Mass transit burns energy, attracts few riders

January 27, 2020

Mike Brake

As 2019 rolled over into a new decade, Oklahoma City celebrated the first anniversary of its sometimes-maligned streetcar system and officials at the Oklahoma Department of Transportation began exploring options like an OKC-Tulsa light rail connection through its newly created Office of Mobility and Public Transit. Meanwhile, a central Oklahoma coalition of cities was contemplating the possibility of commuter rail linking them together.

Unfortunately, many of those gleaming streetcars were running virtually empty—a warning to advocates of more rail systems and a result easily predicted by economist Randal O’Toole, a land-use and transportation policy analyst and author of a new policy brief (“Urban Transit Is an Energy Hog”) on the poor efficiency of most public transit systems.

“Transit is often touted as a way to save energy,” his paper says, “(b)ut since 2009 transit has used more energy, per passenger mile, than the average car. Since 2016, transit has used more than the average of cars and light trucks together.”

Why? “Ridership is declining, but transit agencies aren’t proportionately reducing miles of transit service,” O’Toole said. In fact, they are stubbornly moving ahead in developing more such systems, as the new state office that is part of the Oklahoma Department of Transportation attests.

“Transit is often touted as a way to save energy, but since 2009 transit has used more energy, per passenger mile, than the average car.” —Randal O’Toole

Each year the Federal Transit Administration issues a detailed report on transit systems nationwide. The 2019 report does not yet reflect the Oklahoma City streetcar system, but the figures for its sister bus system, EMBARK, are discouraging to advocates of urban transit.

O’Toole said the average bus in Oklahoma City, with 34 seats and room for 21 standing passengers, had on average 5.2 actual passengers last year.

“Buses are extremely inefficient because they are mostly empty for most of the day aside from rush hours,” O’Toole said. The same could be said of the streetcar system

Since it debuted with free ridership in December of 2018, the Oklahoma City system has carried a total of 428,839 passengers through the end of November 2019. After the initial free December when 73,525 rode the cars, ridership declined dramatically in January, to 48,792. By May of 2019, the monthly total was down to 22,582, and after a brief resurgence in June with 48,108, it hovered around 30,000 per month through the rest of its first year. No data are available for December of 2019 when rides were again free.

Contrast that with the Kansas City streetcar system, which features a route about half as long as Oklahoma City’s and free ridership. It recorded 2,228,992 riders in 2019, more than five times as many as Oklahoma City, and one day’s ridership, on July 5, reached 19,559, almost as many as Oklahoma City’s system carried in some full months.

The Oklahoma City system never claimed to be self-supporting through fares, but data on its first year of operation should provide a warning to those who would expand rail systems in Oklahoma. They can be immensely costly.

The city’s contract with the operator of the system, Herzog Transit Services, Inc., calls for escalating payments starting at $3.483 million in FY 2020, to $4.034 million in FY 2023.

According to data provided by Michael Scroggins, EMBARK information officer, total streetcar revenue for its first year was $531,779, of which just $207,591 were fares. The remainder came from sponsorships.

Scroggins said the system was never intended to pay its own way.

“Public transportation is like parks, roads, and public safety,” he said. “It is a service supported by multiple funding sources because it serves as a vital part of our public infrastructure and doesn’t pay for itself in the traditional sense.”

Scroggins said the streetcar is “a long play project” that is part of a move toward more mass transit in central Oklahoma, including a proposed commuter rail system that would link most of the metro area under the auspices of the Regional Transit Authority of Central Oklahoma, chaired by former Gov. Brad Henry.

O’Toole, author of the 2018 book Romance of the Rails: Why the Passenger Trains We Love Are Not the Transportation We Need, said streetcars and other urban rail systems are often sold to cities as economic development tools, but such largesse rarely pans out except when routes coincidentally run through tax increment finance (TIF) districts where other factors attract investment. Scroggins made such a claim, suggesting that there has been $1.6 billion in investment within three blocks of the streetcar route.

“In reality, streetcars are slow, clunky, 1880s technology,” O’Toole said, noting that a reporter for a Portland, Oregon, newspaper walked that city’s streetcar route faster than the streetcar could travel.

St. Louis recently closed its $51 million streetcar system after two years of financial losses. A similar system in Atlanta was initially free, but ridership there declined 58 percent after the system started charging minimal fares. Even then, at least half of riders refuse to pay.

O’Toole said he calculated the inefficiency of most transit systems using various data from the National Transit Database for various types of fuel used in mass transit, which he converted into British Thermal Units (BTUs). Using those numbers, he found that Oklahoma City’s bus system used 5,971 BTUs per passenger mile (and generated 449 grams of carbon dioxide, which should give pause to environmentalists who believe mass transit is the answer to global warming).

Streetcar systems were among the most inefficient in the study. The Dallas-DART system burned 26,383 BTUs per passenger mile and churned out 1,350 grams of carbon dioxide. Even the most efficient system noted, in Portland, still used 2,715 BTUs to move one passenger a mile.

O’Toole said other data on commuter habits concerning Oklahoma City should have warned planners that mass transit would be a hard sell here.

Nationally, 4.3 percent of people who work have no cars and 40 percent of them rely on mass transit, but in Oklahoma City, the number without cars was just two percent of the workforce, and of those who are carless only 9 percent use mass transit. It seems they are catching rides with others, or even walking to work instead of riding a bus or one of those often-empty streetcars.

“Urban transit is a very poor transportation choice,” O’Toole said.