The National Transit Database: Comparative Operating Cost and Fare Revenue Trends from 2008 to 2018

It has been just under three years since I last downloaded and tabulated data from the Federal Transit Administration’s National Transit Database.

Since the data is published every year, I have long hoped that some other organization would use the data and publish reports showing what it says, having someone else to it as part of their job.  That hope increased after the New York Times used the data as part of its series on the New York City Subway.   And after Governor Cuomo directed the MTA to hire a consultant to study “MTA Reinvention.”  Moreover, the NTD now includes a spreadsheet titled “Metrics” with almost all the basic cost and service efficiency ratios one might want to see. As of the date of this post that spreadsheet for 2018 is on page 2 (tab at the page bottom), though it will be moving down as 2019 data is published.

There has been, however, no public discussion of what National Transit Database data shows about New York’s transit system since the NY Times articles.   So rather than allow this information to remain among the unsaid, I decided to at least analyze the operating budget.  (I’m not sure there really is a capital budget, since under the prior MTA capital plan, regardless of what officially passed, most of the money never actually arrived and most of the work was never actually done).

The spreadsheet with my tabulation, and the charts used in this post, is here.

National Transit Database NY 2008-18

There are different worksheets for rail and ferry transit, bus transit, and para-transit (DR – demand response) service, the charts, and at the far right a worksheet with the data used in the charts. The tabs are on the bottom.  The “service provider” column shows whether the service in question is DO – directly operated by public employees or PT – purchased transportation provided under contract by a private transportation company.  The worksheets also include the Q field indicating if the FTA found a particular data item “questionable.”  That the FTA finds so little to be questionable is something I find to be questionable, given how self-interest has warped just about every example of what was supposed to be objective information in the United States.

To add some value to what anyone can download and look at themselves, I compare the 2018 data with 2008, before the Great Recession and the (partial) acknowledgement that huge costs (notably employee retirement) from the past would have to paid in the future.  As a result the Millennials, who had been choosing to use mass transit in far greater numbers than the Baby Boomers who control every level of government, found that transit and other infrastructure has been cashed in from out from under them.   The 2008 dollar figures are adjusted for inflation into $2018.

The comparison with 2008 is more difficult that I expected, because the FTA has divided Motor Bus and Light Rail transit into subcategories.  To Motor Bus (MB) service, the Bus Rapid Transit (RB) and Commuter Bus (CB) categories have been added.  And to Light Rail (LR) the Streetcar Rail (SR) category has been added.

Let’s start with fare revenues per unlinked trip, and note that the FTA believes a trip is separate each time a transit vehicle is boarded, even if another fare is not charged.  On the New York City Subway if you transfer from the F train to the A train at Jay Street, that is two trips in the National Transit Database.  This is why the number of “unlinked” trips on the NYC subway seems higher than you might expect, and the fare revenues per trip seems low compared with the $2.75 base fare.

Thanks to free transfers, unlimited ride cards, discounts for seniors and the handicapped, and free rides for school children, NYCT collected only $1.33 in fare revenue per unlinked subway trip in 2018.  That was similar to the $1.39 in Chicago, the $1.37 in Boston, the $1.20 in Philadelphia, the $1.23 in Atlanta, etc. Fares are higher on the Washington Metro and the Bay Area’s BART, but these systems allow travel over longer distances and are really a subway-commuter rail hybrid.  PATH fare revenues averaged $2.12 per unlinked trip, as fewer PATH riders take advantage of free transfers.

In virtually all these metro areas, however, there was a huge inflation-adjusted fare increase from 2008 to 2018.  Inflation-adjusted wage increases for the riders? Not so much. NYC subway fare revenues per trip increased 26.7% from 2008 to 2018, over and above inflation.  PATH fares, after having long been kept nominally lower than subway fares, increased 39.5%.

One place with a relatively low fare increase for “Heavy Rail” service from 2008 to 2018 was metro Boston, but that is because in 2008 city dwellers were forced to subsidize suburbanites on commuter rail to an extreme degree. Boston’s previously very low commuter rail fare revenues increased 70.8% from 2008 to 2018, restoring some equity. In the New York area, on the other hand, inflation-adjusted commuter rail fare revenues per trip increased 10.6% on New Jersey Transit, 13.3% on Metro North, and 18.0% on the Long Island Railroad – less than for the subway.

Nominally, at least, the MTA has always claimed that subway and commuter rail fares were going up by the same percentage.  It may be that more commuter rail riders are traveling off peak or in the reverse direction, at lower fares.  It may be that NYC resident are taking fewer non-work trips on the subway due to declining reliability, reducing the number of monthly trips taken on unlimited ride cards.

Nominally, at least, the fare for New York City buses is the same as for the New York City subway.  Allowing for discounts and the extent of free transfers, however, there are differences.  New York City Transit local buses had $1.22 in fare revenues per trip, up 16.0% from 2008 after adjustment for inflation.  The MTA Bus Company, a nominally independent subsidiary that operates the bus routes once operated by private bus companies before the MTA takeover in the 2000s, averaged $1.61, up 5.9%.

In 2018, New York City’s “Rapid Bus” service averaged $1.10 in fare revenues per unlinked trip, while “Commuter Bus” service averaged $5.97.  In 2008, data for these services was mixed into the overall “Motor Bus” category.  Taking out Commuter Bus services may explain why the increase in MB bus fares was smaller than for the subway.

For both subway service and for bus service, Los Angeles seems to have held the line on inflation adjusted fare revenues per unlinked trip. Compared with New York, bus service is a bargain in metro Houston and Dallas.  But there were stiff inflation-adjusted fare increases elsewhere.

Rochester, NY buses were a notable bargain in 2008, even when compared with other areas of New York State, but that system had to increase its fares by 80.2% from that year to 2018, after adjustment for inflation. Among the smallest 2008 to 2018 bus fare increases in New York were in Westchester, for the Bee Line system, and Long Island, for Long Island Bus.  These systems were directly operated by public employees in 2008 (DO), but had been contracted out by 2018 (PT).

Compared with the $1.22 in 2018 bus fare revenues per unlinked trip for New York City Transit and $1.61 for MTA Bus, the averages were $1.70 for the Westchester Bee Line, $1.75 for Long Island Bus, $1.54 for Suffolk County buses (also contracted out), $1.46 for Niagara Frontier (Buffalo), $1.47 for RGTA-Lift in Rochester, $1.20 for the CDTA in the Capital District, and $1.41 for Centro (Syracuse).

Having used it extensively before my in-laws, who spent their last years in Schenectady, passed away, I can tell you that the CDTA buses are far more pleasant to use than NYC buses, in addition to being cheaper.  On the downside CDTA buses are less frequent, but on the upside they are less crowded and actually move at a decent pace.


I would feel better about rising NYC subway fares if, as a result, fare revenues covered a higher share of subway operating costs.  Because that would mean the system was less vulnerable to future collapse, even as more and more tax revenues are diverted to past debt and public employee retirement costs, and services for seniors.

But that has not happened.  The subway covered 69.1% of its operating costs in 2018, barely higher than the 67.0% in 2008.

Other U.S. Heavy Rail services have surpassed the NYC subway in the share of operating costs covered by the fare.  San Francisco’s BART was up to 73.7% in 2018, up from 64.5% in 2008, while Boston’s T was up to 74.1%, up from 57.6%.  Chicago’s heavy rail system covered just 50.8% of its operating costs in 2018, but the increase from 2008 was larger than for the NYC subway.  Like NYC, these systems have had ridership booms in the past two decades.  On the other hand PATH fares covered just 42.7% of that system’s operating costs in 2018, while the Staten Island Railway covered just 14.5%, each lower than in 2008.

The share of operating costs covered by the NYC subway (orange line) was far higher than for the NY metro area’s commuter rail systems.  In 2018 New Jersey Transit fares covered 55.2% of its operating costs, compared with 58.8% for Metro North and just 50.0% for the Long Island Railroad, all about the same as in 2008.  As will be seen, the Long Island Railroad is frequently an outlier in the wrong direction.  Meanwhile, for Metro North the State of Connecticut might choose to subsidize its riders less than the State of New York does.

In metro Boston, fares covered just 53.9% of commuter rail operating costs in 2008, but were up to 61.8% of cost in 2018, more than any NY area commuter rail system.  Commuter rail services are contracted out in metro Boston, but there have been service problems, and contracts with two operators have been terminated as a result.  Metro Boston also added a commuter rail station in the Back Bay for a cost of $20 million – compared with ten times that-plus for a proposed Metro North station in the Bronx.

In the Bay Area, Caltrain fares went from covering 45.8% of its operating costs in 2008 to a nation-leading 76.2% in 2018.  The reason is huge numbers of workers are now riding in both directions – from San Jose, Silicon Valley and the Peninsula to San Francisco, and from San Francisco down to the Peninsula and Silicon Valley, as employment booms in both places and workers choose their places of residence based on their preferred lifestyle.  The one-way traffic of most commuter rail (and commuter bus) systems inflates their cost.

For rail systems, the cost of maintaining the right of way and stations is included in transit operating costs, but for local buses it is not included.  Buses use streets and bus shelters paid for by someone else.

Even so, local bus systems tend to cover a lower share of their operating costs than rail systems, in part because they provide safety net services to low ridership density places, and fare-reduced (senior, handicapped) populations.  New York City Transit local bus fares covered just 32.9% of their operating costs in 2018, down from 35.0% in 2008, while MTA Bus Company fares covered 30.0%, up from 29.7%. New Jersey Transit fares covered 45.0% of operating costs, the highest among major bus systems.   In Chicago, where more people ride buses than subways and els, bus fares covered 34.3% of operating costs, slightly higher than in NYC, but down from 35.9% in 2008.

Within New York State, NYC subway fares covered a far higher share of 2018 operating costs than did the fares of any other transit system. Among the most subsidized are the Staten Island Ferry, which is free, NYC paratransit, which covers just 2.2% of its operating costs, the Staten Island Railway, at 14.5%, and the rising number of NYC ferries paid for by the EDC, at 16.6%.

After having been contracted out, fares Westchester’s Bee Line Buses and Long Island Bus covered slightly more of their operating costs than NYC buses did, at 33.4% and 36.2% respectively.  Despite being contracted out, Suffolk County buses covered just 14.1% of their operating costs with fares in 2018, down from 18.7% in 2008.  Upstate, CDTA buses covered just 27.8% of their operating costs in 2018, but that was up from 19.2% in 2008, a substantial gain.


So NY area transit fares have soared, relative to inflation, but the share of NY area transit operating costs covered by the fare has not increased much, if at all.  That is because costs have soared.  The National Transit Database provides three key operating cost ratios.

“Operating cost per unlinked trip” favors transit modes characterized by short trips in dense locations, with lots of people getting on and off. That makes safety net service in places where relatively few people use transit, and the vehicles are mostly empty, appear to be expensive, and the heavily used NYC subway appear to be cheap.

“Operating cost per passenger mile” favors modes characterized by long trips on high-speed rights of way, such as commuter rail.  While making local buses, stuck in traffic, appear to be expensive.

Therefore my preferred measure of the cost efficiency of a transit system itself, as opposed to the characteristics of the place where it operates, is the cost per hour a transit vehicle spends in passenger revenue service.  By this measure the NYC subway isn’t looking nearly as good as it once did.

It took $265.27 in operating cost to keep a New York City subway car in revenue service for an hour in 2018, up 40.3% from 2008, even after adjustment for inflation.

Among heavy rail systems, NYC’s cost per vehicle hour was far higher than the $151.88 for the Chicago, up 22.0% over a decade, the $192.81 for Boston, down 24.4%, the $216.47 for Philadelphia, up 3.3%, and the $242.85 in Atlanta, up 20.4%.   The Washington Metro, at $295.22, and the Bay Area’s Bart, at $294.20, were somewhat higher than NYC, but didn’t increase as much.  Only the PATH system and the Los Angeles metro showed both 2018 operating costs per vehicle revenue hour that were higher than for the NYC subway, and large increases from 2008 as well.  It cost $460.41 to keep a PATH train car in revenue service for an hour in 2018, up 44.0% from 2008.

One cannot, however, talk about NYC subway costs without talking about “reimbursable operating expenditures” paid for by capital plan – with borrowed money, and with federal capital money.  During the deep early 1990s recession and fiscal crisis, among the expedients resorted to as part of then-Governor Mario Cuomo’s “big ugly” budget was allowing the MTA to classify the cost of operating service in the vicinity of a capital project as capital expenditures, not operating expenditures. Most of the “temporary” expedients deferring costs to the future resorted to at the time have since been maintained through three economic booms, including borrowing for MTA salaries and benefits.  $Billions have been borrowed, and extensive capital replacement has not taken place, as a result.

NYC subway operating costs on “facilities” (tracks, infrastructure, stations) fell by nearly one-fifth from 1992 to 1993 as a result of the shift of some operating costs to the capital budget.

NYCT subway operating costs on facilities, however, more than doubled in three short years from 2011 to 2014.  Perhaps because capital projects stopped as the MTA debt soared and tax revenues fell, so the cost of all those operating employees had to be returned to the operating budget.  Perhaps because the Federal Transit Administration forced the MTA to change the way the costs were measured in the National Transit Database.

It is not the case, however, that “reimbursable operating expenditures” have gone away.  According to another National Transit Database spreadsheet, fully 20.4% of all 2018 employee work hours on the New York City Subway (not just in the facilities category) were considered “capital” hours.  That compares with 10.0% of “heavy rail” employee work hours in Chicago, 2.3% for Boston, 9.0% for Philadelphia, 1.0% for Atlanta, and 0.0% for Los Angeles.

Two other systems that were built all at once about 50 years ago and have seen little reinvestment since – the Washington Metro and the Bay Area’s BART – did have extensive employee work hours assigned as “capital,” but in the case of Washington, at least, there were emergency safety shutdowns and repairs during 2018 that might explain this.

Part of Red Line to shut down for all of August; more new Metro shutdowns announced

On the commuter rail side, 12.3% of the hours worked by SEPTA employees in metro Philadelphia were classified as “capital.”  The only system that was higher – the Long Island Railroad at 19.6%, where they have dragged out the completion of East Side Access for decades.  More than enough time for thousands to coast to retirement in Florida.

For buses, 6.3% of the employee hours worked at New York City Transit were considered “capital.”  The only places where a similar share bus employee work hours were considered “capital”– the DC Metro at 6.3%, and SEPTA at 6.6%.

(Note that there is no employee work hour data for service that is contracted out).

Despite the large share of employee work hours possibly shifted to the capital program, it took $706.54 in operating costs to keep an LIRR train car in revenue service for an hour in 2018, up fully 40.6% from 2008 after adjustment for inflation.

That is not only nearly three times as much as the NYC subway, but also higher than most commuter rail systems.  New Jersey Transit was at $538.10 in operating cost per vehicle revenue hour, up 34.3% over a decade in real dollars, Metro North was at $575.74, up 11.4%, Metra in Chicago was at $524.72, up 20.1%, the MBTA in Boston was at $449.43, up 19.3%, SEPTA in Philadelphia was $295,31, down 23.9%, Metrolink in LA was $631.01, up 15.2%, and Caltrain in the Bay area was at $591.09, up 20.5%.

The only systems that were more expensive than the LIRR by this measure were two small systems in the suburbs of Maryland and Virginia that run just 159 and 99 train cars, respectively, at the peak of rush hour.  Their costs were up 23.4% and 21.4% over a decade, adjusted for inflation – far less than the LIRR.

The cost of keeping a local bus in revenue service for an hour was higher in New York City than in any other major bus system in 2018, at $211.19 for New York City Transit, up 23.4% from 2008 after adjustment for inflation, and $227.42 for the MTA Bus Company, up 53.8%.  The former private bus companies in New York City (mostly Queens) shifted to public ownership with drastically underfunded pension plans. The MTA agreed to assume and honor those pensions, a huge benefit to those early retirees.  Less well off New Yorkers with no pensions at all will pay for this deal for decades, in fare increases and service cuts.

It cost $199.23 to keep a NYCT bus in revenue service on a Bus Rapid Transit line in 2018, and $388.94 for a Commuter Bus.  According to the Service spreadsheet from the NYC, fully 40.7% of all hours a NYCT Commuter Bus spends moving are deadhead (no passengers) rather than in revenue service, thus inflating the cost.

Looking around NY State, the 2008 to 2018 increase in inflation adjusted operating cost per revenue vehicle hour was notably low for Suffolk County buses (3.5%), CDTA buses (3.4%), and Long Island Bus (0.3%), which was contracted out.  And it was also notably high for the NYC para-transit (32.6%).

A few notes on para-transit, which I have elected not to chart in most cases because this post is long enough as it is. The soaring cost of this service, identified as Demand Response (DR) in the National Transit Database, is a big issue everywhere, and it is expensive everywhere.  In New York City it cost $106.67 per ride in 2018, mostly because the average vehicle only carried 1.2 passengers per hour, perhaps less than the average Uber or Lyft, let alone the average bus, subway car, or commuter rail car.  The cost was over $50 per ride just about everywhere.

Some other areas have lower costs per ride in part because they have more riders per hour.   One place that has apparently found a way to reduce costs – the San Francisco Municipal Railway (Muni).  Somehow, its para-transit vehicles operated in maximum service fell from 1,574 in 2008 to just 139 in 2018.  Para-transit ridership fell by 61.8% (compared with a 6.5% decrease for NYC) over a decade. For SF, that is probably an Uber reduction.


By far the largest factor in mass transit operating costs is labor costs, and it is to those costs that one must look to explain differences in operating cost per vehicle revenue hour between places.   And the increase in operating costs per revenue vehicle hour from 2008 to 2018.

There are two labor cost factors.  Compensation – total operating costs per employee work hour.  And productivity – the number of employee workers hours required for an hour of vehicle revenue service.

The data shows that New York City Subway operating costs totaled $95.16 per employee work hour in 2018, up 23.1% from 2008 after adjustment for inflation.  That was not completely out of line with other heavy rail system such as those in Chicago ($93.35, up 31.9%), Washington ($96.00, up 9.8%), BART ($114.13, up 92%) and the Boston’s MBTA ($84.02, up 12.0%).  What was out of line was the PATH at $178.08, up 59.4%.  Why?  The only explanation I’ve ever heard is that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey charges the entire cost of its highly-paid, richly pensioned police force to its transit system.

The total operating cost per employee work hour at metro NY commuter rail systems was higher than the NYC subway, at $109.43 for New Jersey Transit, up 18.6% over then years, $112.64 at Metro North, up 20.0%, and $117.64 on the LIRR, up 20.5%.  But other “directly operated” commuter rail systems had lower operating costs per employee work hour – at $88.52 in Chicago, up 7.0%, $84.75 in Philadelphia, up 22.1%, and $82.67 in Northern Indiana, up 7.7%.  While NYC Transit workers get far more in pay and benefits than most New Yorkers, Metro North and LIRR workers are paid even more than that.

New York City’s motor bus operating costs per employee work hour are higher than in most other major bus systems, and have increased significantly relative to inflation.  For New York City buses operating costs totaled $91.87 per employee work hour in 2018, up 16.2% from 2008 after adjustment for inflation.  For MTA Bus, the average was $92.14, up 17.7%.   Some other high cost of living metro areas were similar, however – Los Angeles at $89.31, up 32.9%, Boston at $95.76, up 34.4%, and Portland OR at $87.53, up 20.5%. Seattle stands out on the high side at $117.09, up 49.6% over a decade.

All over New York there were significant inflation-adjusted increases in mass transit operating costs per employee work hour from 2008 to 2018, with the exception of the contracted out services in Westchester, Nassau and Suffolk.  The largest increase was for the PATH, as noted.  The smallest were for Niagara Frontier buses (Buffalo) at 5.1%, and the CDTA at 10.4%.

Meanwhile, the median annual cash pay of NYC resident workers increased 4.3% from 2008 to 2018 after adjustment for inflation, but only due to rising educational attainment.  Those with college degrees earned 3.2% more in cash than a decade earlier, but those in other educational attainment categories earned less.  The increase for college graduates may result from less of the year, on average, spent unemployed, rather than higher pay per hour worked.

It isn’t so much that cash pay that has soared in the public sector, relative to the private sector.  It is the cost of employee benefits, notably pensions and retiree health insurance, that has soared.  For all U.S. workers, the average cost of employee benefits has not gone up as a percent of wage income since the early 1990s, as I showed here using data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

With the cost of public sector benefits going up, the cost of private sector benefits must be going down. Which makes sense given that virtually no remaining private workers get pensions, employer contributions to 401K plans have been cut, many such employers do not offer health insurance, and other who do offer health insurance classify a significant share of their workforce as “temps” or “independent contractors” to avoid giving it to them.

Moreover, the average Millennial is paid 25.0% less on than the average Baby Boomer had been at the same point in their lives.

Which is why many sought to turn to mass transit, to save the cost of owning a private motor vehicle, or an additional private motor vehicle.

Mass transit operating costs per employee work hour, like fares, have thus risen by significantly than inflation at a time the wages of most riders and taxpayers have stagnated.  Public employees, like top executives, have been getting richer compared with the serfs.  But that doesn’t have to come at the expense of the serfs — if it is offset by rising productivity – fewer work hours required to provide service and maintain the system. In New York, however, political deals tend to reduce productivity, not increase it.

It took 3.5 employee work hours to put a NYC subway car in revenue service for an hour in 2018.  Since there are typically ten cars in a train, the hours worked by train operator and conductor presumably accounted just 0.2 of that – plus additional hours for breaks and deadhead moves.  The Washington metro was higher at 4.25, but the emergency shutdowns might explain that.  Most other systems were lower, notably Chicago at 1.81.  That, and not lower pay and benefits, is why Chicago’s operating cost per vehicle revenue hour are so much lower than NYC.  And Chicago typically only runs six car trains.

Among directly operated commuter rail systems, all had more employee work hours per hour of vehicle revenue service than the NYC subway.  New Jersey Transit was at 5.33, and Metro North at 5.53, with Chicago’s Metra even higher at 6.57.  But the highest of all was the Long Island Railroad at fully 7.47, much of it overtime according to recent press reports.  No wonder there is a need to cut NYC subway and bus service because of high overtime at “the MTA.”

One gets a different picture with regard to buses.  The 2.45 employee work hours per hour of vehicle revenue service for New York City Transit, and the 2.47 for MTA bus, is more than the majority of major bus systems, though less than some others. , Of that amount, 1.0 employee work hours per hour of service (actually more including break times and deadhead moves) is the bus driver. Once again the Chicago Transit Authority comes in much lower at 1.75.  It may be the case, however, that the CTA contracts out some tasked that NYCT does in house.  The suburban PACE system in Chicago averages 1.67 employee work hours per vehicle hour in revenue service.

Compared with NYC, the only major systems with significantly more work hours per hour of bus vehicle revenue service are those of Washington DC (2.62) and Pittsburgh (2.70). Upstate, the CDTA averages just 1.68 employee work hours per hour of service, compared with 2.17 for Centro in Syracuse, 2.23 for R-GRTA in Rochester, and 2.08 for Niagara Frontier in Buffalo.


Soaring transit employee compensation costs that are not offset by rising productivity gains put downward pressure on service, as well as upward pressure on fares.

One service squeeze is on the New York City Subway, where the number of unlinked trips was 8.2% higher in 2018 than it had been in 2008, but the number of vehicle revenue miles was just 0.3% higher.  Just 0.3% higher despite the opening of the three-station Q train extension during that period.  Moreover, NYC Subway vehicle revenue hours are presumably lower than they had been decades ago, as I discussed here.

Bear in mind that the NYC subway had 2.6 billion unlinked trips in 2018. All the other heavy rail systems in the U.S., all the commuter rail systems, and all the other light rail and streetcar rail systems, put together, totaled 2.1 billion unlinked trips. The subway is the very foundation of the NYC economy, which also provides most of the high-wage jobs for the suburbs and much of the state tax revenue that funds local government services Upstate.

NYC subway riders are not the only ones being squeezed into less space. In Chicago CTA rapid transit trips increased 14.0% from 2008 to 2018, but vehicle revenue miles were up just 8.9%.  In Boston MBTA rapid transit trips rose 10.0%, but vehicle miles increased just 6.4%.  Trips are up 7.2% on the PATH over a decade, with vehicle miles up 6.1%.

On the other hand, ridership plunged during 2018 on the Washington Metro and Baltimore subway as a result of those emergency shutdowns, but vehicle miles did not.  On the Los Angeles metro a 16.2% increase in vehicle revenue miles as met by a mere 0.4% increase in passenger trips, while on the BART ridership rose 11.0% but vehicle miles increased by 15.4%.

The big story in commuter rail is falling ridership for the suburban services for metro Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia – even as urban rail ridership increased.  Despite falling ridership, commuter rail service was not reduced in these areas.  In fact, all had a larger increase in vehicle revenue miles than the NYC subway.  Thanks to that bi-directional ridership, on the other hand, Caltrain scored a 69.5% increase in unlinked trips with a mere 7.1% increase in vehicle revenue miles.

Vehicle revenue miles also increased by more than the 0.3% for the NYC subway on New Jersey Transit (1.1%), Metro North (14.7%) and the Long Island Railroad (3.3%).

Light rail ridership has been increasing, mostly because of new lines and even entirely new systems.  Nationwide the number of light rail and streetcar rail trips increased 20.2% from 2008 to 2018, but the number of light rail and streetcar rail revenue miles increased far more – by 44.7%.  Pending those new routes and systems capturing more of a market, perhaps by attracting development nearby, the cost effectiveness of light rail has fallen.

The way to avoid this is to shift to light rail gradually in places where ridership already justifies it.  First a heavily used local bus line is replaced by a bus rapid transit line.  And then if ridership rises even more the bus rapid transit line could be replaced by light rail.  Rather than throwing down light rail up front, and hoping future development will provide enough riders to support it.

Meanwhile, deteriorating service reliability on the Green Line has caused metro Boston light rail ridership to fall by 23.1% over a decade, even as vehicle revenue miles increased 4.4%.

The big story is bus service is falling ridership.  To make sure the apparent decrease in New York City was not due to some 2008 riders being assigned to new categories in 2018, I added New York City Transit Motor Bus (MB) Service, MTA Bus Motor Bus service, NYCT Bus Rapid Transit (RB) service, and NYCT Commuter Bus (CB) service together.  Total NYC bus ridership still fell by 14.8% from 2008 to 2018, but vehicle revenue miles only fell by 4.1%.   NYC subway riders are being squeezed, in part, due to per rider cost increases for buses and para-transit.

Ridership on many major bus systems fell far more than in NYC.  Some cut service, and others did not, but none cut service as much as ridership fell.  In Los Angeles, LACMTA ridership fell by 28.3% from 2008 to 2018, and vehicle revenue miles fell 19.3%.  Some of those riders likely shifted to LA’s growing light rail system.  But there were no light rail system expansions in Chicago, where the number of bus trips fell 26.2% and the revenue vehicle miles were cut 23.9%.  In Houston a much-lauded bus system redesign failed to prevent a ridership decrease — even with service going up.

Two bus systems bucked the trend.  Boston bus riders are also being squeezed, with an 11.3% increase in bus trips (some likely fleeing the light rail Green Line) but an 8.2% decrease in bus vehicle revenue miles.  On the CDTA in the Capital District upstate, ridership is up 17.2% over a decade, with vehicle revenue miles up 15.0%.


Aside from the growth of light rail ridership and service, outside metro NY, there is little good news in the NTD data.  Millennials turned to mass transit in large numbers, but Baby Boomers took it away from them, retiring with benefits they had promised themselves but never paid for.  The result is fare increases and, for the NYC subway, no ability to accommodate rising ridership with service expansions and increases. This is just one more example of the diminished future being left to future New Yorkers, and Americans, by the generations that are still in charge of every level of government.

2 thoughts on “The National Transit Database: Comparative Operating Cost and Fare Revenue Trends from 2008 to 2018

  1. Stevie

    Regarding table ‘Change in Median NYC Resident Work Earnings (2008-18 Inflation Adjusted)’: how can total earnings have increased when four out of five educational categories declined by more than the one category that increased?

    1. larrylittlefield Post author

      Educational attainment increased. Let’s say in period one 100 people were high school dropouts and one person had a graduate degree, and in period two 100 people had a graduate degree and one was a high school dropout. Average income for all 101 people would go up even if both high school dropouts and those with graduate degrees earned less on average, simply because there are more of the latter.

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