Danger Signs Ahead for U.S. Transit and Motorcoach Sectors, Part 2

In Part 1 of this two-installment series, I cited numbers representing the decline in automobile and, more radically, public transportation ridership from 2019 to 2022. These figures were initially cited in an extraordinary NYTimes article on November 6, 2023 (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2023/11/06/business/economy/commuting-change-covid.html) that provided figures for this decline in roughly 17 U.S. cities. As National Bus Trader readers may recall, the slightest decline among these cities occurred in New York City (25 percent) with the largest in Detroit (91 percent). Because motorcoach ridership (obviously mostly in commuter/express service) is more affected by the same reasons as transit ridership compared with other modes – taxis, limousines, NEMT service, paratransit, schoolbus service, special needs transportation, commercial airline service, intercity rail – the problems discussed below (Particularly the numbers) should be of reasonable concern to members of the motorcoach community.
Putting these figures in perspective, one should keep in mind that the percentage of operating costs that covered operating costs in New York City’s transit system (bus and subway) was the nation’s highest two years before COVID (roughly 35 percent), During that same period, ridership in Los Angeles County declined by only 35 percent in L.A. during this same three-year period (again, compared to only 25 percent in New York City. For perspective, one should note that, in 2019, farebox revenues covered only nine percent of operating costs in Los Angeles County.

A coarser summary I mentioned in several previous National Bus Trader articles was that, in the two years prior to the emergence of COVID-19, transit ridership declined by roughly 10 percent a year nationwide. Since then, several transit systems abandoned fares altogether – Kansas City was the first, in 2019, as their fares covered only eight percent of the system’s operating costs – i.e., it would cost almost as much to collect the fares than the percentage of operating costs they covered. So one can understand why Kansas City chose to simply not bother.

Figures and Futility

The November 8, 2023 NYTimes article, and a few others that echoed that piece the same day, also cited figures that illustrated how trivial U.S. transit is in the scheme of things. The finest example – actually cited by the U.S. Census Bureau — noted that in 2019, the share of people using transit was roughly five percent, while it dipped to 3.1 percent by 2022. In terms of the consequences of this fall-off, the Census Bureau noted that in 2006, the average commute took roughly 25 minutes, while it had risen to only 27.6 minutes by 2019.In simple terms, this 62 percent drop in transit ridership only increased commuting time by an average of 2.6 minute (a 10.6% increase). In truth, this increase in commuting time would have been far greater had personal vehicle ridership not also dropped off considerable during this same three year period – ranging, for example, from a drop-off of 17 percent in Boston to a drop-off of 27 percent in Detroit. While I will expand on this theme further below, these preliminary figures suggest that the benefits of transit ridership are trivial – despite the need and the cost.

Recharacterizing the concepts revealed by these sets of figures – an extraordinary decline in ridership in recent years yet almost no increase in commuting time during a much greater span of time – can lead to only one conclusion: For all the tens of billions of dollars spent on transit each year, transit produces almost no benefits. City dwellers and freeway commuters can visually corroborate this reality by the fact that, despite this decline in transit ridership, plus the significant decline in automobile ridership cited in Part 1 of this short series, traffic levels have not noticeably decreased. And as noted in Part 1, some cities (New York City in particular) have been forced to reintroduce “traffic cops” into their spending equation in at least three of its five bureaus to keep the traffic from practically coming to a standstill in certain parts of the City during the AM and PM rush hours.
What can these numerical contradictions possibly mean? The numbers by themselves clearly suggest that transit does not matter, and is not worth a fraction of what we are spending on it. Yet we also know that every adult in America does not own a personal vehicle, and even if so, does not drive it to work. Drilling down further into these facts:

  • A huge and growing percentage of our population is poor.
  • A greater percentage of poor people cannot work remotely, and further, must travel to and from their jobs in the inner cities to and from their homes in the suburbs (or even rural areas), because they cannot afford housing costs close to where they work.
  • At least for this part of our population, no other mode of transportation is picking up the slack.
  • Yet, as noted, we still have traffic. One hypothesis for this enigma might suggest that traffic is moving more quickly. Yet, as noted above, the U.S. Census found this to not be the case.
    Then there are the quantitative realities embedded in these trends:

  • The IRS allows motorists to deduct 58 cents a mile for their business-related automobile travel – suggesting that this is the cost per mile of travel (mostly comprising fuel and maintenance, with licensing, registration, inspection and a few other fees sprinkled in).
  • Many commuters must pay tolls for freeway usage, bridge and tunnel tolls, and soon (at least in Manhattan), congestion pricing fees. Using New York City as an example, a New Jersey commuter could pay several dollars to travel on the Garden State Parkway or New Jersey Turnpike to the nearest bridge or tunnel, $16 (per round trip) to travel through or over one of the City’s seven bridges or tunnels, and soon, either another $15 to travel into Manhattan below 60th Street (if that motorist uses EZPass) or another $22.50 if he or she pays in cash.
  • Then there is parking – where one can even find it. It costs roughly $90 a day to park in most parts of Manhattan below 60th Street. It costs about $70 to park for more than 90 minutes in these same structures.
  • How can a low-income motorist afford these costs? Yet few of them ride transit. And during the peak periods, a reasonable percentage of subway riders, in particularly, are not lower-income visitors or residents. So even fewer low-income passengers travel by transit.

    Corruption and Discrimination

    The fact that is will cost $7.50 more to pass through a toll both manned by a live Earthling than through a booth “managed” by EZPass – which could perhaps involve 30 seconds more time if the toll booth attendant has to fumble to make change – illustrates the rampant corruption of the U.S. transportation system in a way nothing else does. Surely the combination of one toll both attendant and whatever “counting and processing fees” are involved cannot possibly cost $900/hour. Yet the motorist without a computer or good cell-phone skills cannot pay his or her tolls through EZPass. In simple terms, they are preyed upon by a Federal tax structure that does not even tax those with significant amounts of money. As a footnote, the New York State income tax rates range from 4 to 10.9 percent. The City’s rate ranges from 3.078 to 3.876 percent. So the City’s low income EZPass riders – all paying the same fee for passage into Mid-and Lower Manhattan — are being fleeced.

    Then there is the cross-subsidy issue: Outer-borough motorists – particularly those lowest-income NYC residents residing in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island, and motorists from New Jersey and Connecticut. are infuriated by the latest episode of triple taxation, since their average earnings are far less than those residing in the congestion pricing zone itself (i.e., Manhattan, below 60th Street). Only Bronx residents are being spared. This inequity is further compounded by the fact that travel alternatives – subway and bus coverage and frequencies, and the density of taxis and TNCs – are more available in Mid- and Lower Manhattan. Plus the proximity of origins and destinations are much closer within this zone. Should anyone reasonably blame these outsiders for their rage? Further, this fiasco will raise merely $1B a year for the NYCTA. (Had they paid the 2015 rate for taxi medallions, Uber drivers alone would have added roughly $66B to the City’s coffers; I personally know an Uber driver who earns about $180,000 a year.)
    Waste, Failure and More Corruption

    Before even reiterating (in summary form) the decades of transit failure cited at greater length in Part 1 of this series, it may be helpful to take a quick peak at a handful of examples of how public funds are grossly misspent on transportation-related roadways and facilities in U.S. cities – again using New York City as the principal example:

  • A few years after 9-1-1, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey spent $4B “upgrading” the World Trade Center PATH station (connecting only New Jerseyites with Lower Manhattan – mostly the stock market area or “Financial District”). It now takes eight minutes for a PATH commuter to reach his or her transit platform from the sidewalk outside instead of the two minutes it took before this “upgrade.” Around the same period, for roughly $5.7B, China built several hundred miles of heavy rail, countless rail spurs, and all the stations, through much of six countries.
  • Two or three years ago, the Port Authority spend $12B widening the lanes leading to the Holland Tunnel – on the New Jersey side – which did not add a single vehicle’s additional capacity to the tunnel itself, or increase the travel speed of any vehicle using it. (While there will be no statistics, the merging stemming from this increased span of toll booths will unavoidable create more collisions, even if most of them will only be fender benders. When they occur, movement through the tunnel will be even slower for a number of vehicles at the tunnel’s New Jersey mouth.)
  • Last year, President Biden tried to dedicate $66B of the Instructure Bill to AMTRAK – although, in fairness, much of it would be expended to fix nearly a Century of neglect in bridges and tunnels. That freight rail companies (subsidized by the Federal Railway Administration) own the tracks, while Federal Transit Administration funds subsidize AMTRAK operations is only an administrative footnote about this spending.) Merely a few decades ago, AMTRAK received roughly $1.5B a year in subsidies.
  • All the waste and corruption is not an East Coast phenomenon. On December 5, 2023, President Biden announced the commitment of $3B in Federal funds to help finance part of an estimated $12B private railroad between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. (It is a reasonable certainty that few of Los Angeles’ 75,000 homeless residents will be using this train to make the two-hour, 10-minute one-way commute to or from their jobs as hotel custodians and chambermaids on this mode, whose fares are projected to be roughly $100 per one-way trip (in the cheapest seats).
  • Of these funds, the Frederick Douglass Tunnel in Maryland will receive $4.7 billion to upgrade the tunnel, which officials said will increase the speed of the trains passing through it from 30 mph to 110 mph. Has our infrastructure crumbled to the point where travel speeds through tunnels have diminished to nearly a fourth of the mediocre “modern” capacity – limited, in fairness, by curvatures in, approaching and exiting the tunnel, as well as less-modern roadbeds, tracks, locomotives and rail cars. National Bus Trader readers may recall that Japan’s Tokaido Line, when opened in 1964, began operating at speeds of 130 mph, and now operate at top speeds of 177 mph.
  • Down on the Farm

    Now that fares are being eliminated, how will transit hold up during this financial carnage? One clue was recently provided by Aimee Lee, the deputy executive director of transportation at the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. That agency projects an annual shortfall of $730 million for Chicago’s Regional Transit Authority beginning in 2026.

    Another clue seemed to spring forth from the world of “urban planning” at least 50 years before anyone even conceived of the profession. As though Henry Ford incarnate was speaking during one of his earlier promotional presentations shortly after his first plant opened in 1903, a Georgia Tech professor (Patricia Mokhtarian) voiced the concern that, “Once you taste the freedom and flexibility of a personal automobile, how are you going to put them back on the farm, so to speak?” The problem, of course, is that Ms. Mokhtarian voiced this concern recently. Never mind that the first U.S. passenger train begin operations in 1827 – 76 years before the first “tin Lizzy” rolled off Henry’s assembly line. Are we just questioning this mode split now?

    In 1919, Walter Donaldson wrote, “How Ya Gonna Keep Em Down on the Farm,” the last lyrics of which ended with, “After They’ve See Paree.” Having lived in Paris for three years (without a car), I think it would be a stretch to compare Paris to any car I’ve ever seen. At the other extreme, buses don’t have dirt floors, and limit their livestock to an occasional seeing eye dog. So I think Ms. Mokhtarian’s comparison is stupid to the point of being preposterous. Instead, one might do well to speed-read through a snapshot summary of the failures the transit industry (and its funding bodies) have made in the past 55 years. I suggest reading (or re-reading) the slightly-more-detailed mostly National Bus Trader blurbs about these failures and ignored opportunities in the last, December, 2023 installment. For those serious transportation professionals, I suggest clicking on a few links and reading or skimming the articles – again, mostly published previously in National Bus Trader. As a truncated overview:

  • Our hierarchy of modes has morphed into a wasteful mess that is outrightly stupid – other than perhaps for those whom it made rich (see https://transalt.com/article/expanding-the-mode-split-dividing-line-part-1-exponential-airline-industry-corruption/).
  • We failed to optimize the features of many large transportation vehicles that induced many of their otherwise riders into countless single- or low-occupancy personal vehicles (see https://transalt.com/article/survival-and-prosperity-part-1-magic-corridors/ and https://transalt.com/article/survival-and-prosperity-part-2-the-magic-coach/).
  • We introduced unbridled corruption and waste into the non-emergency medical transportation (NEMT) service sector (see https://transalt.com/article/uber-and-lyft-even-worse-than-expected/ and https://transalt.com/article/defending-contractors-part-3-the-whistleblowers-song/).
    To lower costs at the expense of decreasing service quality, public agencies increasingly contracted out service to private companies and. more recently, to brokers (see https://transalt.com/article/defending-contractors-part-1-lead-agencies-and-brokers/; https://transalt.com/article/defending-contractors-part-6-contracting-fixed-route-transit/ and https://transalt.com/article/defending-contractors-part-2-the-history-of-contracting-and-brokerage/).
  • We allowed corrupt new services (TNCs, like Uber and Lyft) to decimate grossly-underutilized services (like taxi service) that could have contributed greatly to a seamless hierarchy of modes (see https://transalt.com/article/bad-regulations-and-worse-responses-part-1-introduction/; https://transalt.com/article/bad-regulations-and-worse-responses-part-2-the-rise-fall-and-transformation-of-supershuttle/; https://transalt.com/article/bad-regulations-and-worse-responses-part-3-invasion-of-the-tncs/; https://transalt.com/article/bad-regulations-and-worse-responses-part-4-judicial-heroism/; https://transalt.com/article/bad-regulations-and-worse-responses-part-5-executive-branch-responses/; https://transalt.com/article/bad-regulations-and-worse-responses-part-6-industry-and-association-responses/ and https://transalt.com/article/bad-regulations-and-worse-responses-part-7-conclusions/) .
  • We squandered enormous resources on a poorly-structured, nationwide rail system (see https://transalt.com/article/covid-19-shenanigans-and-liability-part-2-making-money-by-compromising-health/ ).
  • We allowed the backbone of our transportation system – fixed route transit and passenger rail – to absorb and waste extraordinary amounts of subsidy funds.
  • We failed to spread peak service demand over a broader number of hours (see https://transalt.com/article/making-public-transportation-work-part-1-alternative-work-schedules/).
  • We failed to electrify numerous modes (the exceptions being AMTRAK and many passenger rail services).
  • We allowed the operation of extraordinarily-wasteful, costly and energy-inefficient modes like electric VTOL taxis.
  • We subjected passengers to extraordinary risk by legitimizing dangerous services, like “party buses” (see https://transalt.com/article/the-party-bus/).
  • We totally ignored any efforts to match our drivers’ sleep/wakefulness cycles to the hours to which they choose to operate on the basis of seniority – ignoring fundamental principles of safety (see https://transalt.com/article/bio-sensitive-driver-assignment-part-i/ and https://transalt.com/article/bio-sensitive-driver-assignment-part-ii/), subjecting them to what I coined as “bus lag” (see https://transalt.com/article/bus-lag-part-1-non-driving-off-duty-and-awake-the-whole-time-on-hos-requirements/; https://transalt.com/article/bus-lag-part-2-on-duty-driving-and-sound-asleep-the-limits-of-hos-requirements/; https://transalt.com/article/bus-lag-part-3-the-invisible-log/; https://transalt.com/article/bus-lag-part-4-the-invisible-log-redux-logs-black-boxes-and-spoliation/ and https://transalt.com/article/bus-lag-part-5-skipping-the-in-between/).
  • We continue to subject our most vulnerable passengers to the greatest risks (see https://transalt.com/article/safety-compromises-part-11-wheelchair-and-passenger-securement/ — as well as fail to perform safety-related tasks that a seeing eye dog would recognize as dangerous (see https://transalt.com/article/safety-compromises-part-8-boarding-and-alighting/ and https://transalt.com/article/safety-compromises-part-5-failing-to-kneel-the-bus-or-coach/).
  • We postponed improvements to the infrastructure needed to support these services and permit them to operating efficiently, including those which could have operated safely at significantly higher speeds.
  • We continue to make efforts to eliminate drivers altogether (see https://transalt.com/article/autonomous-and-inevitable-part-1-what-is-to-come-and-what-is-already-here/; https://transalt.com/article/autonomous-and-inevitable-part-2-invasion-by-mode-small-vehicles/; https://transalt.com/article/autonomous-and-inevitable-part-3-extraordinary-developments-and-tough-choices/; https://transalt.com/article/autonomous-and-inevitable-part-4-invasion-by-mode-large-vehicles/; https://transalt.com/article/autonomous-and-inevitable-part-5-the-regulatory-environment-initial-thoughts/; https://transalt.com/article/autonomous-and-inevitable-part-6-the-transition-to-complete-autonomy/; https://transalt.com/article/autonomous-inevitable-part-7-cameras-and-sensors/; https://transalt.com/article/autonomous-and-inevitable-part-8-access-and-accountability/ and https://transalt.com/article/autonomous-and-inevitable-part-9-conclusion-the-best-of-both-worlds/).
  • Dim Past, Tenuous Future, Curious Opportunities

    The world of failure is saturated with cliches. You reap what you sow. Don’t put off until tomorrow what you should do today. On and on.

    I repeated (in abbreviated form) the litany of criticisms from Part 1 of this installment in this one for a reason: The numbers about ridership, traffic, travel time, etc. do not make sense. They do not add up. Consistent travel times and traffic remain basically the same despite astonishing drops in transit and automobile ridership levels (see Part 1 for more details). A major reason for these peculiarities is unavoidable: In it’s pathetic current state, transit is accomplishing almost nothing but squandering large sums of public funds. As noted above, enormous sums are being wasted on often crooked, and clearly stupid, transportation projects that accomplish nothing but enriching selected companies and individuals.

    The unfortunate reality of our public transportation services is that we have failed to do the things that make transit work, and have done almost everything to make it not work. (And I did not get into tight schedules, missed connections, rude drivers, crooked union officials who help retain the “bad apples,” and other points covered in Part 1.) The reality is that if we fail to reverse these failures, much of transit will be gone in a few years. Increasingly rich White conservatives are not going to pay enormous sums to enable a handful of poor minorities to ride costly transit for free.

    I am not suggesting that all this has been a plot. We are not that clever. But we already do not tax people with money. Many wish to cut back social security and Medicare funding levels. In this environment, the combination of free transit and low ridership do not stand a chance of being funded in many parts of the country – traffic be damned. These po’ folks can waste their time in traffic. The rich ones can accomplish a lot in modern limousines. The richest can whisk through town in electrified helicopters. Certainly, drivers are on their way out – with all the problems that their robot replacements will cause. Pilots are next. But the majority of “ambulance chasers” get more stupid, lazy, cheap and crooked seemingly by the day. Yet they are the only force in the loop to hold unsafe public transportation accountable. They will not remotely do so. For this, many regulatory agencies perform the same minimalist roles they have performed for decades. Many – like highway patrols and traffic cops – have been thinned out, and in many places, are so sparce they seem invisible. As a consequence, they provide little deterrence to carnage. U.S. motorcoach drivers can operate whenever they want as long as the hours are theoretically limited. This is not true in Canada, Europe or Australia. A U.S. motorist must carry $15,000/$30,000 of insurance coverage in most states. Canadian motorists must carry $1,000,000 worth. Why would anyone expect safe transportation in America?

    Lemmings and Opportunists

    I would not bet on it materializing, but this set of circumstances opens up an enormous range of opportunities for innovative motorcoach operators willing to invest their time and money. More and more service is contracted out – usually to save money, and eliminate lead agencies’ needs to monitor or manage service. But if contractors can insist on correcting the principles that many members of the public transportation industry abandoned – like insisting on having enough buses to keep the schedules on time, applying the quality of customer service motorcoach operators are know for to transit service, and displaying safety practices visible to all or most passengers (like securing wheelchairs and eliminating safety compromises (see https://safetycompromises.com/) – transit riders will return.

    This need not happen nationally. One transit agency’s noticeable improvements will regain ridership in that service area. More ridership will translate into more revenue and lower subsidies. And if savvy operators can teach transit agencies how to write effective RFPs and hold lead agencies accountable, even more is possible: The negative dynamics noted above are happening in the context of poorer and poorer riders, and much greater transit dependence. So the improvements noted should have much greater impacts, and ridership levels should increase noticeably. Only a few savvy operators need effect these changes. Their businesses and territories will explode, and they will become large and rich. If they fail, TNCs will quickly fill the vacuum – as they are already doing is almost every mode, including motorcoach and even NEMT and schoolbus service.

    The transit industry had been a dismal failure, and is flirting with elimination for the second time in its history. Taxpayers will not continue to provide fare-free transit and low ridership. Both trends must be reversed. We we are dreaming if we think that this can happen without subsidies. But taxpayers should not have to pay for almost every penny of service. They did not do so in the past, when riders were not nearly as poor or desperate. But the ideas and innovations were far superior. Regardless, to provide what subsidies are needed, the taxpayers at the local and state levels must see some progress. Much of it can come from the motorcoach industry, which until the emergence of COVID-19, was rolling along – even while it was not growing, and even while many owners did not brandish gold pinky rings.

    Recent trends like automotive industry strikes that produced a doubling of wages are promising. Of course, Americans need cars. But to have sane cities and freeways, they also need transit. If we expect transit to survive, we will have to earn the riders back. National Bus Trader has devoted scores of articles about how to do this, including many new roles, and how to restore the missing pieces to traditional roles. Most of them are accessible via the links above, and described in greater length in Part 1 of this series.

    If you wish to see much transit disappear – altogether in many cities, or fade to a skeleton of service in others — continue to do nothing. But a few sharp operators can seize the opportunities, city by city, and make great strides. It costs taxpayers nothing to allow music to be free. But they will not continue to pay for the combination of fare-free transit and low ridership, particularly as costs increase and ridership continues to shrink.

    We can become an international embarrassment in this field. Or a handful of clever, dedicated operators can provide examples of success – and possibly take over more and more turf such that transit restores itself to at least a portion of its former self – at least in many places. If this does not happen, do not blame the government, The public sector has shown it cannot perform. Making public transportation work, and helping make life in our urban and suburban areas sane, is up to you.

    Publications: National Bus Trader.