Why the Media Fixation on “Transit is Failing” Stories?

Recently, I took issue with the Los Angeles Times for telling a  “ridership is falling” story, even as they published a chart that cast doubt on that claim.

Now here comes the same distortion in Silicon Valley’s San Jose Mercury News.  Look at the chart:


The chart title contradicts the chart.  The transit agency’s ridership has not been in any serious decline since 2005.  The truth is that it fell steeply from 2000 to 2005, and had a small drop in ’09-10 related to the financial crisis and related service cuts.  Otherwise, ridership has been tracking pretty well with population.

Now, here’s how the Mercury News spins it:

Staggering drop in VTA bus ridership may signal dramatic changes

Despite a Santa Clara Valley population and jobs boom, ridership on buses and light-rail trains has dropped a staggering 23 percent since 2001, forcing the Valley Transportation Authority to consider its biggest shake-up ever in transit service.

 The decline comes as new BART service into the South Bay is projected to spill 23,000 more transit riders into the VTA region next year.
As their own chart shows, ridership is down since 2000 but up since 2005.  The Mercury News is just playing the old arbitrary starting year game.  If you want to tell a story about ridership collapse, just pick a high starting year for your comparison.  If you want to tell a story about ridership soaring, pick a low starting year.  Both kinds of stories are bogus.

From this silliness, the article above spins vast webs of misinformation. Notice how you’re supposed to conclude …

  • … that VTA is in a crisis today.  No, VTA was in crisis 10-15 years ago, and had a bad year during the financial crisis, when everyone else did, too.
  • … that VTA is falling behind recent growth in population and jobs.  Again, just look at the chart!
  • … that VTA’s supposed crisis is some kind of failure to meet the opportunity presented  by the BART extension.  No: The BART extension is happening now, the “crisis” happened over a decade ago.
  • … that a ridership “crisis” is forcing VTA’s hand.  Yes, ridership is lower than we want it to be, but that’s not because of a “crisis.”  It’s because ambitions for public transit are rising as it becomes clear to more people that cars are incapable of serving the region’s growth.

When we look at this piece together with Laura Nelson’s recent Los Angeles Times piece, then, the only interesting question is this: Why are newspapers so desperate to tell “transit in crisis” stories?

Why is this story what everyone supposedly wants to hear? Why do we see this hysterical spin over and over, even when the very same article contains a chart telling a different story?

There’s no doubt that the San Jose / Silicon Valley transit system isn’t what citizens want it to be.  That’s why we’re working with the agency.  But the issue is not that these agencies are in crisis; it’s that citizens’ expectations of them are higher than they have been in the past.  Most transit staffers I know, including those at VTA, spend all their time looking for ways to meet those higher expectations.

But if you wonder why transit agencies can sometimes seem defensive, imagine how you would feel if everything you did was slammed in the media using simple distortions like the arbitrary starting year.  Would you remain cheerful, open-minded, and ready to take risks for a better world?


Chart: San Jose Mercury News, from a chart in our own Choices Report, which is downloadable at the bottom of this page.

20 Responses to Why the Media Fixation on “Transit is Failing” Stories?

  1. calwatch April 18, 2016 at 8:15 pm #

    Again, I think you and other transit advocates are overreacting to these negative stories. VTA’s problems are more structural, as you have noted in your reports – basically a shift from more 9-5 employment into flexible working schedule tech employments, combined with the early 2000’s death spiral of raising fares and cutting service kicked off by the original dot-com collapse, but also a result of high labor costs due to the high cost of living which have made VTA’s cost per revenue service hour one of the highest of any suburban agency, which VTA fundamentally is. But to call Mr. Richards and Ms. Nelson “hysterical” is in and of itself ridiculous. After all, it’s not as if VTA would have been better served to use a 1996 or 1991 starting point.

    And the poor farebox recovery will be a crisis soon as state and federal funding continue to stay flat or decline (due to the shift from goods subject to sales tax to services not subject to sales tax, at least in California). With the BART extension opening in a few years it would be negligence to not plan for that change.

    • Adam Tauno Williams April 19, 2016 at 11:38 am #

      “Staggering drop in VTA bus ridership” verses the data is clearly hysterical.

  2. EHS April 19, 2016 at 12:16 pm #

    Absolutely – looking at that graph, it takes intentional misrepresentation to say that the system is currently in crisis. They intentionally reduce a whole graph’s worth of info to two data points.

    However, the accurate description isn’t “ridership has been tracking population growth since 2005” but “ridership plummeted from ’01-’05 and has been slowly making up ground since”.

    But that begs the question, what happened in ’01-’05?

    Also, can we see data from before ’01? The problem of arbitrary starting years is one of short term trends burying the longer-term trend; the best way to deal with this is to show more years of data, so that short terms trends can be seen in context.

    • calwatch April 19, 2016 at 7:43 pm #

      Well, service cuts and fare increases, the classic death spiral.

      Between 1997 and 2005, average fare increased 94%, yet farebox recovery remained the same, at a miserable 12%. The reason? Riders fled the service: ridership dropped from 52.9 million boardings to 38.5 million boardings, a 28% drop. In the early 2000’s, administrative costs kept increasing, fares increased every year, and service was reduced. As Silicon Valley rebounded in the late 2000’s, it further discouraged newer lower wage workers from taking the bus in the first place.

      • Rollie May 8, 2016 at 10:19 am #

        Generally when you have two or more outlets running disinformation stories at the same time on the same subject, it’s part of a coordinated campaign. Talk to the authors and see if you can find out who fed them the story. Sounds like the type of crap Uber would pull, for example.

        • Rollie May 8, 2016 at 10:23 am #

          Didn’t intend that as a reply to calwatch, but as a stand-alone comment.

  3. Peter Parker April 19, 2016 at 1:17 pm #

    Another measure is transit trips per capita, which is a reasonable measure of the role of transit in peoples lives. If the above graph was converted to this it would likely show a sharp fall 2000 – 2004 and then approximately a levelling off (at a low number) from 2005. Reporting on this stagnation would be fair.

    It’s not uncommon for transit patronage to hold up yet for modal share to decline due to population growth. Those in the industry see that the buses and trains are as full as they’ve ever been yet transit occupies a declining role in the community, which is detrimental for long-term political goodwill and support.

  4. John Thacker April 19, 2016 at 7:54 pm #

    Eh, still looks fair to me to say that “while many things in Santa Clara County have recovered from the 2001 tech bust, the bus never did.”

  5. Eugene Bradley April 19, 2016 at 8:19 pm #

    Mr. Walker et al.:

    I agree with Calwatch’s points re: the VTA’s early 2000 “death spiral” of fare hikes and service cuts after Dot Com Bust 1.0. This explains the bus ridership drop from 2001-2005. I had to live thru that nightmare when I was living in Sunnyvale. I wrote a similar article on VTA’s current ridership and one root cause of it all (which the local media fails to mention) on the web site I run. See link in my comments for more.

    To answer another question as to why the media (sometimes myself included) gets hysterical over “transit is failing” – words like “crisis” boost paper and blog readership and boost local Nielsen radio/TV ratings. I learned this as someone who passed a course in Politics and the Media at Rutgers in New Jersey.

    One other thing, just from reading your materials so far: historically, news articles about public transit in Silicon Valley have not been great. It shows when you have historically known motorists like Mr. Roadshow write articles on public transit. Besides riding the buses and trains, your blog and your book, “Human Transit” (which I will get this week) what do you recommend to journalists who want to write better articles on public transit?

  6. P April 19, 2016 at 10:31 pm #


    In urban affairs, there is always a permanent crisis. Always.

    If transit ridership is going up, it’s a crisis. The system can’t cope and vehicles are full at peak hour (as they always are!)

    If transit ridership is flatlining, it’s a crisis. The system isn’t growing, the government must do something about it, we are falling behind.

    If transit ridership is going down, it’s a crisis. The system is losing passengers, the government must do something to save us all from the impending apocalypse.

    It is the same with house prices. House prices go up, crisis for affordability. If house prices flatline, crisis, there is no growth and the market is stale. If house prices go down, crisis, people losing their home values.

    We live in a permanent state of crisis.

  7. David Armijo April 20, 2016 at 11:07 am #

    Good points. A more substantive analysis is needed, perhaps one that looks at a twenty year horizon of data and identifies the strengths and weaknesses in our transit systems. Perhaps the problem with these negative articles is that the transit systems we have in the US do not compare well with our European counter parts. If one travels overseas one will experience a more integrated approach to transit that rarely exists here. Until we simplify and integrate our transit systems we will suffer these negative comparisons. Still, progress is being made and hopefully today’s transit investment will prove more beneficial in the future.

  8. MLD April 21, 2016 at 8:14 am #

    Another factor often ignored in these ridership comparisons is that in the late 90s and early 2000s many agencies switched from calculating ridership based on passes sold or other derivative measures to using Automated Passenger Counters, electronic fareboxes, and other methods that more accurately counted ridership.

    And of course, it ignores the service portion. VTA provides 24% less service (in service hours) than it provided in FY 2002.

  9. Drew April 21, 2016 at 10:25 am #

    The local “news”paper here loves to swoop in at any hint of negative news coming from our transit agency. Of course, the transit fail story always gets placed front and center, with a glaring & dramatic headline to call attention to the article.

    As P notes above, we are in a permanent state of crisis. The whole country is.

  10. david vartanoff April 21, 2016 at 12:07 pm #

    despite the autocentrism and sensational attitude of Mr Roadshow, this public transit user finds VTA slow, infrequent, circuitous, and thus I am pleased to have little reason to visit San Jose. In their defense, I will say that land use in the suburban sprawl pretending to be an urban area is atrocious. The low slung office parks should be forcibly bulldozed in favor of taller buildings and the large parking lots converted to residential developments. That said, Jarrett, I wish you luck in attempting to improve either service or performance.

    • Eugene Bradley April 21, 2016 at 4:47 pm #


      Agree with your viewpoints. Have you ever brought up any of your observations to VTA themselves? I ask because, too often, I see too many people refuse to bring anything up to VTA, instead doing so in an online forum that staff will rarely read. Hence, enabling everything they complain about in the first place.

      Ultimately, it is on us (citizens like YOU and me) to ensure Mr. Walker’s findings are implemented in full by VTA.

      • david vartanoff April 22, 2016 at 8:03 am #

        I spend my energy on AC Transit as I live in North Oakland. I am a regular at their hearings/BOD mtgs. As of last year, my closest friends in VTA territory decamped to Portland, so my trips there have decreased greatly. I am subscribed to the current VTA outreach process.

  11. davistrain April 21, 2016 at 10:03 pm #

    Not quite “if it bleeds, it leads,” but to many citizens, especially those of the right-wing persuasion, the idea that a government entity (other than the military) is incapable of doing anything right is an article of faith, and people tend to follow the medium that plays to their notions.

    I’ve seen several comments that remind us of the amount of advertising money goes to radio, TV and newspapers from the motor vehicle industry. Not that anyone in the media would admit to being biased against transit and in favor of motoring, but the suspicion is there.

  12. Dexter Wong April 21, 2016 at 11:39 pm #

    Speaking of transit bad press, I have been in an online discussion over transit lanes, and he claims that if transit were cheaper and faster, he might use it more, but he prefers to drive and hates any move to improve transit flow by restricting cars. He says transit advocates need more imagination or they are going to lose out. What should I say to him as a proper reply?

  13. Dexter Wong April 21, 2016 at 11:39 pm #

    with what?

  14. d.p. April 22, 2016 at 10:55 am #

    Sometimes it isn’t the media, but transportation officials themselves propagating the false “transit is failing” stories.

    Case in point: Two months ago, when a recently-appointed MBTA “financial control board” was hell-bent on cancelling Boston’s less-than-2-year-old late-night weekend service pilot — to save what turned out to be a paltry amount of money — agency spokespeople simply announced that 13,000 users per night was “a failure”.

    Mind you, these 13,000 system entries counted only those whose fare media were swiped *later than* 12:35 AM (the demarcation time for the end of regular service). On a still-fledgling service offering. With somewhat reduced frequency compared to normal evening hours.

    VTA light rail, by contrast, is a fantastic example of a system that gets fewer than 13,000 boardings *at rush hour*!

    Yet the MBTA’s purse-string holders reported that number as a “failure”. And every Boston media outlet duly parroted this as truth.