How smart is SMART plan when transit use is falling?
Written by Michael Lewis on May 2, 2017
As road traffic congeals, Miami-Dade County is busy setting mass transit use records – but they’re not records to be proud of.
The transit system just lost riders monthly year over year for the 23rd consecutive month, dropping to its lowest monthly ridership since at least 2006 and maybe longer.
These February figures, the transit system’s most recent public tally, show just over 7.5 million boardings on all county mass transit, including buses, Metrorail and Metromover. We had surpassed 10 million a month three-and-a-half years earlier.
Use of every mode of transit was way off, even the totally fare-free Metromover that encircles increasingly congested downtown Miami.
Performance is so bad that Mayor Carlos Giménez is recommending bus service “adjustments in order to obtain greater efficiencies and cost savings.” We read that as meaning big service cuts, because the buses in particular are bleeding riders and nobody has a way to stop the bloodshed. It keeps getting worse.
In February alone bus ridership plunged 10.1% from February 2016, Metromover riders dove 9.3% from the prior February and Metrorail riders fell 8.1%.
There’s no way to shrug off the 9.4% monthly year-over-year total decline as a minor concern.
And it’s not just one month. The total drop was 4.7% in January, 6.4% last December, 3.8% in November and 16.5% in October. You can see continued large declines each month until you get back to March 2015, when we managed a nine-tenths of a percentage point gain. Hurray! The last year-over-year monthly gain of more than a full percentage point was well over three years ago.
The largest losses invariably are on the buses, which have suffered from chronic late trips that averaged over 30% of the time on key routes. And Metromover frequently seems to shut down for maintenance. Without regular and dependable service, mass transit is left with only those riders who have no other possible choice.
We haven’t seen studies of how Uber, Lyft and others alter transit ridership, but they can’t beat public transit on pricing. They can’t be less costly than free service on Metromover.
As the mayor and his administrators look at system “adjustments,” the county’s monthly service report is full of clear hints of what to do.
For example, of the bus system’s 4.9 million February boardings, versus almost 5.5 million in February 2016, one cluster of buses eked out a 0.2% gain as total boardings fell 10.1%. That group was the express buses, which run longer distances and are supposed to be, as the name says, “express.” Speed and distance might be a key factor in filling buses.
Another group needs scrutiny for another reason, even though its six routes gained 18.8% in use. Those six routes had a combined 81 boardings on an average day in February 2016 and gained to 96 a day by 2017. All together, those six routes carried a statistical 0.0% of all county bus passengers for the month, 461 total monthly boardings out of 4,647,326.
The county would have been far better off economically by not running those shuttles at all but still serving every rider well by hiring an Uber driver to carry each rider on the Green Hills, Kings Creek, Sierra Lakes, Robert Sharp, Ahepa and Federation Gardens shuttles. Do the math. We’d guess shuttles cost six times what Uber would have charged – and that’s not including the costs of buying the buses in the first place.
The issue of bus cutbacks is to come before the county commission today (4/4). Chairman Esteban Bovo Jr. is asking that whatever funds are pulled out of bus routes in the “adjustments” the mayor plans for November be rerouted into funds for the six legs of the SMART rapid transit program that the county seeks.
It’s wise of the mayor to re-jigger buses to get far more bang for fewer bucks. And it’s wise of Mr. Bovo to ask to earmark the savings for transit rather than just toss them into the general fund. We couldn’t agree more.
But much as we like the concept of the SMART plan, at a cost estimated at $3.6 billion and most likely far more before it gets built, we need to ask the obvious question: why will passengers who are fleeing mass transit in Miami-Dade suddenly rush onto new mass transit once we build it?
One answer ought to be that the SMART system will get riders around the county seamlessly and conveniently in far shorter time than driving. Our present rail systems can’t reach most of the county, and our bus system is neither timely nor convenient.
But, will six new transit legs that don’t connect with one another somehow become seamless and convenient? Will they even be a system, or just more disconnected pieces of transit that require transfers and changes in travel mode? The interstitial tissue to bind them all together is not in plans that we’ve seen. When and how does it become part of the deal?
Beyond that, our transit experts will have to detail the psychology of turning Miamians who now are rushing away from transit into a community of transit lovers. We know that can’t happen overnight, but we need assurances backed by facts, not theories, that mass transit will work in an era where highway transportation itself seems geared to change – perhaps to driverless private autos or linked highway “trains” of cars running automatically bumper to bumper that the human occupants might not own but simply board and exit at will, an Uber on steroids.
But the first step needs to come right now – in fact, yesterday. If we can’t even maintain ridership on a free Metromover running through the heart of an increasingly congested and gridlocked downtown whose population is expanding faster than the traffic, how can we win the mobility war no matter how much we spend on new transit?
We cheer the mayor for trying to rethink disappearing bus ridership. We applaud Mr. Bovo for wanting to use the savings from that revamp to improve transportation. But we need answers that don’t point to forever decreasing transit use at a time when it should be exploding.
Does anyone care to explain?