A cable car named sensationalism
April 15, 2013, 11:35 pm
Filed under: Public Transit | Tags: , , ,

Originally reported by the Associated Press and subsequently picked up by both the San Francisco Examiner and the Huffington Post, this story on the cost of cable car-related injury liability settlements is sloppy journalism at best. With its lack of context or rigorous analysis, the article seems intent on erroneously maligning San Francisco’s cable car system.

$8 million in cable car accident settlements over the last three years!
151 injured over the last ten years!

At first blush, the story seems juicy; but it turns out to be a lemon. The piece provides most of the data one would need to put all of this in perspective, but then fails to actually do so. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the AP has resorted to using factoids to sell a sexy-sounding story, rather than exploring some broader or more meaningful truth.

Here are the raw facts, as reported by the story, taken with a grain of salt:

  • 7 million cable car riders annually
  • 126 accidents injuring a total of 151 people over the last ten years
  • $8 million over the last three years to settle four dozen lawsuits
  • $12 million in average annual liability payouts relating to mass transit
  • $7 million of the $8 million for cable car accident liability payouts was related to two specific incidents

Let’s do some ballpark math here:

7 million annual riders × 10 years = 70 million riders over 10 years
151 injured over ten years ÷ 70 million riders =
Injury rate of 2.16×10-6 per rider

2.22 million motor-vehicle injuries (U.S. 2009) ÷ 399 billion person-trips by motor vehicle* (U.S. 2009) =
Injury rate of 5.56×10-6 per person trip

Granted, the distance traveled by the cable cars is considerably shorter than the average motor-vehicle trip, but the simple arithmetic still tells us that you’re roughly two-and-a-half times more likely to be injured each time you climb into a motor-vehicle than each time you clamber on to a cable car. Consider that over 2011 and 2012, San Francisco had an average 800 pedestrian collisions per year. Extrapolate that out by ten years and you get an estimated 8,000 pedestrian collisions—more than 50 times greater than the number of cable car-related injuries. Suddenly cable car safety doesn’t seem like it should be SFMTA’s main focus. Then further consider that these open-air vehicles are packed to the gills with gawky unrestrained tourists as they rumble through some of the steepest and most congested urban streets in the world—never mind that riders are hanging off the side with a camera-phone in one hand and a baby/frappuccino in the other. It’s a sheer miracle that the injury rate is actually lower than the national average for motor-vehicle trips.

The article states that the vast majority of cable car riders are tourists—no argument there. Given my own personal observations, I think it’s probably fair to say that 85% of riders are non-residents and thus likely to pay the full $5 fare. To be conservative, let’s assume 20% of these riders cheat and don’t pay. Altogether this yields $23.8 million in annual gross revenue from cable car fares, or an estimated $71.4 million over three years.

When you consider that the City is making approximately nine times more money from the line than it is losing in liability payouts, the $8 million figure starts to seem less dire. Additionally, as indicated by the story, $7 million of the total $8 million over the past three years resulted from two specific accidents. Without more extensive payout data for earlier years, it’s difficult to know if this is typical. Even assuming that such high-payout accidents are typical, a closer analysis again puts the numbers in perspective.

In 2012, MUNI collected a total $193.4 million in transit fares. Therefore, the cable cars seem to be responsible for about 12.3% of MUNI’s total gross revenue. Meanwhile, if you divide the total $8 million cable car settlement payouts over three years by the agency’s total $36 million payout over that period, you get 22.2%. Clearly, cable cars would seem to be responsible for more than their fare share of settlement payouts. Nevertheless, given the nature of the cable cars and *ahem* the majority of their riders, this hardly seems shocking.

With 204 million riders annually, cable cars make up only 3% of MUNI’s annual ridership. Therefore, while cable cars may be responsible for twice as much in settlement payouts, they also contribute nearly four times as much revenue per rider. If you assume that the large payouts incurred over the last two years might not be characteristic and occur perhaps only every other year on average, then suddenly the cable cars don’t seem like a much greater a liability than the rest of the MUNI system. Moreover, the farebox recovery of the cable cars (the extent to which their fares cover their operation) is actually more than twice that of the MUNI system as a whole. Finally, cable cars are one of San Francisco’s biggest tourist draws, bringing in untold amounts of tourist dollars and subsequent tax revenue.

None of this is to say that the accidents weren’t terrible for those involved or that the SFMTA shouldn’t make safety for all transportation modes a priority. It does, however, contravene the original article’s eagerness to indict cable cars. When looked at more closely, the data paint a picture of a system that is actually remarkably safe given its characteristics and more cost-effective than the rest of MUNI. Despite this would-be hatchet job by the AP, cable cars arguably remain a financial, as well as historical, cultural, and aesthetic asset to San Francisco.

* In addition trips taken by van, cars, truck, and other conventional private vehicle, conservatively includes all trips by public bus, school bus, charter/tour bus, city to city bus, shuttle bus, golf cart, RV, and motorcycle.

Farebox recovery of cable cars
MUNI farebox recovery
San Francisco Pedestrian Fatalities
2009 motor-vehicle injuries (PDF)
2009 U.S. Person trips
MUNI fare revenue(PDF)
MUNI annual passenger trips (PDF)