A little over 800 readers took the transit survey I sent out last week. Let’s start with a bit about who answered the survey because this certainly was not a scientifically selected sample. The two largest partisan groups were Independents at 35% and “mostly Republican” at 30%. Another 22% identified as “strong Republican” with 12% either “mostly Democrat” or “strong Democrat.” 73% live in the City of Houston and 93% in the Houston region. Virtually all of those living in the City plan to vote in the November election.
Overwhelmingly, the respondents were not Metro users, with 81% reporting that they had not taken any rides on Metro in the last year. Only 2% were regular riders (>50) with the balance being occasional riders, I suspect mostly around special events like concerts, the rodeo and sporting events.
Notwithstanding that the respondents leaned more toward the center-right and mostly do not use transit, there was a strong consensus that, at least, some kind of transit system was needed. Nearly 55% either strongly or somewhat agreed that cities should have robust transit systems. Another 48% said their opinion depended on the kind of system, leaving only 7% who thought no transit system was needed at all.
Of the four reasons I listed for a transit system, traffic reduction and helping those who cannot afford a car scored the highest with average rankings of 1.96 and 1.98, respectively. Helping those who cannot physically operate a car was third at 2.84 and air pollution was last at 3.23. In the near future, I will be sharing my analysis on the effects of transit on both traffic congestion and air quality.
The respondents estimated that a little over 7% of all trips made by Americans are made on transit and about 4.3% of Houstonians’ trips. There was a wide range of estimates with many below 2% and some in the 10-50% range. I have not found any definitive study that attempts to estimate this percentage but there are several studies from which I think we can infer a range. I plan to write a post entirely devoted to trying to make that estimate because the number tells a lot about the effect of transit on traffic congestion and air pollution.
As I reported to you in an earlier post, the fares collected by Metro currently only cover about 4% of its costs. Prior to the pandemic, it was collecting just under 10%. However, the respondents to the survey sharply disagreed with subsiding transit riders to this extent. Respondents on average want Metro to cover about 50% of its costs through fares. About half the respondents were in the 40-50% range, with about 20% wanting very low fares and about another 20% wanting Metro to recover 100% of its costs through fares. I will be discussing this issue in a separate post but raising fares anywhere close to what the respondents suggest would likely crater Metro’s ridership.
Even though the respondents listed a reduction in traffic congestion as the principal rationale for a transit system, 62% said that there would not be much change in traffic congestion if Houston had no transit system. About 32% said it would get somewhat or much worse. About 7% said congestion would improve without a transit system.
At first blush, such a large number believing the current transit system does little to relieve congestion appears to be inconsistent with that being listed as the principal rationale for transit. I suppose that apparent inconsistency might be explained by many believing if Metro’s service improved and attracted more riders it would provide some traffic relief.
Almost 75% of respondents reported that they voted in the 2019 referendum to expand Metro’s service offerings. 58% of those who voted in the referendum voted against the plan and still oppose it. Of the 42% that voted in favor of the plan, 60% have changed their minds and now oppose it.
The respondents were pretty evenly divided over building rail service from downtown to the airports, with 45% wanting rail service to both IAH and Hobby and 43% not wanting rail service to either. About 10% wanted service only to IAH and 2% to Hobby only. I plan to write a separate post on this issue, which I am afraid will disappoint those in favor of rail service to the airports because this issue has been studied multiple times with each study concluding that rail service to the airports is not feasible.
There was a fair amount of confusion over how Metro is financed, which I frequently find to be the case with many people. The answer is that the overwhelming majority of Metro’s funding comes from sales taxes which would otherwise go to the cities in the Metro service area, mostly to the City of Houston. More to come on this issue as well.
First, I would like to thank everyone who participated in the survey. I always enjoy getting feedback from my readers and I found the responses here particularly interesting. In many ways they reflect our complicated and frequently somewhat less than consistent views on transit and its role.
From the comments, it was apparent that many Houstonians are frustrated with Metro and blame its management for Metro’s anemic ridership and sketchy service offerings. While I think there is much to criticize in how Metro manages our transit agency, I am increasingly convinced that transit’s success, or lack thereof, is largely a function of demographic and historical development patterns and, increasingly, emerging technologies which are adversely affecting transit.
More to come soon.