Yes, The Rapid’s buses operate 91% empty

The one statistic that creates the most controversy when we point it out is the fact that The Rapid’s buses operate, on average, about 90% empty. The Rapid’s supporters (including the Grand Rapids Press uncritically regurgitating misleading data released by The Rapid) do everything they could to “refute” this number, but the fact is that we use The Rapid’s own data. How do arrive at this number? It’s easy, just look at the information that The Rapid is required to report to the federal government each year. This data is stored in the National Transit Database. You can access the entire set of data by clicking here.

The set of data you want is listed under Annual Databases. 2010 is the latest year available as this article is being written, so we’ll use those numbers. Click on the RY 2010 Database link to see the various areas of data that are available. From there, we are interested in the Revenue Vehicle Inventory spreadsheet. This spreadsheet doesn’t look very easy to use because each transit agency is represented by a number, not its name. The Rapid is transit agency number 5033. How do we know that? Check out The Rapid’s 2010 National Transit Database profile here. The Rapid’s ID number is 5033.

We then scroll down to number 5033 in the “trs_id” column on the spreadsheet. The first thing you’ll notice is that there are 41 lines of data relating to The Rapid’s buses. We are interested in the lines that say “MB” in the second column (MB means bus, although you’d have a hard time figuring that out from the database files). Only looking at the MB column limits us to The Rapid’s fixed-route bus service. We’re not looking at The Rapid’s paratransit or van pool service.

Looking further to the right, we see the two columns that interest us. Columns “S” and “T” tell us the seating and standing capacity of the buses The Rapid operates. To make it fair, we need to do some math so that all buses are counted and averaged on a weighted basis. Basically, this means that if there are 25 buses with a capacity of 75 and five buses with a capacity of 91, we need to weight them appropriately. When we multiply all seating and standing capacity by the number of buses, we get a total fleet capacity of 10,580. The Rapid has a total of 129 buses in operation. We then divide 10,580 by 129 to get an average bus capacity of 82.02 (this was 80.48 in 2009). To make this easier, we’ve highlighted the spreadsheet and added columns to add it all together. Download it here.

How do we know how many people are on The Rapid’s buses, on average? Download and view the 2010 NTD Fact Sheet on The Rapid here. Check out the row near the middle of the page called Mode: Bus. This breaks The Rapid’s services down into the various modes of transit. We’re interested in the Bus information. Look to the right and make a note of the Annual Passenger Miles and  Annual Vehicle Revenue Miles columns. If you divide Annual Passenger Miles by Annual Vehicle Revenue Miles, we get 7.39 (this was 7.37 in 2009). That’s the average number of people on a Rapid bus at any given time.

With these two data points, we can determine that average capacity utilization of The Rapid’s buses. Average bus capacity is 82.02 and the average number of people riding Rapid buses at any given time is 7.39. We divide 7.39 by 82.02 and and we come up with 9% of the average Rapid bus being occupied at any given time. Therefore, The Rapid’s buses operate 91% empty, on average.

(Note: This article has been updated to show that The Rapid’s buses are 91% empty. A prior version said 89% empty. We made a small math error in the original article that was in The Rapids’s favor. The correct number is 91% empty.)