Phoenix-area bus, light-rail use up, reflects U.S. trend
The Arizona Republic
Jan. 26, 2012 10:39 PM
Valley bus and rail passengers are riding in nearly record numbers despite a persistently bad economy, a string of service cuts and a sharp fare increase.
The increasing ridership reflects a national trend that is forcing transit planners to rethink basic assumptions about the reasons people either ride buses and trains or stop using them. Ridership is up nationally, and few places saw faster growth last year than the Phoenix area.
For decades, transit agencies lived by rules of thumb: In recessions, people ride less because they have less money and fewer jobs. When fares go up or service is cut, ridership falls. When gas prices shoot up, ridership increases. The opposite happens when gas gets cheaper.
Something else happened in the Valley during this severe economic downturn.
In four of the past five months, Valley Metro and Metro light rail saw their highest combined bus and rail passenger counts for those particular months. Last year, the transit system carried 6 million riders a month for six months. The system had topped that monthly mark only 10 times before, and all those happened after the Great Recession began in December 2007.
Transit officials offer mostly just theories for the unusual trends.
"The honest answer is we really don't know," said Carol Ketcherside, planning director at Valley Metro.
But a recent survey of riders, and what Ketcherside has gleaned from customer comments, suggests one answer: People are more willing to use transit. The American Public Transportation Association agrees, saying changing demographics, shifting habits and technological innovations are steering more people onto buses and trains.
"Something is going on. It's not a minitrend. It's a longer-term trend," said Art Guzzetti, the transportation association's vice president for policy and a 32-year industry veteran. "Gas prices may have driven people to transit in the first place, but they stayed because they found the other benefits of riding."
New riders often cite physical exercise or the chance to read, listen to music or do work as reasons they like transit.
One convert is Dario Miranda, who has lived in the Valley his whole life and, until a couple of years ago, never took the bus. After the light-rail system opened at the end of 2008, he decided to give it a try. After that, he tried the bus and found he liked it, too. Now, the 32-year-old man only rides a combination of bus or rail and his bicycle to get around, he said.
"I had a car, but I got rid of it," he said. "Everything I do is within a 5-mile radius."
Transit planners have a cliche for one typical ridership pattern: the Death Spiral.
When a bad economy takes hold, riders ride less and the transit agency collects less revenue from fares and tax subsidies. The transit operator raises fares and cuts service to balance its books. But that makes it less convenient and less affordable for passengers. Even fewer ride. The cycle repeats until the economy improves dramatically or a new source of revenue is found.
The Valley's transit system did not spiral. Ridership see-sawed with seasonal cycles, the introduction of light rail, the fare hike and changing economics. But, over four years, it generally grew and never fell below pre-recession levels.
The official start of the recession was December 2007. Unemployment rates were about to soar.
Ridership should have plummeted in 2008. Instead, it rose sharply in the spring. That June, the average price of a gallon of unleaded gas peaked at $4.10, and ridership reached a new record by October.
By Thanksgiving 2008, gas cost about three-quarters what it did at the beginning of the year, and the unemployment rate was on its way to doubling what it had been before the recession.
Ridership should have risen and fallen with the gas crunch, but instead, it kept climbing after the midsummer dip.
In December 2008, Metro light rail launched the Valley's first light-rail service. The novelty caused overall transit ridership to spike in the first three months.
In April 2009, more than 6.6 million people boarded a bus or train, the highest number ever recorded. At the time, gas cost less than it did almost any month in the previous four years. Unemployment was climbing sharply.
Then in July 2009, Metro and Valley Metro raised the base fare 40 percent and rolled out a series of service cuts. Valley Metro planners say that for every 10 percent they raise fares, they can expect to lose 3.2 percent of their riders.
That month ushered a wave of semi-annual service cuts that would total 10 percent by the end of 2011. The models called for even deeper losses to ridership. But it didn't happen.
One month after the first service cuts and fare hikes, the transit system added nearly half-a-million boardings. Two years later, in August 2011, an additional 900,000 were riding.
The lowest ridership point since the start of the recession was July 2010. But it bounced right back. Even with seasonal summertime dips, the number gradually rose and total ridership for 2011 was only 2 percent off the record year of 2009.
Who's riding transit
Last fall, Valley Metro completed its most comprehensive rider survey, gauging the opinions and habits of more than 15,000 bus and rail passengers.
They found riders were younger than four years earlier. The bus system was the workhorse for people going to jobs; but students, many at Arizona State University, were the biggest group on the trains. People on trains had more cars and more money but chose to leave their cars at home.
About one in six said he or she tried transit for the first time because of moving from another city. Ketcherside said many come from more transit-rich cities and try to replicate their urban lifestyles.
Train riders predominantly wanted to save money. Bus riders most often cited losing their cars.
Customers also reported high levels of satisfaction. Four in five said they'd recommend the system to friends.
Miranda, who works at a Phoenix record store, said he no longer accepts lifts from friends.
Miranda fits a growing profile of a younger, urban, eco-conscious generation. They also tend to be tech-savvy, and riding transit gives them more time to stay connected on social media. Many don't own cars or have driver's licenses.
His experience speaks to a national resurgence in transit.
In 2006, Americans took 10 billion transit trips, according to the American Public Transportation Association. The number has never dropped below that level, which had last been seen in 1958, Guzzetti said. At the same time, transportation officials reported in 2009 that the average number of cars in a U.S. household fell for the first time. Other data show fewer drivers' licenses and less driving, a recent and historic reversal.
Part of the reason, Guzzetti and others say, is there are more choices. Congress began shifting transportation priorities in the early 1990s toward more transit and more local control. Dozens of new rail lines have been built and have matured, along with new types of bus service. A whole generation has grown up with more mass-transit service than its parents did.
Transit has become more sophisticated, and technology has made service more convenient. Valley Metro introduced an online trip planner and reports that the number of Internet visitors to its site has doubled since 2008. When many of the riders who couldn't access the Internet called to find out when their bus was due, Valley Metro rolled out its NextRide service, which provides information for smart-phone users of arrival times of the next three buses or trains. That is being followed up by a smart phone app.
"For the younger rider, use of mobile applications is an essential part of life," Guzzetti said, reporting that APTA officials met with the White House on the subject twice last week with another scheduled Sunday. "This is getting attention at the highest levels. We're all talking about this, that something's going on."
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has made investing in urban transit and offering transportation choices in urban neighborhoods a cornerstone policy.
"The trend is young people like the excitement of cities. They don't want the hassle of parking. They want to be texting," Guzzetti said. "The long term trends are eclipsing these short term (economic) blips."
For Miranda, such ideas are as natural as breathing.
"I feel there are no limits to where I can go. Yesterday, I was sitting on the train, reading my book, thinking: This reminds me of when I was in New York or Portland."