want to see a committee chair who supports transit and livable streets.