Where Have All the Riders Gone?

by James A. Bacon

Where have all the riders gone? That’s the question transit agencies are asking nationally, but nowhere more urgently than in the Washington metropolitan area. Rail and bus ridership for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) fell 6% in the fiscal year ending July 31, a decrease of 20 million trips. Ridership had been forecast to increase slightly, according to the Washington Post‘s Martin Di Caro.

The fall-off in Metro rail traffic, which tumbled 7%, is at least comprehensible. Metro has been plagued by accidents, delays, interruptions and maintenance backlogs that have left many commuters disgusted with the service. But ridership on WMATA’s bus lines declined, too, while New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and other cities with large mass-transit systems have seen falling ridership.

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.  This decade was supposed to experience a great mass transit revival as growth and development shifted back to the urban core, and as Millennials and Empty Nesters gravitated to walkable, mixed-use communities served by commuter rail. Millennials were supposedly abandoning the idea of car ownership in favor of walking, biking and transit.

Although there are plenty of theories about what’s happening, no single explanation has emerged as decisive. Ridership was down across all time periods, days of the week, and nearly all individual stations, although losses were especially severe in off-peak periods,” states one WMATA document cited in the article. Di Caro summarizes the possible explanations:

Demographic changes, the rise of telework, the proliferation of transport alternatives such as Uber or Capital Bikeshare, the economic downturn and reductions in federal spending, constant weekend track work over the past five years – all have combined with consistently poor rush hour service to drain Metrorail ridership.

Mass transit authorities across the country are focusing on the dramatic ridership gains by Uber, Lyft and other “e-dispatching taxis.” Their effect seems to be most pronounced late at night and early at morning when transit service is spottiest. But there is no research to support a conclusion that the Uber revolution is capturing millions of commuter trips.

Demographic changes should be favoring mass transit, not hurting it. So should the economy, which, though sluggish, is growing. As for Capital Bikeshare, total ridership ran about 2 million last year. Any increase in ridership could have diverted only a tiny percentage of Metro passengers.

Bacon’s bottom line: I have no explanation for the decline, which I didn’t anticipate. I have never been a transit utopian, but I thought that social and economic trends did portend at least a modest shift from single occupancy vehicles to bus and rail. Clearly, I was wrong.

What set me apart from other transit advocates was a reluctance to spend heavily to build expensive new commuter-rail facilities that had no hope from the get-go of supporting themselves financially. Private developers, not government entities, should take the risk that notoriously unreliable traffic projections would pan out.

WMATA, already facing a multibillion maintenance backlog, now must divert millions of dollars slated for critical preventive maintenance to cover the the operating the revenue deficit. The authority is staring at a vicious cycle. Less maintenance = poorer service = fewer riders and revenue. The WMATA board is considering a fare hike to help cover the revenue gap. But higher fares drives off riders as well. The deficit could surpass $150 million this year.

Until the dynamics driving mass transit ridership are better understood, it would be advisable for Virginia localities to revisit their assumptions underpinning proposed projects like Virginia Beach light rail and Richmond Bus Rapid Transit. Their ridership and revenue projections are almost certainly flawed. The same applies to toll-funded highway megaprojects, such as the $2 billion in Interstate 66 improvements. Given the precarious condition of the global economy, the fragility of the sovereign debt bubble, and the vulnerability of Virginia to cutbacks in federal spending, we need to be more disciplined than ever with our capital spending.

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37 responses to “Where Have All the Riders Gone?”

  1. The highway system greatly subsidizes motor transportation. I’m not sure fuel and license taxes ever paid the whole bill, and they certainly do not today. Why require that transit operate without a subsidy? It’s a notable public good, supporting efficient use of land and citizen resources.

    1. Highways and transit projects alike should operate without subsidies. All modes of transportation should be converted to pay-their-own way financing. That’ll never happen, of course. The transportation funding “reform” of the McDonnell administration eliminated the last vestiges of pay-their-own way. Now everything subsidizes everything else, which makes it impossible to make economically rational decisions. Just one more reason why our country and state are going down the drain.

  2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    Acbar helped to explain a substantial portion of the problem today with mass transit generally in his Sept 5, 3.18 pm comment to Jim’s article “Embrace the Uber-enabled Mass Transit Revolution.”
    In today’s world times has sped up. It’s lightening fast. Quick, indeed instant, convenience is most everything to people now. Standing around waiting for things in an anathema is today’s rising generation who seek, get, and are habituated to, instant gratification.

    Take a bus or subway, walk to get there, wait for the damn thing, wait for all the stops along the way, wait to exit, then walk some more to where you want to go, lose control the whole way. FORGET THAT!

  3. Telecommuting must account for some portion of this. Do the studies indicate increased single vehicle ridership?

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    If you define NoVA to be in terms of the jurisdictions that have METRO lines in some portion of them – if you look at them in terms of growth – what would it be compared to the exurban ring beyond that which is also considered NoVa because of the commuting from those locations.

    Time is money more than ever – and what you can do with a smartphone is something you don’t have to do with a car – or Metro.

    the fact that transit ridership is down in other metro areas also – tends to indicate that some bigger thing is going on than just the Washington area stuff and it might be something simple like the price of gasoline.

    people don’t like transit – especially the waiting but waiting in traffic doesn’t seem to hold the same dislike… maybe sitting in a comfortable seat listening to your favorite music…is a better way to “wait”?

  5. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd


    Each of all things depends on its own distinct ecology to thrive.

    Nothing is static.

    A host of subtle changes will over time infect and permeate all ecologies of all things, killing off some things while growing others. Typically in the times in between, weeds will grow before new and dominate species arrive on the scene and conquer it, only to be liquidated and conquered in turn over time.

    For example, consider the life and times of: An upland bog versus the lowland tidal marsh that is farthest downstream from it, versus all those moving waters that lay between the bog and marsh as they all connect, feed, and alter each other. An upland bog on the Dolly Sods West Virginia lends flavor to its resultant tidal marsh outside Reedsville Virginia.

    This is how all things work. All things are in flux, interacting over time, space, and circumstance, each with all other things, no matter how alien and distant, to create and destroy ecologies that spew out life and eats it too, all in anticipation of more life.

    This also is how mass transit works. And particularly so, given how Mass Transit works – every day all day long and for much of the night as it connects, feeds, and alters (and in turn is fed and altered by) whole hosts of wildly disparate things of all sorts and kinds throughout an entire region(s), each one made up of wildly different things both near near and far away.

    So mass transit by its inherent nature thrives or dies a little each day within the ever changing ecology on which it, and all things within its ecology, dearly depend.

    The ubiquity of the forces at work here are everywhere and endless.

    An I-Pad can slay a locomotive. Or a city, or a town. And an U-Pad can make a different kind of new one of each bloom and boom. Like the Aspen Institute did. Along with mountains, jets, music, great ideas, and bicycles. All put together at the right time at the right place by the right people. Or combinations thereof close enough to get things wonderfully right over time after trial and error, and hard work by a few that inspired the rest, and still do.

    So likely the key to success is in isolating then joining together things in the optimal way at the best possible time and place, then managing it right.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      For one of endless example – Think about the loss of mass transit traffic that results from the recent explosion over the past 15 years of people of working age who are unemployed but are no longer seeking employment so no longer take mass transit to work at rush hour, but instead these permanently unemployed entertain themselves at mostly at home, or drive their cars aimlessly around during the day.

    2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Our major cities and there satellite suburbs (think McLean, Fairfax) are flooding with ever more affluent people who more and more refuse to take mass transit, buses or subways. This flood of wealthy demanding residents is pushing out the poor and middle class out of densely urban areas and nearby every more affluent suburban areas. Every year these rapidly changing demographics drains the pool of urban and nearby suburban customers that mass transit counts on.

      Meanwhile dysfunctional local governments, unable to confront the Not in my backyard crowd, are unable to enlarge urban and suburban pools of lower cost housing in or near transit stations, or bus stop lines.

    3. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Meanwhile, telecommuting grows as more and more former mass commuter types are pushed farther and farther out from convenient mass transit, while sky-rocketing road gridlock and draconian tolls choke off other transit options for office workers who drove or took what earlier had been convenient mass transit to work before.

      Will more roads and tolls halt, slow, or reverse these trends? Or likely not? Or more likely only make them worse?

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    is the US fundamentally different than Europe and Asia when it comes to transit – and the use of technology to render transit less relevant?

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      Larry, I am of the impression that, with certain exceptions as New York City, most of the United States lacks the density that makes transit more cost effective.

      As I’ve written numerous times, the Silver Line failed the federal government’s test for cost effectiveness and eligibility for funding, in part because of the lack of density. Fairfax County DOT officials have said often that most of the county is not dense enough to support regular, day-long bus service.

      And, “yes,” more telecommuting is having an effect on ridership volumes. I think the data show many more federal employees telecommute now than they did a decade or two ago.

  7. A few observations:

    1. Jim points out the unexpected decline in mass transit ridership relative to what was forecast. We don’t have to debate here whether mass transit makes sense in all circumstances, in order to conclude that where it exists in the U.S., its ridership [surprisingly and unexpectedly] is falling off.

    2. Washington’s Metro is, as lawyers tend to say, “a hard case [that] makes bad law.” It was built with a horrible design flaw: only two tracks throughout, so service must essentially be shut down in order to undertake major track/ROW repairs (single tracking is slow and ineffective). It was handicapped at the outset by imposing the Davis-Bacon Act and other utopian artifacts of the Great Society within the Compact, and by assuming that bus drivers had the basic skills appropriate to running a railroad. And it has remained hamstrung by the four-headed political Monster that governs it, some of which have tried from time to time to undermine the others. The unreliability and lack of safety that have plagued its operations recently certainly is taking its toll.

    3. New York strikes me as very much a generational success story for mass transit. The striking difference there is that there’s no parallel universe for what you do by car and what you do by transit. Young people moving to New York are totally committed to making mass transit work fully in their lives: identify a new friend and the first thing these young people in Brooklyn or Queens or Manhatten do is exchange subway stop info. Many don’t even own a car but do everything by rail or bus or taxi or Uber, or the occasional rental car for vacations. Where to live is planned to minimize the commute and maximize the shopping access. I don’t know of any other U.S. city with such a sense of commitment expected and given.

    4. But elsewhere? Jim says, “as Millennials and Empty Nesters gravitated to walkable, mixed-use communities served by commuter rail . . . [they] were supposedly abandoning the idea of car ownership in favor of walking, biking and transit.” I don’t agree. I think those Millennials Jim mentioned have more common sense and strive for more balance in their lives than planners give them credit for. They want more options, including the physical exercise, the walkability, the bike trails, but as options on sunny days not as irrevocable commitments for every day, every trip, every where. The big box stores, even yuppie stores like WholeFoods, are still unreachable except by car. Friends in the suburbs, or even urban areas ill-served by rail or BRT, are essentially unreachable for visits except by car; likewise sports fields and recreational outings and most restaurants. Yes, that car can be supplied by Uber, and some do make that option work, but it’s not a total life-style commitment like mass-transit in Brooklyn. Commuting by transit can work, and in northern Virginia does work for many in spite of Metro’s glitches, but most weekend travel around here still seems to be POV. And as long as you have that POV anyway, you are likely to use it whenever time and convenience are at a premium.

    5. So, why the ridership decline (outside DC)? DiCaro’s list of impacts strikes me as correct but I’d add one more. The scattering of businesses and office-hotels away from the old center-city locations, along with flex-time hours, has undermined the planning assumptions behind mass transit, like Metro, planned primarily to serve commuters. Those who want to use mass transit for lifestyle reasons likely will continue to do so, but those who were forced into it reluctantly by traffic congestion now have new ways to avoid it. I see the current fall-off as an overdue adjustment to commuting patterns of the past century. As Reed noted, ‘all things are in flux.’

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Good and useful observations.

      Stated and elaborated another way – Until we start building most all our cities on, and pack them tightly into, long narrow islands that are surrounded by water, mass transit will not come anyway near to solving America’s growing transportation problems in and around its large and growing cities and suburbs.

      Instead, by and large, most all of our new solutions will more likely be found by leapfrogging old and new fixed mass transit, whether it be road or rail, with new and highly flexible technologies (including) its software that relieves burden on, and enhances the effectiveness of, existing road and rail infrastructure, and also perhaps in many cases substitutes for new road and rail altogether, particularly if new traffic eating land use measures can be put into cities, suburbs and hinterlands as well.

      1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

        Density at Metrorail stations makes sense. People who live or work near the stations (1/4 mile walking distance) are much more likely to use Metrorail. On that point, Fairfax County’s June 2010 Comp Plan amendment for Tysons was and remains good. (For purposes of this discussion, I’m accepting the premise that we need to make the best use of the Silver Line since it’s here.) Similarly, the County’s plans to add density at other rail stations makes sense. It put high density within 1/4 mile of the four Tysons rail stations.

        But having done this, the County decides to add density at other “activity centers” even when they are not served by rail or even BRT. I think a BRT system with dedicated RoW can handle increased density. Not as much as rail, but more than locations served by ordinary bus service and roads only. Since land at these non-rail locations (there aren’t any BRT stations yet) is much cheaper than land surrounding Metrorail stations, there is an economic incentive to add density at the former and create competition for landowners at the latter. What sense does that make? IMO, absolutely no sense whatsoever. Especially, since the Tysons landowners are paying extra taxes for transportation, while their new competitors are not.

        Moreover, Fairfax County’s Transit Oriented Development Plan specifically rejected the idea that density should be allowed near bus stops, but limited it to rail stations. Now the County ignores it own policy. The County should reopen the TOD policy to address BRT, which can handle some more density, but not equal to rail. Again, the County’s actions make no sense. Why have a policy that is simply ignore?

        Insanity by Virginia’s largest jurisdiction.

    2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Here are some related comments I made back on April 28, 2016 beneath Jim Bacon’s article entitled “Even the Washington Post has noticed that Metro is Failing”:

      Thank you Washington Post also for getting serious about good local news coverage of real problems. We can now add the names of Robert McCartney and Paul Duggan to those of Rees Shapiro, and Antonio Oliva, who are now are working hard and here successfully to raise the the startling drop of journalistic standards at the Washington Post over the past two decades.

      Hopefully the Post will reinforce this trend in the future. This story has still has many unexplored and yet to be fully explored aspects.


      There are a number of ways to create these assurances. By far the best way is to build the subway along a route where the transit fares are, or almost surely will be, sufficient to pay the cost of the subways maintenance once built. To the degree that traffic demand is not then in place at any given location, the local jurisdictions should guarantee those future projections of usage along those stops. This should include, without limitation, those locales putting in place UP FRONT the zoning and land use along that route, and around those stops along the way, to assure all users throughout the system that private developers can build the densities necessary to pay for all maintenance cost of the subway first before any debt service, thus subordinating debt service to maintenance, and thereafter serve debt too.

      In addition no expansion should be allowed until these mechanisms are in place and operating successfully.

      The central driving failure of the DC subway was the failure demand these assurances from the local jurisdictions before construction, and the abject failure in many cases of the local jurisdictions to build densities along the route of the subway in their areas as necessary to support the subway.

      Instead, the local jurisdictions were in many cases cowed by local residents who took and still take full advantage of subways stops in their neighborhoods yet refuse to allow others to move near to and/or commute to those stops as necessary to support the subways cost and maintenance.

      Two of the most grievous examples of such irresponsible governance are the DC subway stops at Tenleytown and Friendship Heights both just inside the DC line. These stops are grossly underutilized simply because “the not in my back yard crowd” refuse to allow sufficient multi family and commericial over and around these two otherwise urban locations to support the subway they otherwise take full and selfish advantage of for themselves daily.

      In addition the oversight, responsibility and accountability for the operation and maintenance of the existing subway system should be taken out of the hands of the Boards of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority Boards whose members are both incompetent, and lack the power, to fulfill their duties, given their gross lack of experience to do their jobs, and their own overwhelming political agendas that thwarts of the public interests.

      For example, Washington Post, ask your owner Jeff Bezos if he would ever allow his company Amazon to operated by these people on the WMATA board. And allow them to do so under the system they use to operate and manage the Washington subway. As the Post article points out, this system running DC Metro as it is currently constituted is guaranteed to fail.

      In an earlier comment on another post I wrote about the vagaries of building and managing large infrastructure systems. Those comments are below. I was naive to not mention below the accident waiting to happen that is built into the governance and oversight system build into DC’s subway.

      “But, like everything in life in the real world, mass transit and its success and its failures are all about how, when, why, where, and by whom, it is planned and designed and built, and how and by whom it is thereafter maintained, improved, and looked after, and even then it is also subject to the vagaries of luck and chance. And also to many other unexpected circumstances (related and unrelated) including the ever present Murphy’s Law. This also is how the real world works, Larry. As earlier I pointed out.

      With regard with that approach to how the real world actually works in real time and in what it takes to get major things accomplished in that world, it is typically wise for any player to look at and appraise those developers, bureaucrats, politicians, labor bosses, and everyone else involved in any major project in which he is involved or counts on, and do so as one might appraise a doctor about to operate on him or an opposing Indian Chief he might have to go to war against and with – namely:

      At the end of the day, each and every one of them is a human being. As such each and every one of them is among the most complicated, variable, and inexplicable of all living things. All we have is their record if available.

      But as humans beings they, like everyone else alive, makes mistakes. Always remember that and also that:

      They make mistakes “for reasons good and bad, some beyond their control, some unconsciously made, others not … and many for a wide range of reasons, with and without good cause, and many do more damage, pain and harm than is necessary, or more than they otherwise would have done had they done their job better, more wisely, with excellence, and/or properly.”

      This is true in most everything people do. And so people do it in real estate development, including the building and operating of mass transit systems, which like so many things in this world is an inherently complicated and risky venture that requires a vast and varied array of talents that span the full spectrum of human talents, all of which are far more subjective than all humans (including engineers) by their nature are typically willing to admit.

      And so its true that all those who build mass transit systems or influence how they are built, whether for good or ill, are all “human beings susceptible to frequent error, bad judgment, off days, and are good at some things while bad at others, and sometimes most all of them shade the truth and/or spin it and/or hide it and or outright lie for good reason, bad reason, and misguided reason …

      And even the best of those involved in mass transit systems can go bad. This happens for many reasons – their age or health or finances or issues at home to flaws in their character ranging from hubris to narrow mindedness to rampant prejudices, to greed and envy, to sudden desperation or outright evil, and much in between.

      These truths are everywhere around us, in all we do, and in everyone we meet or otherwise encounter, friend or foe, or the guy passing by. All these truths and their consequences impact us. Every one of us every day. All we can do is take what responsibility we can and do with it the best we can. And keep it in mind when we judge other people, particularly by group.”

      Acbar | April 27, 2016 at 9:00 pm | Reply

      “The central driving failure of the DC subway was the failure [to] demand these [zoning and land use] assurances from the local jurisdictions before construction, and the abject failure in many cases of the local jurisdictions to build densities along the route of the subway in their areas as necessary to support the subway.”

      Wow. If I were designing a for-profit suburban rail system before WWI, with real estate sales on the side, and amusement parks at the end of the line to induce ridership, I’d agree with you about the land density, RF — but which is the cause and which the effect? Today, it seems to me that any urban mass transit system is only a small part of an intricate web of urban cross-subsidies, and thus subsidizing the transit system itself with tax dollars from a broader base than users (like, all gas purchasers) is only one more layer of abuse to the primacy of private enterprise. Our zoning and land use policies have created the suburbs and the downtown and the ghettos we now try to stitch back together; why should they be reconfigured to serve the transit system rather than the other way ’round? Once upon a time the city was a close-knit mix of small neighborhoods of rich and poor and small commercial storefronts. We dismembered that; we consigned the poor to places out of sight and out of mind so our suburban vistas wouldn’t be tarnished. Don’t we at least owe them subsidized transportation to where we need to employ them to do the manual and clerical labor we require? I have a problem with blaming the failure of our subway system on inadequate revenue due to lack of density.

      That said, we completely agree, the politicians who refuse to take advantage of the tax base they could build, if they took full advantage of the density opportunities made available to them by mass transit, are without courage, without fortitude, without excuse in my opinion, like so many politicians we see around us, doing their own part to subsidize the residents of those low density neighborhoods about the subway stops in, yes, Tenleytown, and also Clarendon and East Falls Church, with tax dollars foregone (and replaced by levies from other sources).

      In practical effect, this is how the highly successful Connecticut Avenue and Chevy Chase were built and developed, although developers paid much of cost. But it was a win win, a gift that keeps on giving to DC and Maryland. DC refuses again and again to do same thing with Wisconsin Ave. This is absolutely crazy and irresponsible.

      I do not believe in building mass transit that cannot pay for itself. That is where the worst sort of corruption starts, people spending other peoples money, which today in our society amount to nothing more than theft.

      If mass transit cannot reasonably support itself don’t build it. What is so radical about that?

      Obviously too there are complexities. Monies generated from mass transit include not only fares but also a plethora of bundled wealth generators. Sales and real estate taxes to name only the most obvious.

      In addition I suggest that the less dense Clarendon is not subsidized by Courthouse, Virginia Square or Ballston. Instead Clarendon is dramatic and dynamic part of a carefully crafted holistic fabric of inter-related new neighborhoods whose parts now work together to create a cumulative whole that is far greater than is parts.

      Conversely, Tenleytown and Friendship heights DC are the reverse. A irrational example of politicians and a pampered ideologically driven group of residents defeating the public good, building neighborhoods whose whole is less than its parts. And doing so in league with the Board of the Metropolitan Washington Area Transit Authority Board who refuse to allow the development of their bus repair and storage yard that sits atop its own subway stop that comprises on of the best redevelopment sites in the entire United States. Hence their corruption.

      I cannot speak with confident as to Falls Church, given its complex geography, political, and historic fabric, but suspect that it too may well be in the same bag with Wisconsin Ave, but for different reasons.

      For Most details and excellent comments by others on this subject See:


      1. So you’ve induced me to reminisce, also, and it was useful to revisit those comments from April. I should not have picked on Clarendon as a low-density mistake: the protection of Lyon Village has indeed been tastefully and successfully executed along with the higher densities along Wilson and Clarendon Blvds and the Sears parking lot conversion. That said, the debate over preserving Colonial Village and the low-density aspects of Lyon Village, and even the lower densities north of Washington Boulevard from there west to W-L H.S., has yielded a rather different outcome than economics alone would seem to dictate, and did dictate in the immediate Courthouse and Virginia Square (and yes Clarendon) areas with the planners’ support. Overall, Arlington’s approach to the Orange Line was 1000% better than the District’s to its western Red Line as you point out — not to mention the District’s caving in to opponents of the entire planned stop in Georgetown because of the cave-dwellers’ “keep the riff-raff out” objections at the time. I love your description: “An irrational example of politicians and a pampered ideologically driven group of residents defeating the public good, building neighborhoods whose whole is less than its parts. ” Nonetheless, our debate about the interplay between transit and densities seems no closer to resolving the underlying question: “but which is the cause and which the effect?”

  8. Let’s see. Gas has been less than $2 a gallon even here in Alexandriz

    Metro’s Problems:

    Too pricey, safety issues, Safe Tracking, Violent crimes, inflated lazy work force, fires, falling roof tiles. Etc.

    They also do not have a dedicated stream of funding, making it difficult to plan ahead and set budgets.

    Improvements to infrastructure isn’t sexy for politicians. Being able to point to new projects like the silver line is what politicians want to see.

    Do roads pay for themselves? Especially given that McDonnel slighty raised the gas tax, but raised many taxes that do not relate to transportation with the proceeds going to transportation.

    VRE has seen record ridership this summer during metros safe tracking.

  9. I don’t have the data any more (back in Dulles Rail days…), but if you go back and look at WMATA’s own historical predictions for its own ridership and financial self-reliance, you will find a history of WILDLY optimistic predictions.

    You noted your befuddlement at the failure of mass transit, I would suggest that (aside from BRT) mass transit relies first on 19th century technology that is totally inflexible, and 2nd that the more flexible part of WMATA’s system (buses) is planned and executed so inflexibly (to say nothing of expensive operations), that absent density that doesn’t exist today outside of NY City, it cannot succeed as a simple matter of Math. One example of inflexibility with buses… how long does it take to shut down an empty bus route? Answer: forever.

    I would also note that going back to the beginning is helpful in understanding the built-in failure of heavy rail’s inflexibility. Back in the 60’s, the planners expected work travel patterns (something you are very familiar with Jim) to remain heavily in and out of D.C. FOREVER… didn’t quite work out that way, and they had almost zero flexibility to make useful and cost-effective adjustments.

    1. Very true. Rail lines are inherently inflexible. It is more difficult for them to adapt to changes in travel patterns. Adaptability and flexibility are interesting criteria to use when appraising modal alternatives. Those criteria would seem to favor cars, biking and walking.

    2. LarrytheG Avatar

      maybe some confusion here – maybe on my part…


      rail as infrastructure – is no more inflexible than road as infrastructure except that roads are more ubiquitous – their ability to “serve” higher densities also are problematic especially at rush hour.

      It’s not that buses and their routes are “inflexible” per se – a given bus route that is largely empty 24/7 is easy to discontinue; the problem is what do you do with a route that is busy at peak hour then empty outside of peak hour or that ridership itself can and does vary according to how development evolves.

      curb cuts and access to roads are the given default condition – for ANY development at ANY time in ANY location – so the road access is automatic …and essentially optimized for SOV to operate “whenever” for “whoever” where-as ANY HOV whether it be car or van or bus – would not be tailorable to each individual’s schedule but rather some compromise.

      I’m not trying to justify transit over road but rather recognize that what transit is trying to do is serve groups rather than individuals and in that regard Uber and similar services – even if they operated vans and jitney’s would not ramp up and down according to demand – for the same price to ride – they actually would, in effect, discourage peak hour travel by pricing it higher. (which is also true of private auto in terms of time-delaying congestion).

      so the question is – is Transit itself – as a concept – a failure or is the claim essentially that – there are no good models of transit operation that “work” …

      I do not think it is a “government” problem myself.

      Any entrepreneur has always been free to propose to any area operating transit – to let them take it over and do it “better” than government would by using more “flexible” “market” principles.

      This would be likely no different than the private sector suggesting it could operate law enforcement, 911, EMS, water/sewer, fire service, etc … “cheaper” than govt and propose PPA market solutions.

      Surely in the entire USA (or world) there are private sector transit operations upon which to compare against govt-operated operations , no? And if not, what does that actually mean?

      that transit is not a service that should be offered because it cannot be provided without a cost to taxpayers?

      1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

        The inflexibility of rail (it’s not going away) is reason to build density within 1/4 mile of the stations. Bus routes change as does frequency of service. It cannot justify dense construction.

  10. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: bad density fit for METRO – and everywhere else except NY.

    Isn’t the premise that you build it – and they will come and be dense?

    same issue with highways… if you wait until development occurs and takes the Row… you end up stymied…. so with transportation – it’s chicken/egg…

    so… not dense enough for METRO – too dense for more interstate-scope/scale highways?

    and it’s not just the Wash DC metro area – geeze – virtually every single major METRO area in the US has some variant of these issues…

    Chicago, (which does have the EL), Houston, LA, Atlanta, Charlotte, Seattle and a couple of dozen more – they all suck at rush hour.. they ALL have some kind of beltway, are “spread-out” , they ALL have some version of sprawl.

    what HAS changed is that MOST of the named cities above NOW have tolls roads and some version of congestion pricing.

    by the way- in VA – NoVa and Hampton have addition .7% sales taxes for transportation. Nova can use it for both road and rail..Hampton only road.

    it’s a significant chunk of money – about 300 million a year for NoVa. That money is shared by NoVa so it would take agree to dedicate some of it for METRO but since it is sales tax – everyone is paying for it.

  11. Re: I do not think it is a “government” problem myself. Any entrepreneur has always been free to propose to any area operating transit – to let them take it over and do it “better” than government would by using more “flexible” “market” principles.

    I never thought I’d see you say those words! That is exactly what we have been talking about. Nobody proposes that we abandon transit to the free market — that is what you already basically have today, because the public transit options today are grossly inflexible and ineffective leaving most folks who need transit to get around on their own to find it, unless they happen to live along one of those fixed rail/BRT lines. BUT, Uber has showed up, and people are voting for Uber ‘with their feet’ so to speak. Can we offer Uber the opportunity, while also constraining and/or supplementing the way it serves low income, so that it could do the public transit job better than today’s options? It’s a new opportunity with new challenges — think about how it COULD work.

    And don’t overlook that one large part of the challenge is government itself. Government gets in the way of transit reforms that would be easy if someone had the guts to “just do it.” Take those ghost bus routes, laid out to serve employment patterns of the 1940s and running empty today, with no routes serving current employment centers. Why aren’t they updated? Largely because somewhere, somebody lives out there who uses that bus route once a week and wants it kept the way it is and shows up at the “public hearing” to say so, and nobody else shows up, and no politician will rock that boat if there’s no public clamor for the change. Never mind that there’s a government staff with studies that show clearly where those bus routes OUGHT to run to do the most good.

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      I read articles and heard speakers urge the use of jitney buses for lower income and, especially, recent lower income immigrant communities. If we can work out the issues for Uber and Lyft, I suspect that, with the will, we could work out regulatory issues for jitney buses.

      But so much of transportation issues today has little to do with the safe and efficient movement of people and goods and more with the enrichment of service providers, contractors, government employees, well-connected landowners and the like.

      1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd


        In many ways and cases, the urban horse and buggy days had more efficient, cost effective, revenue generating and user friendly transportation systems than does Fairfax County today. So did the streets of old Delhi.

        Oh, the billions we waste feeding our corrupt institutions, cultures, entrenched special interests, and oligarchies.

      2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        ‘On Broadway it was still bright afternoon and the gassy air was almost motionless under the leaden spokes of sunlight, and sawdust footprints lay about the doorways of butcher shops and fruit stores. And the great, great crowd, the inexhaustible current of millions of every race and kind pouring out, pressing around, of every age, of every genius, possessors of every every human secret, antique and future, in every face the refinement of one particular motive or essence – I labor, I spend, I strive, I design, I love, I cling, I uphold, I give away, I envy, I long, I scorn, I die, I hide, I want.”

        This is the way American cities use to be, alive, vibrant, up on their feet, going somewhere ’cause of where they’d come from and been.

        “I am an American, Chicago-born,” said Augie, the created son of Solomon Bellows born in Lachine Quebec out of two year emigrants from Saint Petersburg, Russia, the couple Lithuanian Jews Lescha and Abraham Bellows, he from Vilnius.

        These sorts of people, so many of them endless and endlessly creative and absorbent and expressive folks like Elia Kazan (Elias Kazantzoglou), and George Gershwin (son of Moishe Gershowitz also of Saint Petersburg and Roza Bruskina, born also in Vilnius) these people knew and felt and absorbed America far better and deeper than the self satisfied children of earlier arrivals, as the displaced aliens appreciated America more if only because their very lives and breath had depended on America. So they captured Americas cities like New York and Chicago whole, from tenement to waterfront, on the sharpest and deepest and most nuanced of lens deep inside their flesh and their spirit, and inflected those places and peoples and their souls back into us, and our collected memories.

        For the First Quote see “Seize the Day” 1956 by Saul Bellow.

        For the second quote see “The Adventures of Augie March” 1953 by Saul Bellow,

  12. LarrytheG Avatar

    listen …

    Uber deals with peak hour demand by increasing the price.

    big question – what would Uber do for low income riders at peak demand periods?

    bigger question – should taxpayers subsidize Uber “surge pricing” for low income “transit”?

    batter up. what is your answer?

    Hey – I’m ALL FOR – GOOD ANSWERS!!! give me one.

    1. If you’re going to subsidize a transit operation, why NOT increase the subsidy for on-peak transit? The transit provider’s costs on-peak are greater, why not have all users — including the government’s ‘use’ for low income riders — pay more in those hours/for those movements? Call it ‘surge pricing’ if you will, but it’s simply the recognition that flat pricing round-the-clock FAILS to reflect the differences in costs between peak and off-peak. The fewer cross-subsidies built into the pricing model, the better, IMHO.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        @Acbar – are you familiar with a thing called a bus that runs at rush hour and delivers affordable mobility at low cost to taxpayers?

        are you familiar with the concept known has HOV and how it “works” at rush hour compared to a crap load of SOVs?


        so you’d pay Uber how much more than the current transit subsidies to provide surge pricing for low income riders?

        1. How much more? Certainly the cost of Uber: if that’s when the job is available, it’s the government’s task to find a way to get that low income rider to the job even if it costs more. The goal is to get the employee and the employer in a relationship that works, that both realize they want to sustain.

          But you also have to find a way to give the low income user (and the employer) some incentive, all other things equal, to find a job (or shift the time of the job) at/to a time that would take advantage of the cheaper transportation available in off-peak hours, or to HOV mode, etc. How? A couple of ways come to mind: Such as by paying less than 100% of the higher on-peak cost; or by ramping down the transit subsidy after an initial period of time. Maybe I’m just naive but I think most employers will try to accommodate an employee-requested time shift if they’ve had a good experience with an employee who’s built up a little seniority.

          1. LarrytheG Avatar

            whoa – have you just VASTLY EXPANDED the mission of the govt way beyond “transit”?

  13. frank papcin Avatar
    frank papcin

    ha -ha -ha —maybe with the increases in wages the workers could afford to move closer to their jobs?
    maybe they decided to live in cubby holes in those high rises they built?
    maybe they decided to car pool more?
    maybe they just moved to a different part of town, changing the direction they go to work?
    what ever the reason–ridership is down, and all of those smart organizers are running around like chickens without a head wondering what’s next?
    what if ridership keeps falling?–what them
    to be a fly on the wall watching them

  14. LarrytheG Avatar

    so we should provide whatever the cost is from low income workersto get to their jobs that serve higher income folks?

    neat concept!

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      No, but a useful measurement tool, IMO, is how many people can get to a job location and home in a 45 minute commute. The more, the better.

    2. Well, that’s a cynical but accurate way to put it. For day-laborer work, who has the money to pay low income employees but employers with higher incomes? Of course if you’re talking a business job, the business has to be profitable or it will cease; the employer’s own personal income is irrelevant, although probably higher than “low income.” That “neat concept” is not rocket science: if you want to help low income people in an area with crappy public transit get a job, you have to be prepared to help them get to the job — even if it’s at the height of rush hour.

      In fact I think most jobs for day laborers and low-income workers etc. begin and end at off-peak times, or if on-peak they pay enough more to reflect the extra transit burden — but if not, why shouldn’t low income assistance be scaled to include what it takes to get the recipients to the jobs they qualify for in that area?

      Of course there have to be limits — as fp observes, at some point people can’t just suck up more and more transit welfare but should move nearer to where they work, or work nearer where they live!

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        I think you just exploded the problem that you’re expecting the govt to solve – no?

        I was thinking along the lines of how much Uber would cost verses how much transit would cost … if Uber could move all the folks that use transit – for less than what the govt pays to operate transit.

        that would be a no-brainer… right?

        another answer might be for the govt to incentivize affordable housing in areas where lower paid jobs are vital to maintenance and operations of commercial and govt facilities.

        but I never thought along the lines of what you’re suggesting.. that seems to be ripe for govt missteps…getting close to social engineering… no?

  15. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: the more the better

    well it’s how much money you can make in doing the commute – right?

    if you’re making minimum wage – how much commute can you afford?

    If you can’t afford the commute and there is no housing nearby that fits your income – what next?

    here’s the question – if you need lower income people to do basic but vital services – and they cannot afford to live close by -what do you do?

    whose is going to live in Fredericksburg to commute a a minimum wage job in NoVa? How about Prince William? Fairfax?

    where do these folks live and how do they get to work?

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