There is a certain happiness sighted when your bus comes along. It is of course a small specialized form of happiness and will never be a great thing.

-Richard Brautigan, The Old Bus

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Perfect storms -- good and bad

The Washington Post had a story Tuesday headlined "As gas prices fall, transit still popular," which reports that Metrorail in Washington, D.C., and other transit agencies around the country are seeing no falloff in ridership as gas prices decline.

Transit officials attributed much of the ridership increase earlier this year to skyrocketing gasoline prices. But despite falling pump prices -- from a national average of $4.11 a gallon in July to $1.82 yesterday -- transit ridership is setting records in some parts of the country, officials said.
One of those parts of the country setting records in ridership is here in Sacramento. While Metrorail in Washington, D.C., reports ridership increases of up to 5 percent over of the last four months ending October, Sacramento Regional Transit has seen double-digit increases during that period.

That fact probably says more about RT's historic underperformance in the community than any comparison with Metrorail, but it is still worth celebrating.

In October, according to the latest statistics from RT, overall ridership increased 23 percent compared with October of last year. The year-to-date total at the end of October was 13.6 percent higher than at this point last year.

October 2008 to October 2007 comparisons show increases across the board. Total bus ridership is up 23.5 percent and light rail is up 22.5 percent. This was even better than RT did in September, when bus ridership grew 10.3 percent over September 2007 and light rail increased 19.3 percent.
(See comments below.)

I originally started trying to get the latest statistics from RT back on Dec. 1 after reading a story in the Contra Costa Times that reported "Unemployment slows BART ridership gains, officials say." I expected lowering of gas prices to push down ridership, but the impact of the increasing unemployment was a surprising turn.

Earlier in the year, RT officials and others talked about the "perfect storm" of high gas prices and increasing environmental sensitivity pushing more people to leave their cars at home and take transit. Could an equally big "perfect storm" of lower gas prices and joblessness drive the numbers in the other direction?

For Sacramento, the pending rate increases add something even more troubling to that question.

So when I finally saw the October results I was at first relieved. More record increases. Bus service, which suffered a 5 percent service cut in January, had made up that and was still leading light rail ridership.

But I found a little fact in the statistics that raises a caution flag. It is in the breakout of ridership between weekday, Saturday and Sunday.

While total ridership for both light rail and buses was up for the previous month, the 65,400 weekday bus riders represented a 6.2 percent decline from September's 69,700. All of the increase in bus ridership came from weekend riders. See further discussion in comments below.

Is the rise in joblessness in Sacramento starting to bite? It will be interesting to see what the November ridership statistics reveal.

Sacramento Regional Transit Monthly Ridership Report Sep08

Sacramento Regional Transit Monthly Ridership Report Oct08


Anthony said...

Hi John,
Just a quick note to your comment, "All of the increase in bus ridership came from weekend riders." This is not quite true. When comparing monthly ridership, you should also check the number of weekdays in the month. Your tables show that October had 23 weekdays while Sept had 21. Because ridership is much higher on weekdays than weekends, most of the increase in monthly ridership is because October had two more weekdays in it than September. In next month's comparison, November will be shown as having only 18 weekdays (including the Friday after Thanksgiving, which is a very low ridership day). So, you should expect a huge decline in monthly ridership compared to Oct.

John said...

Anthony, I think you missed something in your analysis. The fact that I didn't take into consideration the number of weekdays doesn't undermine my argument. It strengthens it.

Yes, October had more weekdays than September, but that has the effect of making the drop in ridership even more significant.

For September, the 69,700 total came over 21 days. So September's daily average ridership was a fraction more than 3,319.

For October, the lower 65,400 came despite the greater number of days -- 23. October's average daily ridership is just 2,843.

The 476 passenger decline in average daily ridership in October represents a 14.3 percent fall from September.

I agree that the holidays in November and again in December make comparisons problematic. But it will still be interesting to see what the daily average figures show.

Ron said...

Hey John,

I think you may have switched the numbers in one section of your report. In the section stating:

"October 2008 to October 2007 comparisons show increases across the board. Total bus ridership is up 23.5 percent and light rail is up 22.5 percent. This was even better than RT did in September, when bus ridership grew 10.3 percent over September 2007 and light rail increased 19.3 percent."

When compared to the statistic reports offered below the analysis, it seems that September was the month that experienced a 23.5 and 22.5 bus and lightrail increase, not October. I just wanted to check to make sure I wasn't misreading the tables. Is this true?

John said...

Ron, you are correct. I've got the wrong totals. As you point out, I mixed up the months. It sure is useful that I provided the documentation.

As you note, October's overall increase was 14.6 percent, with light rail managing a 19.3 percent increase and bus ridership rising 10.3 percent. It was September in which total increase from September 2007 to September 2008 was 23 percent.

November numbers will be interesting to consider, even with the holidays.