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Rob Pitingolo · Modeling RTA Ridership

October 18th, 2009

The Plain Dealer published some devastating RTA ridership numbers last weekend. If 2009 plays out as expected, RTA will have its lowest year of ridership since the agency was formed in the mid-70s.


(click to enlarge)

Last month I argued here that RTA fares are among the highest in the country, which led some to ask me how RTA fares compare to themselves historically. Obviously we know that in dollars and cents, fares are higher than ever, but what really matters is what they look like in inflation-adjusted dollars.


(click to enlarge)

The blue line on this graph shows the nominal fares since October 1975 – or the fare that you would pay out of pocket. The red line shows the inflation-adjusted fares (using base period 1982-84).

In other words, not only are RTA fares the highest they have ever been in real dollars, but in the static period between October 1975 and September 2009, fares more than doubled overall inflation.

I went ahead and built a model to see what relationship exists between RTA ridership and a few logical variables. What influences ridership? I think fare prices are obvious, regional population seems intuitive, and gasoline prices are often cited as a reason why people use transit instead of driving. Lastly, it’s often suggested in the media that transit usage dips during recessions because if people don’t have jobs, they don’t have anywhere to go – so I threw in unemployment for good measure.


(click to enlarge)

The model points to both predictable and surprising patterns (you can download my datasets and the regression output here, if you’d like).

Real Fare Prices: As the real fares go up, ridership goes down. Ridership is negatively correlated with real fare price (-.51).

Population: As Cuyahoga County population shrinks, ridership declines along with it. The two variables are positively correlated (.74).

Gasoline Prices: Although high gasoline prices in the past few years have led to headlines about crowded buses and trains and stories about people giving up driving, my model shows only a nominal increase in ridership relative to historical values (refer back to the ridership graph above to understand why). RTA ridership, in fact, was highest during years when gasoline was historically inexpensive. The decades-long trend points to a negative correlation between gasoline prices and ridership (-.40) and the past few years as statistical outliers.

Unemployment: My model finds a positive correlation between ridership and unemployment (.63). But it should be noted that the relationship is not statistically significant to the model.

If I toss out unemployment, 94% of the variation in ridership can be explained by the model (R-sq = .94). There is one important variable that I did omit, but not because I wasn’t thinking about it – the level, frequency, and quality of transit service. The reason this isn’t in the model is because it is difficult to measure and good data that does exist does not go back far enough in time. My hunch is that service cuts have the same relationship to ridership as fare hikes – as service levels go down, ridership declines too.

Here’s the bad news: RTA really has control over only one of the variables in question. Population in Cuyahoga County is on a downward trajectory with no apparent end in sight. Gasoline prices may very well rise again as the economy recovers, which could have another small positive impact on ridership, but it will also force RTA to deal with the fact that the agency is a much bigger purchaser of motor fuel than the individuals switching away from cars because of fuel costs. RTA will surely face pressure to raise fares again in the future. It’s clear that without reforming the system’s funding mechanism, balancing annual budgets will remain an issue for the system at least in the near future. All else equal, fare hikes may be a quick budget fix, but we shouldn’t be surprised if they are accompanied by continued falling ridership.

Update (11/10/09): A follow-up to this post and discussion of the missing service-level independent variable can be found here.

Last 5 posts by Rob Pitingolo

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7 Responses to “Modeling RTA Ridership”

  1. Derek Arnold Says:

    And this is why I am buying a car…

  2. Gloria Ferris Says:

    Add in the fact that routes and times have decreased over time and you would have another resaon for decrease of ridership. There are still routes crowded and used, but given the fare box issues that still exist,you have fuzzy numbers for ridership.

    Capital improvements for a transit system that has declining ridership continues with the use of stimulus funds and other monies for “jobs”, but the kind of “jobs” that maintain ridership after the construction is done continue to decline which continues the erosion of ridership the “true” economic driver of the local economy.

    Short time fixes for short time gains continues to erode the middle class and deny prosperity to a region where population continues to decline and the share of lower income people continues to rise.

  3. Ed Morrison Says:

    fare hikes may be a quick budget fix, but we shouldn’t be surprised if they are accompanied by continued falling ridership

    RTA appears caught in a classic downward cycle..losing share in a declining market. Radical changes to its cost structure (which are unlikely given labor contracts) and dramatic price reductions (penetration pricing to build share, also unlikely given budget pressures) are the only strategic alternatives left.

    Sadly, the future looks pretty bleak for public transit in CLE.

  4. Carla Says:

    I’m so glad RTA was able to destroy Euclid Ave. before these numbers came out.

  5. Jon Eckerle Says:

    It is not all RTA’s fault. We have an overly developed interstate and road transportation system. When the gas tax was instituted the “highway lobby,” injected a clause that the money derived from this must be used for “highways.” This has severly constrained state support compared to other states. Other states have taken a more multimodal perspective to developing a transportation system.

    We built a system that fostered sprawl. We need to now make a regional decision that contains sprawl and fosters the development of transportation hubs. It is not just fairs, service times, it is, what is the rides utility. How do you get to a dentist or doctor from Tower City station? We need to have a mandate that basic services should be located within walking distance from transit stations. The BMV is located way out in Parma. People who have suspended licenses need to drive there to get them restored. There needs to be indexes of all the services along the main routes. RTA should focus on creating a transportation plan that integrates bikes, feet and trains / busses in a multimodal system. This system should make it possible to conviently sit on a train and fufill all the basic and govermental services at or near the stations. We need to make it possible for Grandma to live without a car in Cleveland.

    I think that reform would:

    1) change a word in the Ohio constitution from “highway” to “transportation.”
    2)Merge NOACCA and RTA into one multimodal transportation planning / system.
    3)Mandate a model / formula that gives preferance to transit / multimodal hubs when agencys and govermental services are going to relocate.
    4)RTA needs to adopt a bhag goal that states,”You can get to where you want to go by RTA.” They should connect in a simple way, services with stations.
    5)They should integrate metrics to measure and qualify the meeting of those needs.
    If they cannot meet basic needs then they need to consider becoming a planning / oversight organization and contract out the system to a private company.
    6)Locate cabs and or short term rental cars like Zip or “City Wheels” at transportation hubs… buy the car and let City Wheels run it.

  6. Ed Morrison Says:

    Interesting comment here.

    Try to imagine a great city that doesn’t have high quality transit. It’s impossible – they’re inextricably entwined. In great cities – New York, Boston, London, Paris, Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto, Portland, and so on – people with enough money to have options choose to take transit because it is fast, convenient, and affords them a distinctly urban quality of life.

  7. Put a Nail in RTA’s Coffin | Brewed Fresh Daily Says:

    [...] service cuts and rate hikes have been detrimental to RTA’s ridership, and it’s a big reason why we got into this death [...]