Fewer People Are Riding the Bus Because There Are Fewer Buses to Ride

Source: The Century Foundation
In most big American cities, bus service shrank between 2006 and 2012. No wonder bus ridership is dropping too. Graphic: The Century Foundation

Remember when the Great Recession decimated transit agency budgets, but the White House and Congress refused to step in and fund bus service while spending billions of dollars to subsidize car purchases? Well, the hangover continues to this day, leaving bus riders in the lurch.

Last year, bus ridership in America shrank 1 percent. While rail ridership grew 4 percent, enough to lift total ridership slightly, buses are still the workhorse of U.S. transit systems, accounting for most trips. If bus ridership is shrinking, something is wrong.

Jacob Anbinder at the Century Foundation has been poring over the data. He notes that in most of the nation’s biggest cities, bus ridership was on the upswing until the recession. Since then there’s been a noticeable falling off. His chart below shows bus ridership in America’s ten largest urban regions:

New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Philadelphia, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Houston, Washington DC, Atlanta, Boston

It’s not surprising that bus ridership fell when a lot of people were out of work, Anbinder says. What’s disturbing is that bus ridership is still slumping even as the economy has picked back up.

But the explanation is simple enough. As Anbinder shows in the chart at the top of this post, a lot of transit agencies cut bus service during the recession, and for the most part it’s still not back to pre-recession levels.

  • p_chazz

    This is a rather facile look at the data. Despite the fact that the economy is up, jobs have not increased. In fact, the labor force participation rate at 62.8 percent in May 2015 is at its lowest in years. Compare that with 66.4 percent in Jan 2007. Also, since transit agencies generally cut their more lightly patronized route, the cutbacks should not have had that much of an impact.

    As a daily bus rider, I can tell you some things that make bus riding the least preferred alternative are jammed buses, buses that do not keep to a schedule, and anti-social behavior–loud radios, fights and arguments among the passengers and rude behavior from the drivers. People will drive, take cabs or Uber/Lyft rather than take the bus. Here in San Francisco, private coach services have sprung up. These luxury rides cost $4 to $6 a ride, but offer amenities such as free wifi and Blue Bottle Coffee.

    Until transit agencies get serious about making the bus a desirable choice, I predict that ridership will continue to decline.

  • Seriously? You’re arguing that the loss of service isn’t a huge factor in the decline in ridership?

  • p_chazz

    I am arguing that it loss of service is far from being the only factor.

  • No you’re not…

    “Also, since transit agencies generally cut their more lightly patronized route, the cutbacks should not have had that much of an impact.”

    Look at the chart, dude. Some of the biggest cities in America cut 10%-20% of their service hours. There’s no way to do that by just cutting fat.

  • p_chazz

    You seem to have arrived at your conclusion before you assembled your data.

    “It’s not surprising that bus ridership fell when a lot of people were out of work, Anbinder says. What’s disturbing is that bus ridership is still slumping even as the economy has picked back up.”

    The assumption seems to be that a rising economy is a leading indicator for increasing bus ridership; but just because corporate profits are up does not mean that there are more people going back to work, which should cause a commensurate increase in bus ridership; yet, you totally overlooked the falling labor participation rate, which would be the better indicator.

    Loss of service may be a big factor; it may be the biggest factor, but it is far from being the only factor. Transit agencies must make the decision to ride a bus one of choice rather than one of necessity. Then, and only then will bus ridership increase.

  • Wrong, the labor force participation rate is not relevant. We’re not talking about bus ridership as a rate stat — we’re talking about total bus trips.

    What’s relevant is the number of people going to jobs. That number has been increasing since 2010. Yet bus trips have been declining.

  • murphstahoe

    you new around here, ben?

  • Bolwerk

    None of those problems you mention are new. And the lightly patronized routes, or portions of routes, still are important feeders to heavier routes. Cutting them will impact service.

  • Bolwerk

    It’s likely that the impact we’re seeing is an interplay of factors, including some p_chazz is talking about.

    As routes were cut, people didn’t immediately stop using transit if they still needed to get to somewhere (e.g., work) with transit. They would have been expected to spend the past several years adjusting. Especially poorer people can’t just dump their apartment, find a new McWage job, and/or a new apartment more convenient to work in a single year.

    A cut route doesn’t always preclude transit use, since there is sometimes a less suitable alternative for users nearby. Again, over time, people would adjust away from the discomfort, but for a while they might be inclined to grin and bear it.

    I don’t see how you can say labor force participation is not relevant. Bus riders apparently tend to be poorer and older, and those are two groups that either struggle more to stay in the labor force or are more likely to leave voluntarily (e.g., retire).

    Not sure about this one, but there is also the question of where new jobs go. They likely aren’t being made accessible to economically marginal transit users who would take low-level service positions if they could get them. Educated white collar service workers obviously find large urban downtown cores trendy, but that’s the crowd that can most easily afford alternatives to buses.

  • Alex

    Why was there such a big drop in Cleveland?

  • p_chazz

    How do you figure the labor participation rate is not relevant? It’s a measure of the number of people who are either employed or are actively looking for work.–butts in bus seats if you will.

  • But in LA… we’ve got all these nice shiny new metro lines, and it’s been a lot easier for people to sneak on without paying. Sooo more people are riding trains here, and many probably aren’t getting counted. While I will gladly TAP, I much prefer the metro trains over the busses. So if there’s a route (Wilshire Blvd, for example) where I can take the train or the bus, I’ll take the train.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    The trains do get more riders per mile than the buses do, but it’s still the case that more than three times as many people ride a bus in a given day as ride one Metro Rail, even with all the expansions to rail and cuts to buses.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    Labor participation rate is not a measure of the *number* of people who are *employed* (which is what would be relevant for bus ridership), it is a measure of the *fraction* of people who are *employed or looking for work*. As Ben Fried pointed out, even though labor force participation rate is down, the total number of employed people is up.

  • p_chazz

    Take a look at another measure–the employment to population ratio, which measures the proportion of the country’s working-age population that is employed. That number is currently 59.4 percent down from over 63 percent

  • Kenny Easwaran

    Again, the problem is that you’re focusing on a *ratio*, while the issue here is an *absolute* number. You can’t explain a declining *number* of people riding buses by talking about the *ratio* of people going to work. You can only explain it by a decline in *number* of people going to work. That would be this chart, which does in fact support some of your theory:

    http://data.bls.gov/pdq/SurveyOutputServlet?request_action=wh&graph_name=CE_cesbref1

  • p_chazz

    I’m just not convinced that the number of people going to work has increased that much.

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  • Stan

    When the price of gasoline goes over $3.50 per gallon the bus service becomes the alternate transportation method. When it falls below that price (as it is now) some of the ridership will go back to their own personal vehicles. Who can blame them? What can transit agencies do to increase their ridership?

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