“without raising fares”

A wee nit to pick from SORTA’s recent “State of Metro'” dog and pony show:
I distinctly remember one of the speakers saying something like ‘and all this without raising fares!’, and this to my feeble memory reeked of bullshit, so I found the numbers again and ran them to see if I was remembering correctly. I was indeed.

Here are the facts, as reported by SORTA to the Federal Transit Administration. Over the period where we have data on both fare revenues and ridership (currently 2002 to 2012) SORTA has been steadily getting more money from fare revenues while moving fewer passengers. We are currently at the nadir of this trend, with

  1. More fare revenue than ever
  2. Fewer passenger trips than ever

When SORTA says by the way that they are a ‘most efficient’ agency, a title pinned on them by the laughably unscientific UC Economics Center, it is precisely this measure they have in mind. There is hardly a better example of doublespeak to be found. Here’s the trend:

a shitty decade for transit

In order to plot both agencies together, I normalized fares and passenger trips to the same range. The scale is linear.

Now you may rightly note that the standard fare for a zone 1 trip hasn’t changed lately. But that’s not the only kind of fare that can be paid. It might not even be the most common! I don’t know for certain. I haven’t personally paid standard fare in quite a while because my transit use is partly subsidized by UC. So for example, the fare revenue variable in this data almost certainly includes UC’s cash subsidy for my fare as well as the dollar I put in myself. Multiply that by the dozens of private fare subsidies each agency probably negotiates (or drops) each year and you get a more dynamic picture. Fare could also be effected, though probably isn’t, by people using transit cards more or less, while paying the same monthly price.

But anyway, I’ll be damned if f the total price paid by riders or their agents, on a per-trip basis doesn’t constitute a better definition of ‘fare’ than SORTA’s standard zone-1 single-segment price. And by that definition, fares have risen from $0.76 in 2002 to $1.78 in 2012 (+134%). For TANK, the change is from $0.72 in 2002 to $1.16 in 2012 (+60%). Adjusting for inflation, the changes are 84% and 26% respectively. So much for SORTA’s unchanging fares theory lie.

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I’ll end with an ineffectual plea to the people at SORTA. Please, understand that when you speak in lies and euphemisms, no matter how nice your breakfast spread,  you turn off clever people and retain only the idiots and the cynical. People from all three of these categories vote, to be sure, but I know who I’d rather spend my time with. And I know who could build the better transit system.

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Long-Term Transit Trends

SORTA recently announced a 4.2% increase in total ridership in 2012 to a total of 17.4 million trips for the year. I was curious about the context of that number, so I did a little digging. Here are the comparable statistics for the last 20 years thanks to the National Transit Database, a program of the Federal Transit Administration. (Transit agencies are required to report some basic statistics to the feds.)

Cincinnati annual transit ridership trends

SORTA on top, TANK on the bottom.

Between 1991(the first year data is available) and 2011(the last) we’ve got a 34% decrease in the total number of trips provided by our friends north of the river. TANK on the other hand has seen a 20% decrease in that time. If you were paying close attention, you may have noticed that the number SORTA reported for 2012, 17.4 million, is actually a bit lower than the number shown in the chart here for 2011(18,957,732). That would make an increase of any size for 2012 seem rather extraordinary!

According to SORTA planners, the disjunction is actually due to a change in the way riders are counted. Prior to the installation of the new fareboxes in November 2011, SORTA had to estimate the total number of riders from a representative sample. The fareboxes now allow a complete count of every single passenger. I’m guessing they must have provided some insight into the full 2011 numbers too because for there to have been a 4.2% increase, the 2011 number that was reported to the FTA would need to go down by a couple million. I doubt they would have issued a press release without good cause, so let’s replot that with the corrected data for 2011 and the reported 17.4 million for 2012:

TANK and SORTA annual ridership stats

Jeepers. That 2008-2011 drop has a bit more momentum to it now.

Hooray for a 4.2% increase!…

:’-/

A hint as to the reason for the prior large decline in ridership could actually be found in the very same spreadsheet from the NTD. Here I’ve added total fare revenues in dollars to the chart.

SORTA and TANK ridership stats and fare revenues

For both TANK and SORTA for the last few years fare revenues have been increasing at the same time that the number of riders was going down. What does that mean? You guessed it! Wealthy philanthropic transit patrons slipping 50’s into the……Ok. No, it was fare increases.

Surely that’s not the whole story, but it must have played a part.

But what’s TANK doing hiding down there in those flat lines? Let’s see if we can’t expand them a bit to compare trends better:

SORTA vs TANK with ridership and fare revenues

Here I’ve multiplied TANK’s trips and fares six-fold so we can better compare them to SORTA’s more exaggerated changes.

An interesting note: TANK seems to be about 1/6th of the size of SORTA. Sorry, Kentucky. Those are the numbers. Still, TANK was the first to introduce smart cards, onboard wireless, GPS tracking…and they have a better web designer IMO. I suspect that once an agency is large enough to warrant an IT department, even a small one, the innovation process really grinds to a halt. Yes, I’m talking to you, every IT department ever.

I’m actually not totally sure what more to make of the rest of it, so I’ll welcome y’all to chime in in the comments. Particularly of interest to me: The 1995 to 2000 ridership figures for both agencies seem to be doing quite the opposite of each other between periods of stronger correlation. What’s going on there?

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Posted in: Analysis | Data | Math
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