County transit closes gap to begin a ridership turnaround
Written by Michael Lewis on January 29, 2019
Good news echoes for Miami-Dade County transit: fewer riders are fleeing trains, buses and the Metromover.
If that sounds like saying that your favorite team is still losing games but by far smaller margins, it should. That’s what’s happening. We’re closing the gap, so what we’re trying is succeeding, but we’ve got a lot of work to do to rebuild.
Last month we were pleased to note “transit ridership takes a turn for the better.” After many months of mostly double-digit losses from the prior year, the brakes were on and the skid slowed in October.
But that was one month of slowed decline after years of plunging transit use. The good news is that it’s now two months of vastly better rider figures and in some cases gains. While it will take years of gains just to get back to the transit use of a decade ago, the only route to get there is to slow the losses and then turn the corner.
We seem ready to do that.
Total mass transit use in Miami-Dade fell 3.2% in November, far less than the 11.3% loss of November 2017. Analyze that by components and you see brighter spots.
Metrorail use rose 2.9% after a gain of 2.8% in October and a loss of 7.2% in November 2017.
Metromover use rose 0.8% in November after losing 13.3% in November 2017.
Even the bus system, which recorded the only loss at 6.1%, was on a better road than the 17.7% loss of November 2017 and a recent string of nine months of double-digit drops.
What does this mean to you if you’re not a transit rider?
It means a slowing flow of added cars to jam highways and a possible future leveling off, even as population grows. Couple that with new county efforts like a smart traffic signal system that can achieve the fastest traffic in rush hour and it can mean better daily commute times.
Of course, if you shift to rail or bus the hope is to cut commute time even more and, more vital, be able to predict within minutes how long a commute will take. A consistent 30-minute train ride beats a drive that some days might be 22 minutes but on others can take an hour, requiring you to plan for an hour on the road rather than 30 minutes on a train.
What’s propelling the improvements?
In the case of Metrorail, more brand-new trains are rolling after riders had been stuck in three-decade-old trains that were literally falling apart. Each month more rail cars are new, so better and cleaner service should spread.
In the case of Metrobus, most of the first 300 compressed natural gas models are rolling, again cleaner and newer. Plus, a contract for 120 more is in the pipeline to add more new buses faster – and with plans to replace every older bus, most of which have exceeded their lifespan.
As for Metromover, the free trip becomes more and more preferable to driving and parking costs and speeds in downtown and Brickell, which the system serves. As parking prices rise and more young people move to the area, the greater Metromover’s relative advantage.
What could impede the coming turnaround in mass transit use? Ironically, the better we make road traffic as smart signalization improves flows, the less attractive a shift to bus or rail seems.
That doesn’t mean the transit department should take its foot off the gas pedal for roadway improvements in order to get more disaffected drivers to leave cars and board transit. The aim must be to improve driving and transit simultaneously, because it’s likely that population and visitor totals will keep increasing, with more people every day trying to get around Miami-Dade. Both transit and traffic must improve rapidly just to keep mobility from declining more.
Then, the county must not merely improve its transit with new equipment but continuously promote every gain to keep on changing our mobility habits. We have to keep riders returning to trains and buses in increased numbers simply because today’s roads can’t handle many more cars.
And as we keep emphasizing, it will be far easier for the county to push through its SMART plan for six new transit legs to stitch us all together if it can show that transit’s popularity is growing than if evidence points to rapid use declines.
Arguments for more transit and the funds to build it strengthen when transit demonstrates success. Every bit of promotion of ridership helps to add future capacity and link more of the county to the system.
So hail the advances of two months. Looks like we’re on the right route.