U.S. Transit Ridership Continued Upward Climb in 2014, Thanks to NYC

Healthy growth in New York City's subway ridership is a big part of the United States' overall transit ridership picture for 2014. Photo: Wikipedia
New York City subway ridership increased substantially in 2014. Photo: Wikipedia

Transit ridership continued to climb in American cities last year, even as gas prices sank. The American Public Transit Association is out with new data on the number of transit trips in the United States — 10.8 billion in 2014, the highest in 58 years.

Total transit trips were up about 1 percent compared to 2013, with significant variation between individual cities.

In Minneapolis, light rail trips grew 57 percent in 2014, reflecting the launch of the Green Line. Transit ridership grew 4 percent overall in the Twin Cities region.

Other cities that saw ridership growth include San Diego (8 percent over 2013), Baltimore (4 percent), Denver, (3 percent, Atlanta (2.5 percent), and Boston (just under 2 percent).

Meanwhile, transit trips in Detroit dropped 14 percent — concerning, but not surprising given the ongoing dysfunction of regional transit service. In Los Angeles County, transit ridership decreased 2.8 percent. The Chicago Transit Authority saw a 4 percent increase in rail trips but an 8 percent drop in bus trips, for an overall decline of 2.8 percent.

APTA attributed ridership growth in Indianapolis, Denver, Salt Lake City, and Riverside, California, to service increases. In cities like Atlanta, San Francisco, and Seattle, APTA says the increasing number of transit trips probably had more to do with economic growth.

As interesting as it is to track fluctuations city by city, any change in the New York region, which accounts for about a quarter of all transit ridership in the country, will make a mark in the national numbers. Transit savant Yonah Freemark points out that growth in New York City subway ridership — an additional 107 million subway trips in 2014 — is slightly more than the total national increase of 101 million transit trips.

Looking at different modes, the biggest growth was in light rail ridership, which climbed about 4 percent nationally. Bus ridership was down 1 percent.

According to Freemark, growth in rail transit ridership is part of a long-standing trend. Rail now accounts for 46 percent of total boardings in the U.S., up from 35 percent in 1996.

  • 94110

    To be clear, when you factor out New York Subway ridership, transit ridership dropped about 1% nationally last year?

  • G1991

    I don’t think that is correct. New York’s ridership accounted for the bulk of growth, but transit ridership still grew by 101 million passenger trips nationwide when NYC is removed from the equation if I am reading this correctly.

  • Justin Nelson

    Woot Riverside! And we’re 95% buses out here, too– buses and Metrolink.

  • No. without NYC subway growth it was basically even, or declined very very slightly, much less than 1 percent.

  • Peter Erskine

    So, excluding New York, overall transit ridership saw a decline. According USDOT overall VMT increased. Time to build more roads? Time to build more rail or is this data so fractured we aee not sure exactly what the story is. Just curious.

  • G1991

    Thanks for the clarification.

  • Guest

    Subway went up, but bus ridership went down. If you put the two together, ridership in other places was also up.

  • Bolwerk

    It’s possible bus ridership has been adjusting over the years to service cuts from a few years ago. In NYC, that is. I wonder if bus riders are out-migrating from NYC at this point, being replaced by people who wouldn’t or don’t ride buses.

  • Gezellig

    It’d be interesting to find out the extent to which decreases in transit trips were made up by other modes, or not at all (the latter might be expected if an area experienced net population and/or job loss, for example).

    As an example, the article references how Los Angeles County MTA saw a decrease of 2.82% in ridership, but it’d be interesting to know where it went, if anywhere.

    In other words, did some or all of this 2.82% get made up elsewhere? E.g. some combo of driving/biking/walking or even some percentage of people switching to other overlapping transit agencies?

    As for the last point, it’s perhaps worth noting that for an example such as LACMTA, despite the name it doesn’t include all transit within LA County…for example commuter-rail service Metrolink–aka Southern California RRA–only experienced a drop of 0.47%.

    On an anecdotal level I noticed that once I started biking more and more for utilitarian trips in SF I started taking transit (esp. BART and Muni) for comparatively fewer trips. I’m sure I’m not the only one.

  • murphstahoe

    i started telecommuting 🙂

  • Bobberooni

    Does anyone know what’s going on in LA? A DECREASE in ridership would be a little disappointing after so much has been invested in building and expanding the light rail network. But I’d rather know the full story before jumping to conclusions.

  • Kev

    Perhaps it has to do with locking turnstiles on metro. And then we had the price increase at the end of the year. According to the data, light rail ridership is up. Heavy rail, bus, and metrolink is down. Keep in mind this is only year over year as well.

  • Except for some cities, mass transit is not particularly significant in the US. Why? Because you can’t beat a car for door-to-door travel.

    A comment by a typical car commuter in the San Jose Mercury News:

    Yes, I could take mass transit if I had to. But I really prefer my comfortable 30 minute drive over the hour and 35 minutes it would take me to walk to the bus stop, take the bus to light rail, ride the light rail at walking speed through downtown, catch the other light rail train to head west, then wait for a shuttle bus for the final ride to work. And that’s IF I’m lucky and make all my connections on schedule.

  • 94110

    Serious question: I thought I heard Rob Anderson had been banned from SB? Or is that just SBSF?

  • neroden

    You’ll note that NY was “subway up, bus down”, Chicago was “L up, bus down”, Minneapolis was “(new) rail up, bus down”, San Diego was “bus up slightly, rail up lots” (they introduced new low-floor light rail)…

    And overall, subways (“heavy rail”), “light rail”, and “commuter rail” were all up nationwide. Buses were down.

    It’s *bus* ridership which is dropping. Rail ridership is generally up.

    (There are some exceptions: the situation in Baltimore, where both light rail and subway are down and buses are up, is pretty unusual. Buffalo’s lost a lot of ridership on MetroRail, possibly due to reopening Main Street to cars.)

  • neroden

    This does conceal the fact that rail (heavy & light) is doing better than buses almost everywhere. Where everything went down, buses usually went down more; where everything went up, rail usualy went up more; and in many places, rail was up and bus was down.

    There are a few counterexamples (Baltimore, Buffalo, St. Louis, and drops on the light rail in Boston & Philadelphia), but this is the trend.

  • Bolwerk

    That difference probably just reflects that high-priority routes are more likely to get rail. Furthermore, in cases where new rail opens up, it probably poaches some riders from buses.

    I think you probably need more information before drawing a conclusion. Nearly every periphery transit service – the kind of service that makes the least sense to railstitute – is a bus at this point. If those are where ridership is declining, that doesn’t necessarily reflect badly on routes that aren’t periphery.

  • TMB

    Further proof of the need for further investment in rail transport. Rail is up 3.3% vs Buses down 1.13%. Though likely trolling, Rob Anderson makes a good point. Need to keep transit oriented TIF programs in place so more people can live closer to transit stops.

    Secondary markets need to begin investing in true urban rail transit systems as well. Markets like Dallas, Atlanta, etc, tend to view transit as a freeway relief tool rather than a true urban system. Its easy to go from the suburbs on transit, but difficult to make a two mile trip within the city.

    Rail transit and Bike lanes are what Millennials want.

  • Aaron Bialick banned me last year from commenting on SF Streetsblog based on a lie:
    http://district5diary.blogspot.com/2014/03/streetsblog-dumb-and-dishonest.html

  • Kenny Easwaran

    Is this because people have changed their mind about riding the bus? Or because agencies have changed their mind about how often to run the bus?

  • Kenny Easwaran

    “Further proof of the need for further investment in rail transport. Rail is up 3.3% vs Buses down 1.13%.”

    I’m not sure that you can justify that unless we also get data on where investment was flowing over the past year. If buses and rail have had equal service expansions, and rail has gone up while bus went down, then sure. But if buses were cut while rail was expanded, then this just shows that people go where resources are spent.

  • Joe Linton

    I am researching that 2.8% drop. Basically, it seems to be the following: LACMTA has been doing small-scale cuts to its bus service, resulting in overall decrease in ridership. Where it goes is harder to determine – can be trips not taken, plus some combination of shifting to other modes (walk, carpool, etc.)

  • Aaron

    You can beat door-to-door travel if door-to-door travel is more expensive, less convenient, and less time-consuming. Your assertion is discredited.

  • Joe Linton

    I am looking into this – my sense is that L.A.’s rail ridership held more-or-less steady from 2013-2104 – while bus service was trimmed (those every 6 months “service changes”) resulting in an overall decline. Watch SBLA for a follow-up article.

  • Bolwerk

    Why even concede that much? Cars are rarely neatly door-to-door anywhere there are lots of people. Well, not unless you take a taxi or have a valet waiting for you.

  • TMB

    Fair point Kenny. Would like to see that data as well. Would also like to see data behind the amount transit oriented real estate development over the past 5 years, can tell you that it is in the billions. That development is centered on rail, not bus lines.

  • Joe Linton

    My guess is that this is mostly due to the September 2014 fare increase combined with continued trimming of bus routes. L.A. light rail ridership grew just barely (+0.2%) while bus (-3.1%) and heavy rail (-4.5%) declined. Numbers explored a tiny bit here: http://lastreetsblog.tumblr.com/post/113367752753/l-a-metro-ridership-dropped-2-8-from-2013-to

  • Joe Linton

    Some L.A. numbers posted here: http://lastreetsblog.tumblr.com/post/113367752753/l-a-metro-ridership-dropped-2-8-from-2013-to
    Seems like decline could be in large part due to September 2014 fare increase.

  • Rob was banned from SBSF because he had a tendency to drop a ton of comments in the same thread, making the discussion section all about him. That hasn’t been a problem elsewhere so we haven’t gotten around to blocking him except in SF.

  • calwatch

    It’s important to note that revenue service miles have dropped by 22% since 2008, which is better indication of service provided compared to service hours, since keeping service hours flat may result in fewer buses on a route due to the normal increase in traffic increasing run times.

  • John Anthony

    Huh? You just validated Rob’s argument, not discredited it. The operable term in your statement is IF. Clearly door to door was a lot more convenient and shaved an hour off of his travel time. This is frequently the case and part of the reason why costly taxpayer subsidies are necessary to keep the lines afloat.

  • That’s simply untrue, Ben, as I explained in this blog post at the time. Streetsblog and its followers often act like a cult, and cults are notoriously intolerant of dissent.
    http://district5diary.blogspot.com/2014/03/streetsblog-dumb-and-dishonest.html

  • ARN

    First, U.S. mass transit is far less significant in ridership, than, say, in Europe and elsewhere because it’s less extensive with respect to population and activity locations. Huge sections of metro areas, even with acclaimed urban transit, are not served by transit — it’s not there to use. Furthermore, inordinate highway development has fostered sprawling real estate development dependent on personal motor vehicle access.

    Second, what does it mean that one mode “beats” another? True “door-to-door” travel probably would be faster, but the traveler also sacrifices personal time in concentrating on driving, subjecting oneself to the stress of the highway “war zone”, etc. Mass transit conditions of course can vary, but transit riders (like me) often can read, write, use a laptop or personal device, relax, even drowse. For many travelers, that can count a lot in the mode choice decision.

    And how truly convenient is the personal car nowadays? Even if free parking is available, finding it can be a time-consuming hassle. Parking may also be blocks away from one’s destination. Many travelers often must factor in parking cost in mode choice, and communities must decide whether massive investment merely for “dead” vehicle storage in valuable city cores and major activity concentrations is worth the social cost.

    Government investment in public transport has grown in recent decades because awareness has also grown that transit can “beat” the private auto in more ways than simply “door-to-door” travel time. And also that public transport can excel personal auto dependency in overall cost and convenience, personal and societal, when all costs and other elements are considered.

    L. Henry

  • neroden

    I’m guessing it’s a combination of different things in different places. Rail ridership holds up better in the face of fare hikes than bus ridership.

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