Jim Stergios is bad at math

Update: It turns out, the Pioneer Institute as a whole is bad at math.

Jim Stergios, of the Koch-funded Pioneer Institute (edit: NOT the author of the discredited absenteeism report; my apologies to them for that insinuation, it’s only that, you know, Baker ran the Pioneer Institute, and the report was used by his commission had similar issues to other Pioneer reports), uses a lot of numbers to try to set up his arguments in response to a piece by Jim Aloisi. The problem? He uses numbers which are very convenient for him, ignoring longer trends which make his argument far, far more flimsy, and in many cases, completely refuted. He starts with an agenda, he warps data to make it fit that agenda. The problem is, the data tell a much, much different story.

• First, he references that in 2011 and 2012, 8 million commuter rail passengers were inconvenienced by late or delayed trains. That’s a big number. 8 million! But he doesn’t have a denominator. A big number without a denominator is meaningless (which was what most of the hubbub about the absenteeism report was about.) How many trips are there, annually, on the T’s commuter rail? If it’s 16 million, that’s a lot of delays. If it’s 80 million, it’s not quite as much. The answer? In 2011 and 2012, there were about 75,000,000 trips on Commuter Rail. So 8 million represents about 10%. Could this number be improved? Certainly. But without a denominator, this is a scare tactic: a number with no context. He claims that this resulted in a loss of ridership and revenue. But without any other years to compare it to (Were delays better or worse in 2006? He doesn’t say.), those claims are specious, at best.

(Vertical lines show locations of system expansions.)

• Then there’s this:

Notwithstanding the fact that the MBTA added more commuter track miles than other major transit systems in the country over the past 25 years, quickly raised fares and continued substandard service led, remarkably, to a decline of 13 percent in commuter rail ridership from 2003 to 2013.

Can you spot the incongruity there? Stergios assails the T’s expansion over 25 years, but is only concerned about it’s ridership over 10. It turns out that before 2003, the T was the fastest-growing commuter rail system in the country. If you look at the period from 1988 to 2013, T commuter rail ridership more than doubled. Even if you exclude extensions, at stations open in 1988 and 2013, it grew 65%. I made the argument that T ridership is hampered by high fares, and stand by that conjecture. In fact, for trips between 18 and 27 miles, the T has the highest fares of any commuter rail system in the country (this will be explored in depth in a later post).

It’s almost as if the investment in commuter rail in the 1980s and 1990s paid dividends in ridership during that time. But for an institute that wants to cut investment in transit, those data are very inconvenient. So they choose to ignore them. Thus, his data are misleading at best, and borderline fraudulent at worst.

• So he’s stepped in it already, but then he links to an article from his policy “research” institute that allows him to step in it some more. That article goes to great lengths about how, between 2003 and 2013, the T was the only major commuter rail system to lose ridership. You know what, I can’t argue with that. During that time period, the T did lose ridership, while other agencies gained. Again, I contend that it’s due to fare policy, but we each have our ideas why. But notice how he again very conveniently picks 2003 as his start date, which was the highest ridership on record. By doing so without showing any other data, he suggests that the T has underperformed other commuter rail networks. Let’s see if that is actually the case.

Annual ridership for SEPTA, Metra, MBTA

The two most similar commuter rail networks—with multiple legacy lines feeding the city center—are SEPTA in Philadelphia and Metra in Chicago. They also (conveniently for me, this time) have ridership data back as far as 1980. (Here’s SEPTA, here’s Metra, which I estimated from a chart but is exact enough for this post. Unlike Pioneer I don’t obscure my data sources; all MBTA data came from the Blue Books available on the T’s web site.) And, yes, the MBTA has had stagnant ridership in recent years, while SEPTA and Metra have both trended upwards. (This is also the case with New York’s commuter railroads, as well as Caltrain and MARC.) So there is certainly a case to be made that the MBTA’s commuter rail networks has been a laggard in recent years. This is likely due to a variety of factors, including stagnant service levels (SEPTA has, in recent years, been adding service), increasing fares (both Metra and SEPTA have lower fares per mile) and equipment and trackage which has been allowed to fall in to disrepair (SEPTA has invested heavily in their physical plant recently, and Metra runs on freight lines which have kept their tracks in good working order).

But the chart above is only one way to look at these data. Another is to normalize everything by an arbitrary year. I used 1988 (left), because Stergios likes to look back that far (sometimes). But for fun, I also made a chart that goes back to 1979 (right), because that’s the first year I have data from for all three systems.

Feel free to click to enlarge. The 1988 chart shows how, in the past 25 years, ridership on the MBTA Commuter Rail system has far outpaced SEPTA or Metra, growing by more than double while the others grew at a much slower rate. Go back to 1979, and the T has more than quadrupled, while, after falling off in the early 1980s, Metra and SEPTA only recently surpassed gas crisis ridership levels. In fact, if you look back to most any year but 2003, you get a very different picture. But, again, Pioneer’s “research” is picking and choosing numbers to fit their narrative, but not to show what actually happened.

• But wait, there’s more. He also claims that the MBTA has added more commuter track than any other system in the country in the past 25 years. Here he’s not fudging numbers, he’s just plain wrong. The T operates 394 miles of commuter rail. Metrolink, in Los Angeles, operates 388 miles. However, Metrolink began operation in 1992 which—let me get out my abacus, carry the 2—is only 23 years ago. So in the past 23 years they’ve added 388 miles. I’m not sure to the decimal of the amount the T has added (it’s about 145 miles over that time, of which at least 20 is in, and paid for by, Rhode Island) but it is certainly less than 388; even in 1988 the T operated more than, say, a shuttle from North Station to West Medford.

• Stergios also references his bus maintenance study, but that study borderlines on laughable, and may also be the subject of a separate post. Of several data irregularities there, the most glaring are the comparisons that the Pioneer Institute draws from the most comparable bus systems. For example, the list of most comparable bus systems to the T’s includes many systems in warm climates with low living expenses and ridership 1/10th of the T. Are we surprised that the transit authority in El Paso or San Bernardino has lower costs?

They make a major comparison to MetroTransit in the Twin Cities, an agency that also maintains buses in a colder climate. But nowhere in the report do the point out that while they have the same number of buses, the T carries twice as many passengers, and therefore, twice as many passengers per bus. This means that the T runs many more buses at or over capacity. A bus crammed with 75 passengers on board carries about 30% of its total weight in passengers, putting much more stress on not just the motor, but the air bags, axles, struts, tires and other equipment. (Imagine loading a Toyota Corolla with five 180 pound people and 500 pounds more in the trunk and a roof box. That’s what the T asks much of it’s fleet to do several times per day.) Many of the T’s bus routes run at this capacity on a daily basis. Only a few MetroTransit routes do, and often over longer distances. For instance, the MetroTransit Route 5 has comparable ridership to the T’s #1 bus, but its route is three times longer, meaning that the bus is not full nearly as often.

It is opaque as to how the Pioneer Institute chose other comparable agencies, but they often talk about the 79 other “large” agencies. However, the T is one of the top 10 agencies, and comparing it to an agency with as many passengers a day in total as the #1, #39 and #66 buses carry makes no sense. Is there a correlation between bus maintenance costs and overall ridership? They don’t bother to find out, and continue with these false, apples-to-oranges comparisons. The only comparable agencies in their database of the 20 most-similar systems are WMATA in DC and Muni in San Francisco (and even this is not apples-to-apples; WMATA carries fewer passengers per bus while San Francisco has no winter weather). Those agencies’ costs perfectly bracket the T’s maintenance costs per mile: the T is $3.80, WMATA is $3.20 and Muni $4.40. Compared to those agencies, the T is about where it should be.

Stergios claims that if the T operated with the efficiency of the average of these “comparable agencies” it would save $40 million a year or more. But if it operated with the efficiency of the agency in San Francisco? The T would actually spend more money. This whole study comes apart if you pull any one of many loose threads. That it is even in the discussion shows how picking only very particular data can make pretty much any point. What’s sad is that the legislature and governor bought it hook, line and sinker.

• There’s the stuff that’s just plain wrong. He claims that:

MBTA Board of Directors inexplicably authorized $47 million to purchase the Pittsfield-to-Connecticut Housatonic line

Really? The T is buying rail lines in Berkshire County? That sounds a lot like a MassDOT project, and indeed it is. They’re related, certainly, but that’s not money coming from the T’s pot. This is just careless.

WGBH fancies itself a news organization, and, as such, should have a fact checking department. Most of Stergios’s article does not pass even the slightest sniff test. GBH should be ashamed for publishing this article full of half truths at best, and several outright lies. As for Stergios and the Pioneer Institute? Anything that comes from them is immediately suspect, and usually, when examined, mostly false. They should crawl back in to their hole until they can present data with a straight face.

Philly vs Melbourne

A quick follow-on to my previous post on clock face scheduling. I mentioned the commuter rail system in Melbourne, Australia. It’s being rebranded as a Metro system with service levels to match. Even the longest branch line has midday service at least every 30 minutes, and most of the system has service every 20, 15 or 10 minutes, with clock face scheduling at all times.

Melbourne has 231 miles of electrified route, and serves about 700,000 passengers daily. That’s more than any commuter rail system in the US outside New York City (where three systems combine with about a million riders), more than double Chicago (a city with a population more than double Melbourne) and five times the ridership of Philadelphia and Boston.

The Melbourne rail map, with the Philadelphia Regional Rail lines
flipped, rotated and overlaid (in red). Center City Philadelphia is centered
on the Melbourne CBD. In this map, the NEC runs northwest-southeast
and the Main Line runs east-southeast. Finding GIS data for Philadelphia
was simple, finding it for Melbourne’s rail lines much harder. Also note:
Purple lines on the Melbourne map are not electrified and thus not
counted in the track mileage here; Philly’s non-electric line, namely
the NJT-operated Atlantic City Line, is not shown.

Why compare Melbourne and Philadelphia? Both operate almost solely electric trains. They have nearly the same track length (about 221 miles for Philadelphia; Boston has almost double the track length with not much more ridership). And, most importantly, both linked two separate commuter systems with downtown tunnels in the 1970s and 1980s to improve efficiency in their systems.

Now, while it’s not apples to apples, it’s not apples to oranges. Both systems have about 1 million daily riders on their non-regional rail systems (270m in Melbourne, 290m in Philadelphia). Melbourne lacks any heavy rail subway, but has an extensive tram network; Philadelphia has heavy rail, light rail, streetcars and buses, with the buses carrying slightly more than half the load. Both cities have populations in the neighborhood of 5 million. Melbourne is much more isolated (Philly is less than two hours from New York, Baltimore and DC, Melbourne is that far from Geelong, Bendigo and Ballarat) but both have extensive, car-centered suburbs.

Both systems saw ridership bottom out in the early 1980s and have doubled (in the case of Philadelphia, tripled, although the low occurred after hundreds of miles of diesel service was scrapped and a crippling strike severely cut ridership) since. Both run under overhead wires. Both have quadruple-tracking on some core segments.

And Melbourne’s regional rail system carries more than five times as many passengers as Philadelphia’s.

There are a bunch of reasons why this is the case. Two of the biggest: Frequency is certainly one—Melbourne has more commuter rail lines with 30-minute-or-better headways all day than there are in the entire United States (*)—only two SEPTA lines operate more-than-hourly. Melbourne’s two-zone fare structure, with full integration with bus and tram lines (this is the subject of another post entirely), also makes it much easier to use the system.

It would be a very interesting exercise to see if running SEPTA with Melburnian service levels and a simplified fare structure dramatically increased ridership—especially if someone has $100m burning a hole in their pocket.

* Actually, Melbourne has 11 full lines with at-least 20 minute headways and two others with 15 minute headways before branches split near their termini and have service every half hour. This is more than the 9 lines in the US which have 30 minute service patterns. BART and Washington Metro’s outlying branches could be seen as a similar system to Melbourne’s, but they were built in the ’70s; most lines in Melbourne were built in the 1800s.

How high are MBTA fares? Not.

According to the news, Occupy Boston has a new target: the MBTA. This is wrongheaded. They should protest the crawl with which the legislature is able (or unable) to make changes to the T’s funding mechanism, the debt burden shouldered by the agency from the Big Dig and myriad other poor decisions by the state and by the T in the last ten or twenty years. But protesting a modest fare increase? Not helpful.

Back in January, when the draconian proposals came out, my reaction was “well it must not be as bad as last time—then they were threatening to shut down commuter rail at 7 p.m.” Because of intransigence on the part of the legislature, the T has to threaten huge cuts, and then make smaller ones, so it’s a better pill to swallow. This time, at least, people seem to realize it’s a problem. Whether the legislature will act is another question all together.

In any case, the T will be raising fares to $2. Monthly passes will rise to $70. This is what the Occupy folks are protesting. And, well, this is really not a big deal. Look at other cities fares:

(“Lower Fares” are shown where there is are multiple monthly pass levels except those based on peak and off-peak fares. Notes: Houston has no monthly pass system. Boston has a $48 bus-only pass, San Francisco’s higher fare allows in-city travel on BART, Denver sells a year of transit passes for the price of 11 months, Miami gives a 10% discount for group purchases. Washington DC has no monthly passes, but a $15 weekly bus pass and a $32 weekly Metro pass allowing fares up to $3.25, which covers travel within the city limits.)

Only two cities have lower fares than Boston, and neither of these has a comparable level of transit. San Francisco does sell a cheaper pass for non BART-users, but those are confined to MUNI lines which are, well, not particularly speedy (the longest MUNI lines are about the distance from South Station to Alewife, but they take more than 22 minutes to complete the route). If you look at the “Big Six” cities with MSA transit use over 10% and center city transit use over 20% (Boston, SF, Philly, Chicago, DC and New York), the average monthly pass is about $85. DC has no real monthly pass option. And New York tops out over $100. Of course, their trains do run all night.

Here is another way of showing that the MBTA fares aren’t that high—looking at fares for major transit systems through the last 100 years in nominal and current dollars.

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I left out DC (which has distance-based fares) and SEPTA (I couldn’t find fare history data for Philly) and threw in gas prices for fun. Note that the T has generally been about the same price as MUNI in San Francisco, and cheaper than Chicago and New York. (Except from 1920 to 1950, when Boston fares were a dime, and New York was a nickel.) The transit agencies all raise their fares to cope with increasing prices. And while the T has never hit the two dollar mark before, unless there’s deflation this year (there won’t be) it’s likely that prices will, in real terms, regress below the $2 mark in the next couple of years. It’s also significantly cheaper than New York and Chicago—especially since Chicago doesn’t have free bus transfers on single fares. And lest we complain further, Boston has had the lowest fare around since MUNI raised fares to $2 a couple years back.

Oh, and unless gas prices tumble real soon (and we’ll need another proper recession for that; in other words, we really don’t want cheap gas) any transit system is still cheaper than a gallon of petrol.

A few notes:

  1. New York has slight discounts—10% from 1993 to 2009, 7% since 2009, when purchasing at least $10 of transit fare. Chicago has charged between 10¢ and 30¢ for bus-train transfers since the 1960s. 
  2. Since most transit users (about 2/3 in Boston) use monthly passes—an advent of the last 30 years or so—their actual fare per ride, assuming 2.5 rides per day for a transit-dependent user, is significantly lower: under a dollar in Boston. In transit-heavy New York, assuming 3 rides per day yields a cost per trip of just over a dollar.
  3. DC’s higher fares and lack of monthly passes yield a higher farebox recovery rate compared with other systems of over 60%.
  4. Commuter rail fares are going up, too, but for a less sensitive population: 28% of bus riders have incomes over $75,000, while 72% of Commuter Rail riders do.
  5. Data sources for Boston (Note that this study has transit fare comparisons in it, but doesn’t use the most-frequently-purchased fares; for instance it shows a single ride in New York as $2.50 and in Boston as $2. Most users pay less.), New York, Chicago, San Francisco. Gas prices from the EIA. Inflation from the BLS.