Transit Ridership Falling Everywhere — But Not in Cities With Redesigned Bus Networks

Seattle was one of the few American cities where transit ridership increased in 2016. Photo:  PeopleforBikes
Seattle was one of the few American cities where transit ridership increased in 2016. Photo: PeopleforBikes

New traffic and transit data is out for 2016, and the news is not good.

Driving mileage increased for the fifth straight year, the Federal Highway Administration reports in a statement that celebrates record traffic levels as a boon for the nation. Americans logged 3.2 trillion miles last year. Traffic in December 2016 increased 0.5 percent compared to the previous December.

Meanwhile, transit ridership decreased in almost every major city. But there were two cities that bucked the trend — Seattle and Houston, which posted 4.1 and 2.3 percent increases, respectively.

Those two outliers share one thing in common: In addition to expanding light rail, they’re both redesigning their bus networks.

Transit ridership fell in all but a handful of cities last year. Chart: Seattle Times
Transit ridership fell in all but a handful of cities last year. Chart: Seattle Times

Houston launched a totally redesigned bus network in 2015. The new system is designed to increase access to bus service that arrives at least every 15 minutes, as well as expand service on weekends and evenings. According to the FTA data, bus ridership in Houston grew 3.3 percent year over year.

Meanwhile, Seattle has quietly done something similar, says Kirk Hovenkotter, National Network Coordinator at the nonprofit advocacy organization TransitCenter. The city has been systematically rethinking its bus routes one quadrant of the city at a time, seeking to optimize the bus network while it expands light rail routes, Hovenkotter said.

“Houston was a case where its transit network served a city that didn’t exist anymore, one where people only worked 9 to 5,” he said.

A number of other transit agencies have outdated bus networks and are looking at system redesigns. Columbus will launch a redesigned bus network this spring, and Austin (where ridership fell a staggering 12 percent in 2016) is considering one as well.

The new FTA data suggest that the attention Houston and Seattle pay to their bus systems distinguishes them from other cities that have expanded rail transit. Los Angeles, which has spent billions on new light rail, saw a 7.6 percent decline in transit ridership in 2016. And in Denver, which added a commuter rail line to the airport last year, ridership fell 1.2 percent.

  • I hate to mention this but in case you haven’t noticed public transportation in almost every city is UNRELIABLE DIRTY AND SCARY

    I bet you design has nothing to do with it but hey, how would I know right? I don’t have a fancy degree or a 6 figure salary in the industry.

  • Vooch

    cleaner than your truck

  • gb52

    It’s unfortunate that we continue to have tiered transportation networks. Buses are usually bottom of the barrel, and somehow cars are prioritized. Bikes are also just thrown into the fray and made to fight for their own space. We can do better. In transit heavy streets, let it be a street for transit, and give bikes a safe place to ride. Cars are everywhere and they’re not going to go away, but sometimes it just makes sense to take cars off certain streets to improve transit, walking, and biking. These shouldn’t be relegated as “alternative” modes but just simply modes of transportation. Buses and trains should not idle in the same traffic as it drastically increases PASSENGER delay and is exactly why people call buses and trains unreliable. Make it reliable and more people will ride. Make streets safer and more people will walk and bike. Our priority has been cars cars cars for far too long and now we just have traffic… everywhere.

  • Claude

    Design has a lot to do with any product. If it’s slow, awkward and inconvenient to use, people try to find an alternative.
    If people have to wait forever for a bus to arrive, then make multiple transfers to reach their destinations, like many cities, people find another way to travel.
    If it’s quick, easy and convenient, with minimal transfers timed to meet the connecting bus quickly, like Houston, then people use the bus when it suits their errands.

  • Jason

    This article misses the key reason why Seattle is #1. In November 2014, fresh off the failure of a King County-wide vote to rescue transit earlier that year, the City of Seattle asked voters to approve a funding package with identical funding sources (a 0.1% sales tax and a $60 car tab fee). It passed by an overwhelming ~59% of the vote. With a more stable economy, these funds could actually be used to increase service. According to the Seattle Times at the time, the measure raised $45 million in new yearly revenue, some $36.5 million would go to buy more service hours. With a “potential [of] 266,000 more service hours”, the City of Seattle went on to purchase new service from King County Metro. This was mostly in the form of beefing up midday, evening and weekend service from every 30-60 minutes to every 15-20 minutes. In addition, there were targeted peak hour trip additions where there was overcrowding. This was throughout the City of Seattle, not just in the northeast quadrant.

    Were it not for the extension of the Link Light Rail system to U of W in March 2016, it is possible that bus ridership could have increased even more than 4.1%. Several key bus routes between the U District and Downtown Seattle were discontinued and buses were reoriented to the train. But riders were almost always left with credible transit alternatives.

    Most critically, King County Metro added huge amounts of total service but did NOT sacrifice transit access in “coverage” areas in order to do so. Looking at a transit map of Seattle, there are no real transit deserts. In that sense, Seattle is becoming a lot more like San Francisco in terms of people having the confidence they can take the bus to go from anywhere to anywhere. And ridership is responding.

    While there were many good changes that occurred in Houston, the bus restructuring has unfortunately not lived up to its potential. The consultant and transit agency had touted they could get something for nothing – a 20% ridership increase without increasing total service hours. While the 2.3% increase is positive, it is hardly the booming success that proponents claim. Actually, according to the January 2017 ridership report, average weekday bus ridership has declined by 7% compared to January 2015, seven months before Metro’s massive shakeup.

    Why is this? Because in order to make service better in some places, it became much worse in others. While coverage still exists, buses in some areas was slashed to every 60 minutes – even during peak hours. It is worth noting that Houston’s Saturday and Sunday ridership (unlike weekday ridership) has increased by 3% and 22%, respectively, but this is because Metro actually increased service hours on the weekends by even greater percentages. In other words, by actually delivering more service, Metro on those days got much more ridership.

    In conclusion, it’s overly simplistic to say “bus restructuring” leads to ridership growth. Actually, what leads to ridership growth is service growth. And that takes money.

  • Larry Littlefield

    In the Great Recession, millennials flocked to mass transit.

    But at the same time, mass transit was gutted in many places, and failed to keep up with ridership in others, because of costs from the past resulting from past benefits for Generation Greed.

    Generation Greed, still in charge of most public and private institutions, concentrated the harm where it would be least affected. Transit was one of the key victims.

    This will continue to go on and on until people are forced to face the generational equity consequences of past decisions, and make them a factor in future decisions.

  • Walter Crunch

    It’s good to see some cities are moving away from the paratransit model for buses. Buses cannot be all things to all people. It’s been demonstrated time and time again that people want straight routes, on arterial streets making good time. When buses start to meander down some side street because some senior center wanted a bus stop for aunt mave back in 1995, that turns people off. That’s why para transit (dial a ride) exists. The next step is BAT lanes during high traffic times. Seattle is slowly (glacially slow) moving toward BRT with dedicated lanes during rush hour.

  • Robert

    I have never experienced a scary train. Mostly, if a train or bus is dirty, it will be by the windows, where one need not touch anything, or on the floor, where it really doesn’t matter anyway. One can wash your hands if it is flu season and one uses the poles to stand. Unreliability is more of a problem during rushour when trains and buses are very busy, and sometimes (in the case of buses) caught in traffic. This can be solved by increasing the sophistication of the system, in other words through the design of the system.

  • 1976boy

    This mostly false. I’ve lived in a lot of transit heavy cities, and use the systems extensively. In recent decades all system have mostly gotten way better. Anyone who rides regularly knows how to navigate them and when they are most and leat reliable, not so much different than drivers who work around times of heavy traffic congestion.

    What I have seen over and over though is that for fearful car-dependent suburbanites all it takes is one bad experience for them to universalize it, and dismiss all transit.

  • TakeFive

    Man, that’s low.

  • That’s probably true about the one bad experience. Transit outside Portland is iffy tho UNLESS you live on the MAX

  • My truck is much cleaner than any Trimet bus or train. Believe it

  • SCFitness

    Innovation and technology are driving the future of transportation. They are and will be disrupters to traditional transit and how we use our own vehicles. Don’t spent millions and billions of taxpayer dollars on outdated solutions that few will use and may soon become irrelevant.

  • TakeFive

    Not at all used to searching for data but the latest figures I could find for Houston from APTA shows bus ridership through September up 1.2% YTD. Houston’s Metro site shows bus ridership (YOY) down 4% in Oct, up 2% in Nov and down 5% in Dec. So I have no idea where your increase of 3.3% YOY comes from?

  • Jason

    Self-driving cars will help, especially if lower-density suburbs where it’s infeasible to run buses stay the way they are, but there is no substitute for transit (especially but not only heavy rail) when it comes to moving a large amount of people in a space-efficient manner.

  • Jason

    Here in Santa Monica, CA there’s a lot of bus routes that I’m convinced were drawn by drunk toddlers. It’s really maddening because half of Santa Monica is on a very straightforward, coherent grid and the other half has enough of a grid to run a grid-based bus network.

    One of the biggest issues is that there’s very few ways to go north/south without making a transfers because most of the lines turn around at the 10.

  • Jason

    I think the fundamental problem is how we account for transit spending. It’s always done as though transit is a completely isolated system. Whereas with roads, at least implicitly, we understand that the balance sheet for the roads don’t tell the entire story because they enable a ton of tax revenue, plus that there’s simply a social good in people being able to move around.

    The parallel problem is that most people don’t understand how heavily subsidized roads are. If we held roads to the same standards that we hold transit in terms of things like farebox recovery, we’d rip out each and every one of our roads. Look at coverage of things like WMATA ending weekend late-night service in DC for instance, it pretty started resulting in stories about workers having transportation problems, businesses losing money from people going home earlier, etc.

  • Jason

    Granting your “unreliable, dirty, and scary” point for the sake of argument, it’s not an inherent problem with transit. Transit doesn’t have these mental associations in most countries.

    In the US, transit is unreliable for a number of reasons including that it’s often run by people who don’t use it, which leads to bad design decisions like large headways and not structuring the schedules to make transfers line up. You also have things like operators who simply don’t give a shit about keeping things running on time…which probably also ties back to knowing that their bosses are unlikely to be riders.

    If it’s dirty, it’s for the same reason.

    And if it’s scary, it’s because it’s so time-inefficient that anyone who can afford to spends money on another means of getting around. Go fucking figure, a transit system where it’s normal to see a rider in a suit going to work is probably going to be safer than a system that only the destitute put up with because they have literally no other options.

  • TakeFive

    Interestingly, the Houston Chronicle is reporting that since the system redo that transit ridership is down. According to an audit by Milligan & Co. one of the bigger issues is vagrancy at transit stations versus the feeling of safety for riders.

  • TakeFive

    FWIW, with respect to King County Metro and Sound Transit, bus ridership dropped slightly from 121.8 million to 121.5 million in 2016. Light rail ridership jumped significantly after the opening of new stations at Capitol Hill and the University District.

  • Jason

    I’m assuming you’re talking about Jarrett Walker’s work on restructuring the Houston bus network. To be fair, IIRC, Houston demanded a cost-neutral alternative to their old bus system. I’ll say that I imagine it’s probably easier to get buy-in for actually spending more money on bus service once you get the bus service to a point where people start to assume that it’s reliable and frequent.

    There’s definitely a multitude of problems with how transit spending is viewed in the US, but I do see the logic in trying to create a “success begets success” situation instead of trying to convince people to spend more money on what’s viewed as an unreliable and infrequent mode of transportation.

  • “It’s run by people who don’t use it”
    Amen to that.

    The problem with public transportation in this country is that it’s an industrial complex. And it’s a hierarchal industrial complex at that. Technocracy on top with obscene salaries and pensions.

    The people doing the work with unreliable, insufficient equipment without enough time to do the job properly. Working in American public transportation is the most depressing job in the United States. That should tell you something right there

    And on the very bottom of the hierarchy are the riders who suffer unbelievable hardships. Buses that don’t show -up trains that don’t show up.

    Over the past decade and a half they have built out the systems without taking care of the existing networks. In Portland for example there is a construction cabal which is able to make billions of dollars while the existing system never gets any improvements

    There is no such thing as rapid transit in Portland Oregon

    It typically takes 3 to 4 times longer to take public transportation then drive

    On and on and on

    It’s a non starter for most citizens

  • Walter Crunch

    Regional transit planners + politicians = drunk toddlers.

  • Vooch

    guess all those fast food wrappers and empty beer cans behind the seat don’t count

  • SCFitness

    Autonomous buses and shuttles will be able to move large or smaller numbers of people more efficiently and cost-effectively as much of the huge labor costs (transit’s largest cost) will be reduced.

  • bolwerk

    Innovation and technology aren’t free. People have been calling rail obsolete since probably the 1920s, and it’s still the backbone of any sizeable transit network. There will always be a need to spend billions$ on ROW expansions and maintenance for any mode.

    It’s true that labor cost reductions have the potential to make smaller-scale transit more affordable, but don’t read too much into that. Driverless rail technology has existed for decades. Driverless bus technology is likely still some ways away. Maybe driverless jitneys and taxis could fill some gaps in the mean time.

  • bolwerk

    The new FTA data suggest that the attention Houston and Seattle pay to
    their bus systems distinguishes them from other cities that have
    expanded rail transit. Los Angeles, which has spent billions on new
    light rail, saw a 7.6 percent decline in transit ridership in 2016. And
    in Denver, which added a commuter rail line to the airport last year,
    ridership fell 1.2 percent.

    Is Streetsblog now just on some bumblefuck mission to try to make buses look better than rail? Los Angeles rail use is up. There may be something wrong with the bus network in LA, sure, but the news from LA isn’t wholly bad.

    Guessing, since nationally the news is mostly bad for buses, that cheaper gas and more driving makes it easier to abandon buses. Rail is a bit harder to substitute a car for, given that much rail is grade-separated and shortcuts around the most congested roadways.

  • Dan

    Are the numbers linked or unlinked trips? If they are unlinked, the numbers tell us nothing about the effectiveness of the service changes since the increased transfers get reported as trips.

  • Jared R

    Unless you live in the NEC or Chicago.

  • reasonableexplanation

    Beers go in the cupholder. gotta leave space for a gunrack in the back.

  • bolwerk

    NTD reporting is unlinked. I don’t know if that’s what this is.

    That is definitely a confound, but I wouldn’t necessarily dismiss based on it. If usage of the system overall increases it still points to an improvement. (By the same token, if usage doesn’t increase, and passenger-miles do, maybe there’s a problem?)

  • Steve Taylor


    I’m afraid not.

    1) There are currently no autonomous or self-driving vehicles operating in an urban environment in a non-test mode anywhere in the world today. We have no idea how these types of vehicles will operate in real world conditions, just speculation.

    2) Even when these vehicles begin operating in the real world there is no way to tell how they will interact with the non-autonomous vehicles they will be sharing the roads with for at least the next 20 years or so.

    3) Even if every vehicle on the roads were to convert to self-driving mode tomorrow that doesn’t increase the road space available for them to use. You can only fit so many vehicles on a road at one time. There is no way for vehicles on a road to match the carrying capacity of a train. It is physically impossible.

  • Flakker

    It’s actually combined bus and rail numbers. And yeah, it’s a more mixed bag in Houston than this article indicates. Red line rail grew significantly in 2016 but buses continued the overall decline in ridership. So far this year, in January the news is again bad. Commuter buses down, Red Line down, local buses mixed, and the shorter, newer Purple and Green lines are way up, percentage-wise, but low in absolute numbers, still.

  • Vooch

    and the chaw ?

  • TakeFive

    Thanks for the clarification.

  • 503F

    Drill/Fracking rigs are idle across the center of America, investments in oil fields have been drastically de-valued because of the world wide glut of crude oil. The secretary of state’s investment’s in Russian oil development leases have been drastically de-valued.

    $200 bbl. oil will change that.

    War is coming.

    $4.00 gasoline is coming.

    And transit ridership will be going up again. Since the fares didn’t go back down when fuel did, you can imagine that fares will also be going up again.

  • bolwerk

    There are currently no autonomous or self-driving vehicles operating in
    an urban environment in a non-test mode anywhere in the world today.

    Sure there are, and there have been some for decades now. They mostly just don’t have rubber tires, and tend to have their own ROWs. The futurists keep missing the future when it finally hits. :-p

    Automation of road vehicles might reduce the operating costs of buses so it can compete with rail at higher ends than it currently does. But I would expect that to be a mostly glacial process, which largely changes the character of future investment rather than making it profitable or desirable to replace rail with rubber tired vehicles.

  • That’s all nice, but we have a Republican administration now, so money for rail is a thing of the past. Tweaking bus routes is the best we’re going to be able to do for at least the next four years.

  • bolwerk

    I see that as a great opportunity for rail (and buses). No federal money means no federal strings attached.

  • Who cares if rail ridership is up in LA if total transit ridership is down? The goal is more riders not promoting of a particular mode, right?

  • bolwerk

    I don’t know what “the goal” is because I don’t know whose goal you are referring to. Something is obviously attracting some riders to some form of transit in LA, while repelling them from some other form of transit. May as well at least try to understand what.

  • Lauren Dees

    The regional transportation agency in Detroit posted this today but I am blocked from their page for having politely asked three questions when they were trying to get a referendum passed last year. The question was how much more in total would I pay to drive my car to fund this expansion that I will never use, how deep would these regressive taxes run into the pockets af low incoming drivers and how much of the new costs for the plan would be picked up by actual users. Crickets chirped in response. This is the proble with redesigning our approach

  • Barbara Shields

    Cities seeking to improve their citizens’ quality of life need to get out of the old mindset of use it or lose it and instead provide more tailored and higher quality transportation services.
    If we are going to get people to use public transit it needs to be on time and take them where they need to go. In a study to evaluate public transport efficiency in major US cities, the Brookings Institute modeled the ability of transit systems to get people to their jobs. Its findings were that trans-accessibility is not very good in America. Although public transportation is growing in the US, customer satisfaction is not.
    The majority of highly rated transportation systems are outside of the US. Transit authorities in other countries are using modern location technologies, such as GIS, to improve rider satisfaction. For example, the Community of Madrid, offers a free app that locates the user and shows the location of the nearest transport stop. It also shows when the next transport will arrive at that location.

  • jr_m

    The funding mechanism for RTA was property taxes, not fees on drivers. So driving would be exactly as expensive as before.


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