March 31, 2023

Metro Has Fewer Passengers Now than 25 Years Ago

Metro Has Fewer Passengers Now than 25 Years Ago

Recently, I have been asking people if they think Metro is carrying more or fewer riders than it did 25 years ago. Universally, they have assumed it must be much more. After all, Harris County has grown by about 50% over the last quarter century, so it only stands to reason that Metro must have, at least, grown proportionately.

But the sad fact is, after taxpayers have invested nearly $9 billion in Metro and it has run up $2.3 billion in debt over the last twenty-five years, in 2022 Metro carried 38% fewer riders than it did in 1998. To be fair, transit ridership globally has been dramatically affected by the pandemic for the last three years. But even before that pandemic, Metro’s ridership was about 7% lower than 1998.

In 1998, when Metro relied exclusively on buses, it carried 96.6 million riders. It gradually increased ridership over the next several years, exceeding 100 million riders for the first time in 2000. But ridership swooned in the wake of the economic downturn in the early 2000s before gradually recovering. By 2006, Metro’s ridership had grown to 103 million riders.

However, that would turn out to be the all-time high for Metro. For the next two years, ridership drifted lower then turned down dramatically with the financial crisis in 2009, hitting a low of 81 million riders in 2010. Over the next decade, ridership increased very gradually. It reached 89 million in 2019 before being slammed by the pandemic. Metro’s ridership numbers have mostly reflected the trends for national transit ridership.

I think there are two principal takeaways from this data.

The first is that light rail did absolutely nothing to increase Metro’s ridership. While ridership on the light rail has increased whenever Metro opened a new line, there has been an almost identical, corresponding decrease in bus ridership. So, the only thing we accomplished by spending billions of taxpayer dollars on light rail was to change the mode of conveyance for some riders from a cheaper, more flexible alternative to a more expensive, inflexible one.

The second takeaway is that we still do not have a clear idea of what the mission of Metro is. Most people think that the purpose of transit is to reduce traffic congestion. But Metro has very minimal effect on the traffic congestion because it accounts for such a tiny fraction of our daily trips.

The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that the average American makes four trips per day. Harris County had about 4.6 million residents, so that comes out to about 18.5 million trips per day. Before the pandemic, Metro was averaging about 250,000 trips daily or about 1.3% of all trips in Harris County each day. That is not enough reduction in daily trips to make any noticeable dent in traffic congestion.1

However, Metro does provide transportation to thousands of our neighbors who either cannot afford an automobile or who are not physically capable of operating one. It is an important and critical service to our community.

I think we would have better results at a more affordable cost if we were focused on that aspect of Metro’s role instead of building grandiose vanity projects that end up doing little to help the people that need reliable and convenient transportation. Like say, for example, spending $200 million on luxury, dedicated bus lanes in the toniest neighborhood in Houston that ends up having almost no riders.

Note 1 - The ridership data in this post are based on the American Public Transportation Association Ridership Reports. These differ from Metro's reported annual numbers because APTA reports on a calendar year and Metro on fiscal year year ending September 30.

Note 2 – Actually, the effect is probably much smaller than 1.3%. Harris County residents are probably well above the national average and trains and buses also create congestion while they are reducing the number of total trips.

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