Solve mystery of vanishing transit riders, halt the bleeding
Written by Michael Lewis on March 6, 2018
The news about Miami-Dade Transit goes from horrible to far worse. How much more can we endure? And when will we see the county do something more to slow the number of riders who are flat out giving up on our transit system?
We wrote three weeks ago about the rapidly increasing outflow of passengers from our trains and buses. We noted that three years ago the system lost 3.8% of its riders. Then two years ago it lost 6.9% of those who remained. The following year we lost a staggering 9.6% of all who were then left. And then in November we lost 11.3% of those who had been riding the November before.
Bad as that steep drop-off was, it pales when compared to the latest figures.
In December, our trains and buses carried 14.4% fewer riders than in December 2016. That’s right: for every seven riders in December 2016, only six remained 12 months later.
In fact, from December 2013 to December 2017, more than a quarter of all transit riders just plain disappeared. Four years, 25.1% gone.
Where are the alarm bells in county hall? Commissioners are talking about adding new transit, which would be very nice, but where are the cries of rage about losing 25% of the riders we had?
In hard numbers, in those four years we lost exactly 2,277,073 December transit rides as monthly rides fell from 9,060,265 to 6,783,192.
Officials will tell you that if we add the six transit legs they seek – which would take more than a decade – we will gain new riders. And they are absolutely correct, six legs of transit at costs ranging from $3.6 billion to $8 billion, depending on who is doing the estimating on what day, will gain new riders.
But if you’re talking about riders on new rail legs and figure that those legs could add 150% to today’s rail ridership, those new transit lines that would cost multiple billions would not replace the riders we already had but lost in the past 48 months.
Here are the hard numbers: Metrorail in December carried 1,517,341 persons. If we added to that 150% we’d be adding 2,276,012 riders – fewer added than the total riders transit lost over the past four Decembers.
So we could spend billions and billions of dollars and still be down riders from December 2013.
Okay, big numbers are intimidating, so let’s keep it simple:
We are living “Groundhog Day” over and over every single time our transit department releases figures on riders, but each report is worse and more and more people give up on transit even while driving anywhere in Miami-Dade is also getting worse. The figures prove that.
It’s no secret that our buses and trains are dirtier and ignore schedules, we run buses and trains less often to save money, and the transit system’s reputation is in the toilet and deteriorating. Could those be reasons for transit’s accelerating meltdown?
If not those obvious suspects, then who has a solution to the “Mystery of the Vanishing Transit Rider”? And why aren’t we hearing the mayor and commissioners telling us what they will be doing right now – starting today – to solve the mystery and stop the bleeding?
One thing is clear: money is being set aside for new rail, but there doesn’t seem to be any will at county hall to juggle budgets to spend right now to keep present transit riders on board and bring back those we just lost.
Any good business person will tell you it’s far less costly to keep present customers using your product than it is to get an equal number of new customers.
Translated to transit, that means spending X dollars effectively to boost what we already have will get far more riders per dollar than spending the same amount to get new riders elsewhere on new transit lines.
This newspaper has always sought added mass transit. It’s vital.
But it’s doubly vital today to serve – and retain – the customers we already have who are jumping off the bus and train right into deathly slow highway traffic.
There is only one reason for most of that: transit riders find a traffic jam on Dixie Highway or the Palmetto or wherever vastly preferable to riding our transit.
Unless the county puts its primary emphasis on keeping today’s riders and getting more people onto our present trains and buses – and backs that up with enough money and creativity to make it happen – it can build all the transit it wants for billions of dollars and still be carrying fewer people in a decade than it was four years ago.
Nobody says the solution is easy, but isn’t it obvious? So why is county hall oblivious to the obvious?