Exploring Albuquerque Rapid Transit: Those 1.3 Million New Riders

We at BetterBurque  (used, finally, as a true first person plural and not a “Royal We”) mentioned last week that the debate over Albuquerque Rapid Transit (ART) is just about universally conducted by those who have never and will never regularly ride an Albuquerque bus. Because of this, much of the focus has centered on car-centric issues, such as how lane closures will affect driving congestion, parking and parking garages. Significant talk has also included non-transit concerns about the historic importance of Route 66 and the loss of trees in the median along Central Avenue.

So, putting the bus back in ART, so to speak, let’s continue our look at the present and future of transit here.

One important, yet largely ignored, claim made by ABQ Ride and other ART proponents is that the project will produce a “50% estimated growth in ridership in the next 5 years.” There’s been a very noticeable lack of presented evidence to support this claim, a dearth exacerbated by the debate being about everything but the bus. How likely is such a dramatic increase in ridership? What impacts would a 50% increase have?

As the graph below, constructed from ABQ Ride data 2011-2015, shows, Burque bus ridership continued to grow in the early Teens, part of a longer trend that had seen ridership increase 46% over a decade.

abq ridership

Ridership started to fall around the beginning of 2015, as seen above, a decline continued in the first quarter of 2016. American Public Transportation Association figures for Q1 2016 report another 5% drop relative to Q1 2015 numbers (2.994 million from 3.281 million). The Burque numbers are a somewhat enlarged mirror of nationwide statistics showing roughly a two percent drop in overall U.S. ridership for 2015.

While the relatively bigger drop here might be explained, in part, by Albuquerque’s lingering economic stagnation (illustrated here yesterday in John Fleck’s report on Burque residential home construction figures), by far the biggest factor both locally and nationally is simply gas prices. The downward curve in pricing seen from “Gas Buddy” below makes your humble blogger wish he was better with graphical overlays:

 

gas prices 2011-2016

Yup, quite a few folks who decided the bus was worth riding with gas at $3 a gallon selected to escape bus ridership when the price fell below that.

The use of the word “escape” here gets us back to the claim by ABQ Ride and ART proponents regarding a 50% increase in ridership over the last five years. That’s a big jump. Taking just the current Rapid Ride figures as comparison, 50% would mean a leap from  2.72 million riders in 2015 to over 4 million in 2021 (giving ABQ Ride a bit of leeway with the time frame of “five years”). How is that even possible? Where are these 1.3 million new riders coming from and where are they going?

As you may have noticed in the ridership graph above, another complication to reaching such lofty heights is that Rapid Ride in its current iteration has itself dropped in ridership. Its peak was 2012 and there’s been a slow erosion since, even in years where citywide ridership continued to increase:

  • 2012: 3,114,310
  • 2013: 3,027,280
  • 2014: 3,035, 559
  • 2015: 2,722,838

Hence repetition of the question: How is ART going to get us to over 4 million riders annually by 2021? Burque’s lack of debate focus on the bus hinders our ability to understand the thinking behind this claim and leaves us guessing to a large extent. That guessing and supporting evidence really doesn’t come from anything specific to Albuquerque itself, but instead stems from the positive BRT experience in Cleveland.

That city’s “HealthLine” along Euclid Avenue has seen ridership grow by an announced 70% since 2008. Cleveland’s BRT success is fundamental to pretty much all the ridership/economic argumentation by ART proponents, and the lack of conversation about the bus here has resulted in the answer to far too many questions becoming “look at Cleveland.”

Naturally, this vague response leads to both a simplistic “but we’re not Cleveland,” and, more importantly, any follow-up on specifically how Albuquerque will itself achieve the level of success found along Lake Erie. Just taking one sliver of comparison, how will gas prices impact BRT success anywhere from 2015-2021 in different ways than those prices from 2008-2014?

It is nobody’s fault that complexities such as gas prices make accurate forecasting of ART’s potential impact very, very difficult. Finding fault with the fact that we’re not even discussing such questions as we lurch, possibly, toward ART construction later this month is much easier. Those opposing ART have done a great job of expunging the bus, and its riders, from the public debate, while governmental proponents have made that expunging far too damn easy.

It would be nice, especially for those inclined to support bus rapid transit in general, to hear some specific plans from Mayor Berry, ABQ Ride and other political leaders on how Albuquerque now, not Cleveland in 2008, will reach goals such as ridership and economic impact.

Because right now we’re talking parking garages and trees.

Next time, we’ll get back to that word “escape” as we discuss the meaning and importance of  “discretionary riders.” 

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