Out of Control Policy Blog

Shocker: Houston Metro Ridership Down

The latest report on Houston's Metro ridership doesn't look good:

    The [Houston] Metropolitan Transit Authority's ridership and fare revenues are down again, despite a booming light rail operation and healthy commuter bus service.

Excuse my interruption, but keep in mind the adjectives used here -- "booming light rail" and "healthy commuter bus service" -- as you read on. They seem a tad strong to me, but readers can decide for themselves. The article continues...

    But Metro President and CEO Frank Wilson told board members Thursday, "We've stemmed the declining tide."

    Wilson passed out a quarterly report that says total bus and rail ridership for the nine months through June was 6.5 percent higher than a year earlier. A footnote, however, explains that the numbers are adjusted.

    Unadjusted and more recent counts show total ridership for October through July was actually down 1.5 percent, driven by a 9 percent drop in the local bus component that serves many poorer neighborhoods in the inner city -- the core mission of public transit.

    Jim Archer, Metro's manager of service evaluation, said the raw fiscal 2004 numbers are misleading because of two unusual events that will not be repeated: The agency cut 37 poorly performing bus routes and changed numerous others to connect better with the new light rail line and avoid duplicating service.

    Both of these sharply reduced ridership in fiscal 2005, but because they were one-time impacts, he said, Metro deducted the estimated lost ridership from the actual counts for fiscal 2004 and compared the 2005 numbers to the reduced figure.

    "We're trying to show the board what's really happening out on the street today," said Metro spokesman George Smalley. "That allowed us to compare real apples to real apples."

    But Metro's route changes can't explain why local bus boardings have fallen each year since 1999, dragging overall ridership down with them until fiscal year 2004, when it rose 3 percent.

    Archer blames the bus problems largely on construction of MetroRail and transit streets in downtown and Midtown that forced many route changes, which typically cause some riders to fall away. Then came the 9/11 attacks and the Enron debacle, which had sharp impacts on downtown trolley ridership, he said.

    Some of Metro's critics accuse the agency of building rail and catering to commuters while shortchanging those who depend on local buses to get to work, the doctor or the grocery store.

    "They promised 50 percent more bus routes, but they don't say that. They just say the people voted for rail," said bus rider Mark Smith.

    "Metro could have crisscrossed the county with buses for what it will cost to build the rail system."

Of course that's true, but buses just don't have the same allure as an expensive system of shiny, new rail cars.

And the ridership numbers may actually be overstated due to Metro's method of counting riders:

    Light rail critic Tom Bazan contends that Metro's actual ridership is even lower than the unadjusted counts.

    Bazan reasons that changing so many bus routes to connect with rail had the side effect of inflating the numbers by forcing bus riders to transfer to light rail to reach their destinations.

    Because Metro has no practical way to count actual riders, it instead keeps track of boardings – usually expressed on an average weekday basis and counted by electronic devices on buses and trains. A single trip involving transfers, like Villanueva's journey to work, is counted as several boardings.

On a related note, be sure to check out local blogger Anne Linehan's deconstruction of this story...it's well worth a read.

Leonard Gilroy is Director of Government Reform


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