Exaggerating Transit Use for Fun and Higher Taxes. Or How PIRG Supports the 1% over the 99%

The Arizona PIRG has a report that can be summarized as "transit is increasing fast, driving is falling, all of our future investment should be in transit".  The Valley Fever blog has the story:

Arizonans are driving less, and relying more on public transportation, according to a report from the Arizona Public Interest Research Group Education Fund.

The shift is causing the Arizona PIRG Education Fund to recommend that public officials shift funding away from more highway projects, and more toward other transportation options."

"We recommend that transportation officials and elected leaders look at the data today, and not outdated assumptions, to make sure that any highway projects are absolutely necessary," Arizona PIRG Education Fund executive director Diane Brown tells New Times....

In the Phoenix metro area, the light rail opened in late 2008 and is already experiencing ridership numbers that weren't projected to be reached until the year 2020. In 2013, the Valley Metro transit system experienced a record high annual ridership, and between 2007-2013, boardings on Valley Metro transit service jumped from 60 million to more than 75 million - an increase of 25 percent. The Northern Arizona Intergovernmental Public Transportation Authority recently saw its highest monthly ridership in October 2013. And in Yuma, ridership on Yuma County Area Transit has tripled since 2011.

The report suggests that public officials re-allocate their focus and funding, away from building new highways and toward more transportation options.

This is a fantasy.

There is an enormous amount of obfuscation going on here.  The percentage rise of public transit trips is actually the miracle of small numbers -- small changes on an even smaller base.  The point of these charts is to try to say that Arizonans use a lot of transit and we should dump more billions into these projects.  As it turns out, despite all the huge public investment, transit is still a rounding error.

Note that, from their own report, driving vehicle miles per capita are 9175 per person per year.  So lets look at transit.  They exaggerate by showing averages for Phoenix and Tucson, where transit use is higher, not for the whole state like they show vehicle miles.  The total state transit miles per person in the same year, using their numbers, turns out to be as low as 64 (if no one outside of Phoenix or Tucson uses transit) and as high as 110 (if everyone outside of Phoenix and Tucson uses transit at the same rate as in the cities).  The likely number is around 75.

This means that after all these billions and billions of transit spending, transit trips are 0.8% of vehicle trips (75 vs. 9175). That is a rounding error.  You sure wouldn't get that impression from the report.  The Public Interest Research Group has a funny view of "public interest", putting the desired transportation mode of the 0.8% over the desired choice of the 99.2%

Well, you say, I should compare the increase in transit to the decrease in driving.  OK.  Again using their numbers:  Vehicle driving miles went down 348 per capita over the study period.  In the same time, per capital transit miles went up by about 26 in Phoenix and Tucson (likely less in the state as a whole).  So, at best, transit ridership accounts for about 7% of the drop in driving.

This is not nothing, but hardly justifies the enormous increase in transit spending over the last 15 years and the billions and billions in capital investment.

Oh, and by the way, Phoenix Light Rail ridership has cannibalized bus ridership about 1 for 1.  That means all that investment in light rail has just shifted riders to a more expensive, less flexible transit mode.  But that is another story.


  1. rxc:

    The"Public Interest" Reseach Group is a Ralph Nader scam. I first saw them when I was in college around 1970, and they got my university to attach their personal tax to my fees. I didn't understand then, but I do now, that this is one of those stealth funding sources for progressive politics. like the sue and setle strategies against public regulatory agencies, like union dues that are obligatory for people who do not want to be members of the union, and like all sorts of public interest/do-gooder fees that get tacked on to all sorts of activities.

    Their idea ofthe "Public Interest" is what interests THEM, and gives them the resources to continue to agitate.

    What a crock!.

  2. Mole1:

    It appears you have compared transit boardings to driving miles per capita.

  3. slocum:

    Not really, but there is typo -- "transit trips are 0.8% of vehicle trips (75 vs. 9175)." should probably read "annual transit miles are 0.8% of vehicle miles (75 vs. 9175)."

  4. HenryBowman419:

    You're correct, PIRG is a horrible organization that typically enlists idealistic, ignorant college students to do much of its work. They are serious sandias.

  5. irandom419:

    My brother researched them in college. They will not give out their budget, since they use it for lobbying and they aren't supposed to. Steven Crowder even went to interview with Calpirg for a segment.


  6. Mole1:

    "boardings on Valley Metro transit service jumped from 60 million to more than 75 million"
    "driving vehicle miles per capita are 9175 per person per year"

  7. slocum:

    If you look in the linked report, the numbers for both trips and miles are in there.

  8. Axomamma:

    If light rail is "a more expensive, less flexible transit mode," why are people switching to it? Because it is in fact more reliable and more predictable than buses, which are stuck in traffic with automobiles and trucks. Given a choice between a bus and light rail, there is no contest -- light rail will win every time. Having lived in a city (Boston) with a good subway system, people will take public transportation over driving. The reason light rail/public transportation does so poorly in Arizona is that there is simply not enough of it going to enough places. It's astonishing it does as well as it does given its extraordinarily small footprint.

    I can't find specific information for Arizona but "between 2009 and 2011, states spent $20.4 billion each year to expand their roads." States spent over $16 billion -- each -- to maintain their roads.* If Arizona spent a fraction of that amount of money building and maintaining light rail infrastructure, there would be significantly less need to expand roads and, with less traffic, lower maintenance costs.

    But of course, you're not actually interested in making things better for people who live, work and visit here. Your only interest is coming up with what sounds like a good argument to stop progress. Let me guess -- you're a "conservative." Bah.

    * http://www.allgov.com/news/top-stories/states-spend-more-building-new-roads-and-lanes-than-maintaining-existing-ones-140324?news=852756

  9. Axomamma:

    But isn't refusing to share membership lists, show budgets or where a group is getting their money a badge of honor among thieves -- err -- conservatives?