Does the Lansing Bus System do a Better Job than The Rapid? Yes.

In today’s Grand Rapids Press, we are told that The Rapid does a better job than the Lansing bus system (CATA) because of two rather oddly-chosen metrics of performance:

Specifically, The Rapid’s operating cost per bus hour is $78.22 and $6.15 per bus-mile. While the average among peers is $101.41 per hour and $7.53 per bus-mile.

And in Lansing the Capital Area Transportation Authority (CATA) averages $105.54 per hour, and $8 per bus-mile. In Ann Arbor, the average is $102.53 per hour and $8.08 per bus-mile.

Yet, in preparation for this article, we sent the Press much more detail on an analysis between The Rapid and CATA. Our source for this data is the National Transit Database, a federal program where all transit agencies must report their operating statistics. The NTD publishes a whole lot of very specific data, as well as “fact sheets” which summarize the operations of each transit agency. 2009 is the latest year of data available. You can see the fact sheets for the two transit systems here: The Rapid and CATA (Lansing).

We also publish all of The Rapid’s historical fact sheets on our web site, here.

From these two fact sheets (as well as fuel usage data published in the NTD), we can come to several conclusions:

  • CATA (Lansing) spends less and carries more passengers than The Rapid
  • CATA transported 23% more passengers on 17% fewer buses than The Rapid
  • CATA recovers 24% of its costs through fares while The Rapid only recovers 10% of costs through fares
  • CATA has 47% more average passengers on their buses at any given time
  • CATA pollutes 26% less than The Rapid too (see our story on The Rapid’s pollution record here)

Below is a chart summarizing these findings between the two systems:

It’s one thing to say it costs “x” dollars to run a bus per hour. It’s much more meaningful to learn how much it costs a transit system to provide service to each passenger. When we look at the stats, it’s clear that The Rapid has a long ways to go to improve things.

The folks at The Rapid keep pointing to a report issued by a company called HDR Engineering, which purportedly shows that The Rapid is doing a good job. It’s important to note that this is a company which designs and builds transit systems. The Rapid has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars with this company. What do you think their answer is going to be when asked if The Rapid should build more transit systems?

Furthermore, HDR has a history of misleading municipalities. See here and here.This company seems to have cherry-picked other transit systems to compare The Rapid to. For instance, it compared The Rapid (with operating expenses in 2008 of $25 million) with Louisville (operating expenses of $53 million) and Flint, Michigan (operating expenses of $15 million). We have a hard time seeing how these systems are “peers.”

In fact, after reviewing this report, we noticed a gigantic glaring error. The report says that in 2008 The Rapid recovered 26% of its operating costs through the farebox. Yet, when you look at the data from the National Transit Database, we see that this is falsely inflating the truth, that The Rapid recovers much less. Check the column on the far right, “Farebox Recovery”:

Click to view full size

When you look at the source data (the same source HDR allegedly used, from 2008), you see that the real fare recovery is 15%:

When we corrected the HDR report, we saw that The Rapid is actually below average in it “peers.” The below chart summarizes 2009 data, the HDR report uses 2008 data.

And, when you add in all costs of doing business, The Rapid only recovers about 10% of its cost through fares.

Maybe The Rapid should ask for its money back.

[Update: see more on HDR and The Rapid publishing incorrect data here.]