Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Beware, transit policy wonkery

This is one reason I love blogging. A few days ago I put up a post regarding MARTA operations, and whether to cut rail lines or buses. A commenter, Joel, has corrected the basic premise of my post, that buses are cheaper than rail to run. Please read his entire comment, but be aware it is pretty wonkish. As is the rest of this post. I really didn't know what to say about the latest news involving cutting a whole day of service, anyway. It is all too depressing.
Being a stubborn ass, I couldn't just take Joel's word for it. So I did some research. I should note, that I am NOT a policy expert, or even trained in this stuff in any way. I am just a layman taking a look at raw numbers to try and make sense of it all, because I find what gets reported in the AJC to be lacking (not a dig at the AJC, this sort of thing would bore the crap out of their readers).

Here is what I found on the National Transit Database for 2007 for MARTA. All of these numbers are in the thousands, btw (except for the number of vehicles).

What does that mean? It costs about the same to operate the bus lines and the rail lines, and the rail lines carry more than twice as many passengers. You can see the expense comparisons per vehicle, mile, and passenger mile here:

So Joel's basic point, that it cost less to operate heavy rail per passenger mile, is by far correct. It is in fact 1/3 as expensive.

However, in my defense, I'd like to point out that per vehicle, it is more expensive to operate rail. I have no idea how many vehicles run on a line, but for arguments sake, lets say we are talking about a quarter of the vehicles (let's say we are talking about the entire rail line from Five Points going west).

Vehicles Cut  Expenses Saved 
RAIL   46     $ 42,907 
BUS 120 $ 42,907

You would have to cut almost three times as many buses (or about 23% of the total bus lines) to save as much money. Joel is dead right that in terms of passenger miles, cutting rail would be far worse than because each rail car carries so many more passengers than a bus. Still, I at least had a something that I was right about.

Still, part of what makes MARTA work is that the buses provide a much larger network of service - I know that James, for example, takes two buses and a train to get to work. When I commuted to GSU, I took the #16 Noble.

Trains are the workhorse of the system, but the buses act as feeders. The numbers above are for passenger miles - if I take the bus 1 mile to the station, and then take the station 5 miles to somewhere else, the train counts 5 times the passenger miles. But if you cut my bus route, I can't take the train period. I don't think it is quite as simple as it appears.

Cutting the buses would make sense financially, but how many people lose complete access to transit? Sure, as Joel says, it is a political decision, but it matters. In raw numbers, it makes sense to cut bus service, but the "political" price is denying huge swaths of the city any access to transit.

At the end of the day, this still comes down to a broken funding mechanism. As much as Jill Chambers still wants to make political hay out of MARTA (and it has worked for her so far), I don't think this is a mis-management issue.


  1. Mr. Transit Wonk here again (having finally activated my Blogger profile, hence the different name). Let me preface this by saying that I find your posts informative and highly insightful (and agreeably wonkish!). It was certainly not my intent to correct you or begin a debate, if that's how it sounded-- just throwing in my observations. I am a daily transit user and I a have a deep interest in these issues. I also do this kind of general work for a living, though not really focused in transit.

    I suspect MARTA's higher rail ridership is boosted significantly by airport riders and suburban commuters. Rail is also often busy on weekends with sports events, tourists, etc. This makes it attractive from a bottom-line standpoint to keep rail service as close to current as possible-- riders pay the same fare as on a bus trip, but MARTA is paying less per rider to operate the service. But cutting buses makes it difficult to provide any transit service at all to the same geographic reach and likely strains the bus-to-rail feeder system (which is already somewhat inefficient): instead of one feeder route taking 20 minutes to reach the rail station, it now takes 40 minutes from having to pick up an axed route's former ridership shed.

    I've found many of MARTA's newsworthy proclamations to be rather dramatic, but they do point to a basic statement that you're making (with which I couldn't agree more): the MARTA funding structure is broken and was originally misguided. It is almost always the case that major urban transit systems spend far more on operations than they do on capital, and they need a greater degree of freedom to decide how to spend their money than what MARTA has been given.

    Sam Massel's commentary was mildly shocking when I read it in the AJC: I had always just assumed that the 50/50 split mandate was based on some benign (if naive) intention for the authority to actively pursue expansion opportunities (after all, if the entirety of both counties are paying into the system, the entirety of both counties probably want a consistent level of transit service). But that it was an early symptom of Georgia's contempt for a progressive and successful Atlanta is, well, shameful.

  2. Well, however you intended it, I am very glad for your input! I certainly did not take it personally - I really make no pretense of being an expert. I'm very glad you prompted me to actually do some research (something I should have done in the first place).

    Please correct me whenever necessary - I'm much more interested in learning more about the issue than being right. You can't run a blog without being wrong quite often, and I've learned to embrace that (I hope).

    I also have found MARTA's public proclamations very dramatic, and I suspect that is the intended effect. It is about the only way to break through the "get your house in order first" b.s. the legislature always pulls whenever MARTA asks for help. (See: Jill Chambers in today's AJC article)

    I am VERY glad to have knowledgeable readers. I may not get tons of traffic, but I like to think that my readers are very engaged in the things I write about.

  3. We have a mutual friend/acquaintance, who is indeed how I found out about this blog: first initial T, writes for a local alternative weekly paper.

    I agree, it's good to find other interested people in these topics (and generally urban affairs in a city struggling to comprehend its own urban existence). Email me offline if you'd like an introduction.


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