With sustained reduction in gasoline prices, will suburban transit systems lose ridership and revenue?
Suburban bike, walking, and transit trips are longer than comparable trips in cities. I was in Southern California over the holidays, and thinking about our traveling and the difficulty for biking to accomplish the same kinds of trips, it made me realize that I had missed an important element when I wrote a pretty good Pedestrian and Bicycle Access Plan for Baltimore County, Maryland (also see the past blog entry "Best practice bicycle planning for suburban settings using the "action planning" method").
Whereas the National Household Travel Survey found that 51% of trips are three miles or less--with 29% one mile or less, and 13% three to five miles in distance--seemingly a good distance for capture by biking, the averaging of the data masks a likely fact, that trip distances for the average trip are likely to be significantly longer in the suburbs compared to center cities.
I haven't been able to track down definitive data on this, but there is a definite need to see this kind of data.
In short, while I live five miles from Downtown, but within the center city, I can get to many places within a 30 minute bike ride--besides Downtown and Capitol Hill and destinations in between, I can get to College Park, Silver Spring, and Bethesda in Suburban Maryland, and Friendship Heights, Tenleytown/American University (the library primarily), and Georgetown outside of the city's core.
Sustainable mobility is less efficient over long distances. It's much harder to reach many places within a five mile trip/bike ride/transit trip in the suburbs, except within conurbations (e.g., within Bethesda but not between Bethesda and Rockville, within Silver Spring, or within Wheaton, but not so much in-between), not to mention that the riding conditions tend to be much more comfortable in the city as opposed to the suburbs, something that Montgomery County is addressing in their current bike planning efforts ("Making way for bicycles in a sprawling suburb where cars have always ruled," Washington Post ).
This is relevant to transit use obviously, because middle distance trips can take a long time on transit, and even longer trips may or may not be efficient depending on how the transit is delivered (commuter bus, railroad, regular bus, heavy rail, light rail).
Not to mention that most suburban transit systems deal with vast deconcentrated areas, and dispersed destinations and origins, making it hard to create an efficient transit system. Cities are advantaged by transit because of short distances between activity centers and origins, and concentration of both population and employment centers.
Image from PotomacLocal.
Prince William County transit system to raise fares and cut service. I bring this up because the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission, operators of the OmniRide transit service in Prince William County, Virginia, which is about 30 miles from DC and to my way of thinking exurban, although it is decidedly a part of the Washington metropolitan area, is planning service cuts and fare increases.
PRTC provides intra-county transit services as well as commuter bus service to DC and other destinations, and is one of the owners of the Virginia Railway Express commuter railroad service,
Even though the transit system is benefitting from reduced cost of motor fuel, their ridership is dropping too, as people switch from transit to driving because of drops in gasoline prices, and the price/value equation of transit and driving in terms of not only dollar cost, but time.
-- PRTC SERVICE CUTS AND FARE INCREASE PROPOSED FOR JULY 2016
Four hearings are scheduled for February. Cuts involve longer distance commuter bus service as well as intra-county transit service. Documents accessible at the webpage discuss the budget proposal and conditions shaping the agency's funding in more detail.
Besides revenue losses, Prince William County's portion of the budget comes from state gas taxes, which isn't enough to cover the county's subsidy, and the county hasn't provided additional funds outside of the gas tax revenue stream.
Virginia reset its gasoline tax formula, so when prices go down, so do tax revenues. The funding decline is accentuated by the fact that when Virginia moved to its present form of gasoline tax--a percentage of the total cost--it wasn't anticipated that the price would decline significantly, and a base or "floor" level amount wasn't prescribed by the legislation.
While the drop in fuel prices helps the agency a bit, it also cuts significantly into revenues from the fuel tax. (Note that this potential problem was identified before the legislation was passed.)
Conclusion. There are two different issues in Prince William. The drop in ridership from substituting trips with a motor vehicle, because of falling gasoline prices. And the drop in revenues from the gas tax revenue stream.
Other communities outside of Virginia won't have the latter issue to worry about, but should be impacted by the former--motor vehicle trips substituting for transit trips in lockstep with gasoline price decreases.
And loss in ridership generally makes a transit system less efficient, which makes it that much harder to garner support for transit in communities where the car is the predominate transportation choice.