Public transportation was one of the topics when Abel Collins, program manager for the Rhode Island chapter of the Sierra Club, was a guest on the June 2 edition of "10 News Conference."
Collins, an unsuccessful independent candidate for Congress in the 2nd District in 2012, said one goal of his organization is to cut pollution by getting better funding for the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority, which operates the state’s bus system.
"They're stuck. They have declining revenues and increasing demand. And RIPTA has really some of the fullest buses for its transit agency size around the country," he said. "So it's really something that should get more attention and hopefully this is the year that the General Assembly sees fit to give RIPTA sustainable funding for the long term. There's a bill to do that and we've been pushing on it for years."
We wondered whether RIPTA does, in fact, have some of the fullest buses around.
We called Collins. He said he was told that factoid by Mark Therrien, the authority's assistant general manager for planning.
We called Therrien. He said Collins was correct. When we asked for details, he referred us to the Integrated National Transit Database Analysis System (INTDAS) which has national statistics over many years for transit systems throughout the United States.
The database will generate a list of comparable transit systems around the country. We did that for RIPTA and decided to focus on the 30 that were closest based on a variety of measures such as size, according to the federal ranking. We also looked at six other systems -- in Eugene, Ore.; Fort Worth, Texas; Jacksonville, Fla.; Memphis, Tenn.; Louisville, Ky.; and Des Moines, Iowa -- that Therrien said were comparable as well.
But what to look at?
The database, whose most recent statistics were from 2011, doesn't include a direct measurement of how full the buses are.
We discovered there were a lot of indirect ways to estimate capacity that gave different rankings.
Therrien said we should look at passengers per hour. By that measure, RIPTA ranked 8th out of 37 systems.
We also looked at the number of passenger trips divided by the number of vehicles in operation during peak hours. RIPTA ranked 9th by that measure.
Meanwhile, we received an e-mail from Albert Gan, a professor with the department of civil and environmental engineering at Florida International University, who developed the INTDAS system.
He said the correct method would be to divide the number of passenger miles in a year by the number of miles driven when the buses were picking and dropping off passengers (known as revenue miles). By that measure, RIPTA ranked 13th out of 37.
Then we heard back from Therrien's office, which advised us that it was best to look at the number of passenger trips divided by the number of revenue miles. In that instance, RIPTA ranked 10th.
Some other systems were pretty crowded using that yardstick. Milwaukee had 24 percent more passengers per bus than Providence; Madison had 34 percent more; Eugene had 39 percent more; and Rochester, N.Y. had 46 percent more.
To sum up, Abel Collins said, "RIPTA has really some of the fullest buses for its transit agency size around the country."
"Some of the fullest" is a little vague, but it implies that Rhode Island is going to be up there in the rankings.
RIPTA, asked about the claim, suggested that we look at 11 transit systems. We ultimately analyzed data on more than three times that many, using a federal rating method that listed bus services comparable to Rhode Island's.
RIPTA's rankings ranged from 8th to 13th. They varied a bit because there's no standardized way to calculate who has the "fullest" buses.
Because there's some uncertainty but the different methods show RIPTA ranking high, we rate Collins' statement Mostly True.
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