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Written by Michael Lewis on November 22, 2022


Justify new mass transit by building our current ridership

As Miami-Dade plans six new mass transit corridors, the great disconnect between the growth aims and reality is not just too little money to build but that riders continue to flee the transit we now have.

Mass transit serves a rapidly diminishing mass – riders were down 20% in August from pre-pandemic August 2019 and 25% from August 2018.

As auto traffic grows, more people choose to ride on congested roads rather than stay on buses and trains, leaving public transit more and more for those who have no choice and are forced to use it.

As we plan much-needed Metromover between downtown Miami and Miami Beach, and far less justifiable rail from downtown to a football stadium without other stops until later, the new transit we will get first won’t be an improved countywide bus network, which was put off another year.

Next week the county will roll out an 837 Express bus from a new park-and-ride terminal at 147th Avenue to downtown rolling on bus-only lanes on the Dolphin Expressway. It’s among welcome piecemeal additions.

Meanwhile, even if we factor out a user plunge in the pandemic, the public is relying less and less on Metrorail, Metromover and buses.

In fact, if we blot out the future plans, we see a system in trouble: not only are riders fleeing, so are drivers. The system is more than 200 bus drivers short and using creative recruiting to fill a corps of drivers who get good county benefits. The driver shortage has forced buses to cut service about 5%.

That doesn’t mean the system is badly run nor equipment inadequate nor routes poorly placed nor rides uncomfortable. All are issues, but those who keep riding the system include many who are satisfied. Issues for other riders can be fixed.

Harder to fix, however, are perception of system use and public behavior. These, more than the need for more transit, are the core of the growing problem.

True, we need more rapid transit to more places that knit together – that is the aim of the so-called Smart Program geared to add six major transit corridors. Paying for them is a question; need is not.

But there is no sense in adding costly transit if it can’t increase riders and if public transit users are vanishing. Before we add even a mile of transit we need a non-stop, all-aboard effort to retain the riders we have now, lure back those who have fled and create a new cadre of transit riders from among those who now congest highways.

As the county looks to Washington to fund a large slice of the billions to build new transit, it’s vital to prove that demand here to ride public transit is rising, not falling.

The county is now working actively to tie taxi and Uber drivers into a single system, which is smart. But that system still would congest roads with cars; its benefit is that it lessens parking needs. What if the county worked to link those systems into public transit?

Required is a broad push to show how mass transit can meet needs better than hopping into the car and spending hours driving and parking.

First, public transit’s image needs a remake from being for those who have no other choice to a system that people “just like me” use for convenience, comfort, time savings and lower cost – whichever of those attributes are true.

With gasoline costs spiking, promotions could tally the costs of car travel – gas and oil, parking, tolls, car wear and tear, insurance and so on – versus public transit fares from particular areas to high-volume destinations. Side-by-side comparisons could factor in travel and “working-and-study” time on transit too, and show annual time and cost savings.

Consider: if the county can’t verify gains in cost, convenience, time or safety, then mass transit is truly only a last resort and any plans to add transit need to claim far fewer potential users.

Overlooked is that every additional mass transit rider adds virtually no county cost. Costs of a transit route are almost the same whether a train or bus carries one passenger or runs full. The more riders added, the less cost of transit per passenger.

The converse is also true: as the system bleeds riders, cost per passenger soars. In 2018, county figures show, the system’s cost per passenger was $6.77. In 2019, it rose to $6.94. In 2020 it hit $9.86. Last year it was $11.06.

There is no chance of ever breaking even with fares at $2.25, many passengers riding free or at reduced rates, and Metromover totally free. But if the county can lure more riders aboard, it will add roughly $1 revenue from each at almost no added cost.

We must change the perception of mass transit now. The county can’t wait for six new corridors to prove that public transit can serve many more people “just like us” and conveniently save time and money.

Too often the county works in house, but marketing and promotion require creative specialists.

A simple example: municipal trolley use is rising (Miami is extending the contract for its trolleys by five years) though they are really just circulator buses. Yet county buses lose riders while trolleys gain. If you wonder why, look at the cute and inviting trolleys. People like to hop aboard.

Maybe decorating those trolleys is putting lipstick on a pig. But the lipstick of making a trolley inviting pays off in more riders.

Expand on that and see how inviting the county can make its own transit, which is far better than the trolleys but far less popular. That needs creativity and funding. But every added passenger ride would repay about $1.

County commissioners might look at the large county staff and say “let them do it.” Those commissioners also suggest school kids do county promotions free because they are creative. They are creative, but transit chief Eulois Cleckley would do well to press for expert strategy and execution.

Creative help is costly, but it’s more costly to keep adding transit for fewer and fewer passengers. Where is that vital plan to fill more seats now?

Justify new mass transit by building our current ridership – Inspiration 2 Day

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