The weekly from hell

OMG! Soangrysoangrysoangrysoangry!

Since it became independently owned, the East Bay Express, a paper I used to look forward to reading every week, has lost all their good writers, gone from healthy to anorexic, and is increasingly becoming a vehicle for nothing more than the half-baked, ill-informed screeds of crazy people. I give it four more months before it has all the relevancy of the Berkeley Daily Planet. For the most part I just ignore it. But I cannot overlook or forgive this week’s insane cover story which appears to be an attempt to turn the whining of a handful of Van Hool haters into yet another bullshit excuse to bitch about BRT.

The essence of the story’s argument hinges on the assertion that AC transit ridership is has plunged under the leadership of BRT proponent Rick Fernandez. This is not true by any metric. Ridership is growing. Read through for the numbers.

First, let me say that I like the Van Hools. I like the stop request buttons, I love the multiple rear exits and easy open doors, I love the low floors. I love that it seems so much faster for wheelchairs to board and exit. I love that they just have more room in general and are much easier to stand in when crowded. Few things frustrate me more than waiting for the bus at what I know is a busy time and seeing one of the old buses pull up to the stop. Having said that, I could care less if AC Transit went out and decided to buy a different bus. I don’t have mobility problems, so I’ve never had a problem climbing up to the seats. Apparently some people do. Perhaps I will when I’m older. VTA has some nice, American-made (I believe) low-floor buses, and I’d be just as happy with those.

So Gammon takes what may or may not be legitimate complaints about the Van Hool buses and then spends 4000 words weaving them into some broad condemnation of AC Transit’s performance in the last decade, coupled with multiple completely random swipes at BRT. Too bad he’s completely wrong about everything. Now, whether he knows he’s lying or is simply too dim to grasp some pretty basic figures in the course of his three-month investigation, I can’t say. But check this out:

In fact, since Fernandez took control of the agency in the late 1990s, its fortunes have worsened in almost every measurable category. Ridership has plummeted, costs have skyrocketed, and the agency has slashed service.

and

And as the agency continued to pursue its dream of a European-style transit system, its fortunes worsened and it lost millions of riders. For critics, that raises questions about whether it’s even capable of making BRT work.

and

None of these remedies have cured the agency’s financial woes. Fewer buses and bus lines predictably resulted in fewer riders. According to statistics compiled by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, a state agency that oversees state and federal transportation funds, AC Transit lost about 9 percent of its annual passengers from 2000-1 through 2005-6 — a staggering 6.1 million people, or more than twice the total population of Alameda and Contra Costa counties.

Predictably, my ass. Not only is Gammon’s example of losing twice the population of Alameda and CoCo counties retarded, it’s also insanely misleading.

The document Gammon is referring to (PDF!) here does indeed note a 9% decline in annual boardings for AC Transit between 2000-2001 and 2004-2005. It also notes an an 8% decline in boardings on Muni over the same period, a 20% decline in boardings on SamTrans, a 19% decline in boardings on Golden Gate Transit, and a whopping 34% decline in boardings on VTA. The average percent change in boardings on all Bay Area transit systems over the period was an 11% decline. That’s right – AC Transit outperformed the Bay Area transit system average during this period.

Okay, now remember that the first Van Hools were delivered in the Spring of 2003.

The same report shows that between 2003-2004 and 2004-2005, AC Transit experienced a slight gain in boardings (less than 1%, the average of all agencies sampled). It also ranks that AC Transit’s 40/40L/43 and 51 lines, both of which use the Van Hools almost exclusively, as the 9th and 10th busiest bus routes in the Bay Area by boardings for 2004-2005. Neither of these lines had made it into the top ten in any of the previous 4 years.

In fact, boardings began declining before the Van Hool buses were purchased. Boardings declined 3% between 2000-2001 and 2001-2002 (PDF!) and 10% between 2001-2002 and 2002-2003 (PDF!). They finally began rising again the next year, with a 3% gain between 2002-2003 and 2003-2004 (PDF!).

Okay. Boardings are only one way to measure transit traffic. Let’s look at some figures – hard numbers instead of percentages. Here’s AC Transit ridership data from 1997 (PDF!), when it was that “no-frills workhorse” run by Gammon’s hero, Sharon Banks, and from 2006 (PDF!), under the Devil’s henchman, Rick Fernandez.

Thousands of annual boardings: (This figure is from the MTC reports. All the rest come from the reports linked in the above paragraph.)
1997-1998: 63,877
2004-2005: 65,076

Annual Passenger Miles Traveled
1997: 190,544,197
2006: 209,399,847

Annual Unlinked Trips:
1997: 63,054,878
2006: 66,926,680

Average Weekday Unlinked Trips:
1997: 215,459
2006: 226,732

Average Saturday Unlinked Trips:
1997: 90,245
2006: 104,301

Average Sunday Unlinked Trips:
1997: 64,172
2006: 69,009

I’m neither a mathematician nor a lexicographer, but I’m having a really hard time looking at those numbers and coming to the conclusion that anything besides Gammon’s brain cell count “plummeted.”

Gammon also tries to blame the agency’s financial woes on the new buses:

Fernandez defends AC Transit’s financial record and said there were many reasons why its fare box recovery nose-dived. “It’s hard to take a look at it in isolation,” he said. “Our costs have skyrocketed. The cost of medical has gone up dramatically. Fuel costs are up dramatically.”

But it’s also the case that buying expensive European buses has cost the agency several million dollars in the past half decade. And the costs for riders are likely to keep rising.

Ooh! Several million dollars! Well, that must be the problem. But just to make sure, let’s compare numbers again.

Operating Expense – Wages, Salaries, and Benefits
1997: $112,221,053
2006: $198,852,158

This paper is dead to me.

17 thoughts on “The weekly from hell

  1. Farrah

    Haha! I saw your comment in the the Express and loved it and I love that you said that it’s “dead to you.” You obviously know more than I do about the facts but I trust them after you put them into context. I also think that the article was hilariously overly dramatic. The tone in and of itself makes it slightly questionable. However, the Express does shed light on some issues (although I do look at other sources for support and additional information).

    I agree that the new buses are pretty. I don’t much see the sense in spending so much on them if ridership is decreasing in Oakland and in the Bay generally. I’m also not sure if it makes that much sense to make the bus lanes and ticket kiosks in the middle of the street since the EB doesn’t seem to have the geography (too spread out – my dentist is in berkeley and I live in Oakland and it’s two/three buses and sometimes a long walk to get there) to encourage that much of a shift from cars to public transit. Or, it would take a lot more than those things to increase ridership. So what I think we’ll have is the same amount of cars and roughly the same amount of ridership and more headaches because it won’t make all that much since (given how spread out the EB is) for drivers to leave their cars.

  2. V Smoothe Post author

    Farrah -

    A couple of things. You bring up the biggest problem I have with the article – Gammon predicates his entire argument on plunging ridership, when the reality is that there is literally no way to measure ridership that shows anything but an increase over the last decade.

    The article is also disingenuous about the real cost of buying buses – Gammon implies that if it weren’t for the Van Hools, AC Transit wouldn’t have spent money buying buses. This is not true – old buses have to be retired regularly and replaced. Gammon also provides an exceedingly misleading description of Bus Rapid Transit. If you want to learn more about the details of BRT, I encourage you to read my Novometro article on the subject. I also had a posted on this blog a few months ago where I responded to many of the criticisms of BRT.

    BRT has been phenomenally successful everywhere it’s been introduced in the United States. Within one year of operation, the Los Angeles Orange Line met its ridership forecasts for 2020. It also reduced freeway congestion along the route. Rider surveys revealed that of Orange Line passengers, 17% had never used transit before. In Oregon, Eugene-Springfield’s EmX Green Line opened in January, average weekday boardings along the route increased 70%, and broke systemwide ridership records. Orlando’s Lynx Lymmo exceeded expectations as well, and increased boardings 33% over the previous route. The MAX in Kansas City ended a systemwide ridership decline since 2002, and increased ridership along the route by 40%. Pheonix’s RAPID is so successful that the city had to add more buses to the route. The Silver Line in Boston doubled ridership along the route in one year. Do we really believe that the residents of Oakland and Berkeley are more wedded to their cars than those of Los Angeles and Kansas City?

  3. pallewog

    I was actually quite excited that local people run the EB Express, I’m not so sure now. I also thought it was fitting that he exaggerated the number of words in his article. Hilarious! His defensiveness speaks louder than anything. The editing at the paper is probably bare bones and they were trying to make a deadline.

  4. Capricious Commuter

    I am soo glad that I’d not gotten around to doing MY exposé on the Van Hools. Then I’d be the target of your well-aimed volleys. Actually, I’m not sure whether I enjoyed reading your critique or the story better. It gave me something to tell my editor in case he asked, “why didn’t WE do that story?” The VH thing seemed interesting enough, such that if one scratched the surface, you might aggravate a prior injury and lose a limb. But seriously, I’m dying to read Part 2. Have they saved the best for last?

  5. Brell

    Nice. And if you use the BLS’s inflation calculator, the numbers for operating expenses still look worse (higher) now.

    “$112 in 1997 is worth $144.69 in 2007″

    – bls.gov inflation calculator

    That’s still ~$50 million more per year, probably from medical, since I don’t see service wages going up that much.

  6. Jennifer

    Re: Farrah’s comment on the distance between his home and dentist, I’m in the same situation. But, we must realize that this is not sustainable or desirable. Our dependence on zipping between relatively far flung destinations by car contributes to climate change and congestion (though I’d argue that we currently have too little congestion in the East Bay to instigate a widespread travel mode shift). The problem isn’t that the East Bay is “spread out,” but rather that, by virtue of excess capacity, we are able to make choices that require long trips. If there were one less lane on Telegraph Ave, traveling quickly by car would be less convenient. Then, people might make other choices, including patronizing businesses and services closer to home–and inspiring the establishment of new businesses–and getting on the bus which, with its own lane, would be faster than a car.

    (BTW, my dentist is in Albany and I BART and bike it from Oakland twice a year. I know this wouldn’t work for everyone. I’m not fond of the Van Hools–so unstable!–but the Gammon seems to have some strange vendetta against AC Transit. Weird.)

  7. len raphael

    the cities mentioned as BRT successes, without a detailed comparison of the situations, doesn’t prove anything except that in some locales BRT works ok.

    BRT probably makes sense, 10 to 15 years from now, or sooner if gas prices rise high enough to force people to use it.

    other than the dubious claim that Oakland Berkeley BRT plus high density will save us from global warming and species extinction, I don’t see the rush to do this full bore now.

    eg. why not try it on just Internatl Blvd without building the permanent kiosks. if that works, try it on Tele but initially w/o the kiosks. Unlike light rail, you don’t have to rush to buy up right of ways or start construction before costs go up.

    Then there is the total disregard of the struggling Telegraph merchants whose customer street parking will get reduced/taken away. Again 15 years from now when with or without zoning changes there wb much higher densities, maybe the merchants won’t depend on people driving to them and parking.

    Implementing BRT this way reminds me of the old borshst belt joke about the two old lefties sitting on a park bench. the first says to the other “come the revolution, we’ll all have a full pot of chicken soup on the stove”. The second guy responds “but i don’t like chicken soup”. To which the first guy says “come the revolution we’ll all have chicken soup and LIKE IT.”

  8. len raphael

    v,

    which report at the link to the national databases compares operating expenses includes a guestimate of economic depreciation/replacement expense to make a fair comparison between say light rail and buses. not easy and half voodo accounting to make those guestimates, but did they even try?

  9. V Smoothe Post author

    Len –

    If you download the complete data set of the top 50 agencies, each agency has a page of financial information. A little more than halfway down the page, under modal characteristics, you can see operating expenses, fare revenues, and capital expenditures broken down by mode of transport. That’s as close to what you’re asking for regarding specific agencies that I’m aware of.

    If what you’re looking for is a direct comparison of subsidies for different types of transit? This report (PDF!) analyzed the per rider public subsidy for the period between 1989 and 2003. This is the result:
    AC Transit: $2.78 per trip
    BART: $6.14 per trip
    Caltrain: $13.79 per trip

    As for BRT – it’s been phenomenally successful not just in some locations, but in every single place that’s tried it. Whether the improved reliability and speed is able to convince you personally to switch to bus riding isn’t necessarily the issue – the number of cars removed from the road by those who do make the change benefits drivers by easing congestions.

  10. V Smoothe Post author

    Charles –

    Thanks for linking to me. I think I’m already on your mailing list (BRT Announcement?), but I don’t recall getting anything from that in a while. If there’s another list, please feel free to add me to it.

  11. Jessica

    I don’t really have an opinion about Van Hool, but I do like those redesigned BART cars…

    I lauded the Express’ return to local ownership, but I’ve been less than impressed with the content.They seem to be digging for big stories where they don’t exist while ignoring Oakland’s big issues. Newspapers have an obligation to get things (mostly) right, and the Express plays fast and loose with the facts.

  12. Patrick

    It may be unfortunate that the EBE article attempts to tar and feather BRT by conflating that issue with the quality of the Van Hool’s, and obfuscation with statistics is everyone’s favorite pastime, but that doesn’t mean those buses don’t still suck.

  13. Freddy Dierckx

    After reading all the comments, I must admit that I do not understand why all these American people are driving Toyoya, BMW etc.
    In Europe these buses stay on the road for more than 15 years without a problem but we Europeans spend a lot of monney on maintenance. Something that I dont always see whe I am in the US.

  14. Alan Hoffman

    For information on a relatively new mode of BRT (one different from that currently pursued in the U.S.), you may be interested in a study I recently completed which had been commissioned by the Federal Transit Administration and published by the National Bus Rapid Transit Institute. It is available free for download at http://www.nbrti.org/research.html: scroll down until you reach “Advanced Network Planning for Bus Rapid Transit.”

    There is a tremendous amount of misinformation and biased sources in discussions about transit, which is unfortunate, which is why I appreciate your discussion above.

    BRT, in its two main modes of deployment–the “Light Rail Lite” mode (typical of the U.S.) or the “Quickway” mode (found, for example, in Brisbane and Bogota)–can be a cost-effective means of meeting transit development goals if properly planned and developed, as can light rail, heavy rail, commuter rail, and other modes. What is encouraging about the Quickway mode in particular is how it is able to take a significant capital investment (such as those made for BART) and use it to operate services at a much-reduced operating subsidy (unlike BART).

    The “secret” to good planning is to move beyond the corridor-by-corridor fight to thinking more expansively about the overall network in terms of the three factors that most drive transit choice: network structure (i.e., connectedness), system performance (including travel time, waiting time, and reliability), and customer experience (which is much broader than vehicle type and includes psychosocial factors such as identification, perceived risks, feelings of control, etc.). Transit, at the end of the day, is not about the lines, it’s about where I can get from and to, how long it will take me, and whether the experience will make me feel good about my choice.

    Best wishes,
    Alan Hoffman
    The Mission Group
    San Diego, California

  15. Steve

    I think this is misleading: “AC Transit lost about 9 percent of its annual passengers from 2000-1 through 2005-6 — a staggering 6.1 million people”… “its fortunes worsened and it lost millions of riders.”

    I believe that if a person transfers once on his way to wok, and one more time on the way home, this would be 4 unlinked trips (or 2 linked trips, which are usually not counted because it’s too difficult). And if this person takes the bus to work 200 times a year, this would be 800 PASSENGER TRIPS, not 800 riders!

    What he should have said is that “AC Transit lost about 9 percent of its annual PASSENGER TRIPS from 2000-1 through 2005-6 — a staggering 6.1 million PASSENGER TRIPS”… “its fortunes worsened and it lost millions of PASSENGER TRIPS”

    Having said that, I rode on a Van Hool bus 3 years ago when i first moved here and didn’t know anything abut this controversy. I thought the surface area of the seats were too small, didn’t have enough cushion and wobbled too much from side to side and up and down. I’m pro-BRT but anti-Van Hool.

    I don’t think Fernandez wants to keep buying these buses because of the junkets; I just think he’s stubborn. He had this grand vision of creating a model for BRT right here in the East Bay, with the centerpiece being these hip European buses with 3 doors, and he just can’t bring himself to the realization that maybe these buses aren’t as great as thought they were back in 2001.

    I also don’t think it was responsible to use the East Bay as the guinea pig for these buses. They had not been tested or used enough (as far as I’m aware — i could be wrong) prior to being purchased. I think this is an experiment that didn’t go well.