To back transit system’s expansion, halt ridership outflow
Written by Michael Lewis on March 7, 2017
While officials pin hopes for improving Miami-Dade County mobility on six future SMART transit legs, few are working to reverse a dangerous trend: residents are fleeing the mass transit we now have by millions of rides a year.
That’s right: in the past two fiscal years Metrorail, Metromover and Metrobus lost well over 11 million total rides.
That’s the equivalent of 25,000 county workers who used to ride to work and home again daily on mass transit getting off a bus or train and back into a car.
Is it any wonder that your daily commute gets slower and slower and rush hours seem to last longer and longer? We don’t build road capacity fast enough to compensate for the workers already fleeing mass transit, much less for a growing population.
To put that into perspective, three-county-long Tri-Rail handles each year in total only two-thirds of the 7.3 million rides that Miami-Dade’s transit system lost last year alone. Even if we had the money, we couldn’t build successful new rail lines fast enough to make up for county transit’s annual rider losses.
Although county transit runs very late in revealing its ridership – its director couldn’t tell us last week whether lengthening Metrorail and Metromover weekend hours last October had added riders because figures weren’t ready – overall ridership is now available through last December on the system’s web site, and figures are ugly.
They show declines in same month year-over-year ridership for 21 straight months. In December alone, bus use was down 8% from December 2015, Metrorail use was down 4.3% and even the absolutely free Metromover was down 1.9%.
The last time the system as a whole had a monthly gain in riders year-over-year was the less than 1% in March 2015. It was three years ago that in a single month the system last eked out a same month year-over-year gain of more than 1%.
These dismal figures ought to be raising a big red flag about the impact of more new transit. The county needs to own up to the problems and then show us why the new links we’re being promised in six key transit corridors are going to turn lost riders into ridership gains.
Explanations for the losses can’t point to admittedly rotten connectivity to get around the county with the present system. We had the same weak connectivity when we had 12 million more rides three years ago.
The loss isn’t due to transit riders returning to the highway because gasoline is cheap. Gas is up more than 50 cents a gallon from a year ago but transit ridership keeps falling.
Riders probably aren’t getting out of buses because they’re so far behind schedule. Last spring more than half of all bus passengers’ routes were running late more than 29% of the time. You can’t hold a job if you’re late three days out of every ten because your bus was late. But transit officials said they were going to fix that. If they didn’t (we haven’t seen current figures) shame on them.
The losses also can’t be due to free city-run trolleys. First, they can’t duplicate most transit routes that riders are abandoning. Second, there aren’t enough riders on all of the free trolleys combined to equal the losses on the county’s transit system.
Transit losses also aren’t due to people suddenly living within walking or bicycling distance of work. Nor are they due to any vast spurt in unemployment that keeps thousands from riding to work.
So, what is the excuse? Find it and fix it.
Don’t get us wrong: we are proponents of adding transit. All six new legs under the SMART plan are needed and will help. Build them.
But fixing our transit system now is like trying to fill your bathtub without stopping the drain. We can keep pouring riders in at the top on new transit legs, but if other riders keep flowing down the drain faster than we flow them in by opening the faucet for new routes, we’ll make no progress.
So while we’re trying to find $3.6 billion to build transit, the county must redouble efforts to retain every passenger it already has.
We keep being told about those retention efforts. But to keep faith with the people being asked for some of that $3.6 billion, we need to stop leaking out the present public transit rider pool. Negative passenger comparisons must turn positive.
Otherwise, road congestion will keep getting worse, commute times will slow even more and faith in the county’s ability to operate expensive new transit legs will crumble.
Remember, we’re taking that $3.6 billion investment on faith. Show us that the faith is well placed.