Transit System Efficiency

How cost-effective is our public transportation system?

Transit System Efficiency

Transit system efficiency refers to both the total and net costs per transit boarding, both of which are adjusted to reflect inflation over time. Net costs reflect total operating costs minus farebox revenue (i.e. operating costs that are not directly funded by system users).

Bay Area residents benefit from one of the most robust transit systems in the United States. Even in lower-density suburban areas, frequent rail service and local bus connections are relatively common. But public transit is expensive to operate – and there is wide variability in the cost-effectiveness across the region’s numerous operators. And as costs have increased, riders have had to bear an increasing share of this expense through higher fares.

Regional Performance
Our region has managed to stabilize its transit operating costs, while at the same time relying on riders to contribute more to board their bus or train.

While still slightly higher than one decade ago, Bay Area transit agencies’ average inflation-adjusted operating cost per passenger boarding declined for the fourth-straight year in 2014. Combined with rising revenues from increased fares, the subsidy required to operate service (net cost per boarding) actually declined by 7 percent over that same time period. Booming ridership on higher-fare systems like Caltrain and BART has contributed to this trend.

Muni remained the regional leader for lowest operating cost per boarding in 2014, although costs have ticked very slightly upwards in the last few years. But when it comes to net operating cost per boarding, BART and Caltrain have made the greatest strides in recent years. Both systems saw nearly 60 percent declines in the past decade, reflecting surging ridership on both systems. In contrast to BART – where the typical trip requires only 94 cents in operating subsidy – systems like Golden Gate, SamTrans, and VTA all had net operating costs per boarding of over 6 dollars in 2014. While Golden Gate and SamTrans have demonstrated progress in recent years through increased farebox recovery, VTA continues to struggle on this front.

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Historical Trend for Transit System Efficiency - Region

National Context
High costs put the Bay Area in the middle of the pack when it comes to efficiency.

The Bay Area ranks third among the 10 largest U.S. metro areas for its transit systems’ average operating cost per passenger boarding. Despite relatively high fares across the region – resulting in relatively strong farebox recovery – the Bay Area still ranks fourth for net cost per boarding. Due in large part to very high ridership numbers, the New York metro area’s transit network is by far the nation’s most cost-effective. The Bay Area’s middling transit system efficiency rankings are largely the result of our region’s high operating costs.

While the Bay Area’s transit system is by no means the most efficient in America, transit operators in Dallas and Houston struggle with even higher operating costs per boarding. Reflecting their relatively transit-incompatible service areas – and a greater share of low-income or transit-dependent riders – these systems have net operating costs per boarding that are 50 to 90 percent higher than the Bay Area. Clearly it’s not just the roads that are bigger in Texas – but also the subsidies required to operate transit in a dispersed metro area.

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Metro Comparison for Transit System Efficiency


Federal Transit Administration: National Transit Database

Time Series 2.1 Data Table (2003-2013)

Federal Transit Administration: National Transit Database

Monthly Module Adjusted Data Release (2013-2014)

Bureau of Labor Statistics: Consumer Price Index

All Urban Consumers Data Table (2003-2014; specific to each metro area)

Image: MTC Library, Photographer: Karl Nielsen (ID# KCN_9134)

Methodology Notes: 

The NTD dataset was lightly cleaned to correct for erroneous zero values. Simple modes were aggregated to combine the various bus modes (e.g. rapid bus, express bus, local bus) into a single mode to avoid incorrect conclusions resulting from mode recoding over the lifespan of NTD. Per-capita transit ridership is calculated for the operator's general service area or taxation district; for example, BART includes the three core counties (San Francisco, Alameda, and Contra Costa) as well as northern San Mateo County post-SFO extension and AC Transit includes the cities located within its service area. For other metro areas, operators were identified by developing a list of all urbanized areas within a current MSA boundary and then using that UZA list to flag relevant operators; this means that all operators (both large and small) were included in the metro comparison data. Financial data was inflation-adjusted to match 2014 dollar values using metro-specific Consumer Price Indices.