Why Is Transit Ridership Falling?

Photo: Chris Yarzab/Flickr
Photo: Chris Yarzab/Flickr

Transit ridership took a turn for the worse in 2016. In all but a handful of cities, fewer people rode trains and buses, even in some places, like Los Angeles, that have invested significantly in expanding capacity.

It’s not just a one-year blip, either. In many American cities, the drop in transit ridership is an established trend. The big question is why.

Transit consultant Jarrett Walker at Human Transit wants more than vague speculation about the effect of low gas prices and ride-hailing services. He’s looking for more specific research about causes and effects — and soon:

Bottom line: We need research! Not the sort of formally peer reviewed research that will take a year to publish, but faster work by real transportation scholars that can report preliminary results in time to guide action. I am not a transportation researcher, but there are plenty of them out there, and this is our moment of need.

Here are my research questions:

  • Which global causes seem to matter?  Straight regression analysis, once you get data you believe.  Probably the study will need to start with a small dataset of transit agencies, so that there’s time to talk with each agency and understand their unique data issues.
  • What’s happening to the quantity of transit?  If ridership is falling because service is falling, this isn’t a surprise.  If ridership is falling because service is getting slower — which means lower frequency and speed at the same cost — well, that wouldn’t be surprising either.
  • How does the decline correlate to types of service?  Is this fall happening in dense areas or just in car-based suburbs?   Is it happening on routes that are designed for high ridership, or only on those that are designed for coverage purposes (services retained because three sympathetic people need them rather than because the bus will be full).   Is it correlated to frequency or span changes? Heads up, local geeks!  A lot could be done looking at data for your own transit agency — route by route and even (where available) stop by stop, to analyze where in your metro the fall is really occurring.

More recommended reading today: Green Caltrain looks at whether Bay Area cities are adapting to new rules designed to promote low-car development. And Urban Milwaukee floats the idea of using voluntary bike registration fees to pay for bike infrastructure.

  • D G Spencer Ludgate

    Maybe the answer is very simple. As the Millennial Generation comes into more discretionary income, they are simply opting to buy cars and use them instead of transit.

  • Davey43

    It’s the other way around – as many millennials are moving to larger cities, they don’t need cars seeing how there’s good enough transit around. With that said, disruptive technologies such as microtransit, uber and lyft, and other TDM strategies such as carpooling have taken away from SOV vehicles AND have cannibalized public transit ridership.

    Combine that with lower gas prices, and we have a high-level answer. Of course, YMMV.

  • TakeFive

    I think Ludgate has a valid point. But to combine both ideas many millennials are moving to the urban core where they only need very localized service. Thinking west of the Mississippi (Denver for example) millennials are buying cars for those weekend trips out of the city to the mountains. Or they may use Uber/Lyft or just rent a Hertz car.

  • Chicagoan

    Isn’t train ridership way up but bus ridership way down in most cities?

  • djconnel

    Because transit service sinks to the bottom. In SF MUNI zig-zags from one local street to another, stopping in many cases every other block. Attempts to provide for more direct service are assaulted with the “elderly card”, that old people won’t be able to walk more than one block. Additionally attempts to provide for dedicated right-of-way are attacked by parking NIMBYs. The free market tends to leave this sort of abuse behind, so instead we have ride share and corporate shuttles.

  • A sad thought: the effective undoing of welfare reform over the previous eight years meant decreased incentives for lower income people (more likely to use mass transit) to go to work.

  • Richard

    Ridership in Washington DC has fallen so much it has dragged the national averages down.
    Good scientific analysis treats such outliers by ignoring them. Ridership is down from it’s recession peak, but it isn’t down nearly as far as the raw numbers say.

  • Richard

    Only in America does the bus stop every single block, sometimes every 100ft.
    Only in America does the bus average less than half the speed of cars on the same route.
    Coincidence or causation?

  • SZwartz

    Yes, research would be helpful provided it is not a skewed basis for more Alt-Facts to support more money for mass transit. While transit ridership in LA has steadily declined while more fixed-rail has been added, traffic congestion has steadily become worse while the number of commuters seems to have remained constant. These data suggest that people are leaving transit in favor of their cars.

    The theory had been that as the city densified and became more congested people would give up their cars and use transit. Instead, the artificial creation of more traffic congestion may have cause people to chose to driver their own cars rather than use transit. Thus, there needs to be a study whether more people are using cars as congestion worsens. There could be other explanations.

    (1) There could be fewer poor people, assuming poor people use transit while wealthier people do not

    (2) Since only 7/10 of 1% of jobs can be reached via transit in 30 minutes or less, while 43.3% of jobs can be accessed via car in 30 minutes or less, perhaps there has been a re-location of jobs away from transit lines. Thus, we need to study whether jobs have moved away from transit lines. It seems unlikely.

    The reason to use a car as traffic becomes worse appear clear, but a well-designed study would be helpful. Cars are more flexible, they still get one to their destination faster, they are more comfortable, they are more personalized a/c, radio, etc. If the time to get to work is going to be longer, then people may want to be more comfortable.

    Perhaps hands-free phone allow people to do more while in their carsm and hencem all that drive time is not seen as wasted time. Will bringing Wifi and cell service to the subways increase ridership?

  • SZwartz

    Both are down in Los Angeles, but LA spends more money on rail than bus service. If LA spent its money differently, the statistics might shift. Fixed-rail’s main purpose seems to be to tie the transportation system to specific buildings. Thus, a developer is motivated to have the city spend its money on laying down rail track to his building or into the basement of his high rise so that he has decades of competitive advantage over buildings a few blocks away.

  • thielges

    My hunch is that market dynamics and social obligations are the major factors. Gas prices are low, spending on freeways consumes the majority of DOT’s budget, and free parking continues to expand. This shifts favor towards driving.

    Meanwhile transit agencies are increasingly burdened with providing transportation of last resort to marginalized segments of the population, skewing bus routes, slowing rates, and cannibalizing faster and more effective lines.

  • DarrellClarke

    LA’s overall rail ridership is modestly up including the big increases due to the Gold and Expo Line openings in 2016. http://isotp.metro.net/MetroRidership/IndexRail.aspx

  • Richard

    Yes, LA’s rail ridership is up about 5-7%. Bus ridership though is down 9-12%, and LA’s bus carries a lot more people than it’s rail.

  • Urbanely

    Speaking anecdotally, myself and those I know in NYC avoid transit when we can because it’s too crowded and unreliable. Nobody wants to be left on the platform and then have to squeeze onto a train if they’re lucky at any time of the day, but especially not on weekends. The delays and crowding lead to short tempers all around and there’s no reason to deal with that if you don’t have to. Even commuter rail, which is more expensive and runs on a schedule, has been behind schedule and standing room only lately.

  • war_on_hugs

    The key dichotomy in LA is that rail ridership is up while bus ridership is down, though. To me that implies that people will use transit when it is relatively fast, comfortable, and efficient.

  • war_on_hugs

    I think any national-level analysis has to start with the DC Metro. It’s the second-busiest subway in the country, and ridership has been way down during a year of heavy maintenance, rebuilding, and constant service disruptions. An 11% drop in DC ridership could be dragging down the national figures all on its own.

  • Here are some more questions that need research:

    What are the demographics of the people who are using public transit less often?
    Are the changes in transit use different across class lines?
    Are wealthier people moving from public transit to Uber & Lyft?
    Are poor and working class people taking fewer discretionary trips because of the ever-increasing cost of public transit?

    We will get a skewed picture of transit use if we don’t look at these and similar questions.

  • Baloo Uriza

    But we already knew this going back to when National City Lines screwed over the redcars.

  • I understand the complaint that the subway in New York can become too crowded. But unreliable? No way. This is simply not true of the subway. You cannot be stranded on a subway platform. And weekend service changes are explained thoroughly by means of signs that are everywhere in the affected stations.

  • Urbanely

    I know that my experience may not be typical, which is why I started my comment with “speaking anecdotally”. Further, we may have different definitions of “unreliable”. I ride the J/Z line at least 10 trips per week, and in my experience it is unreliable. Delayed and/or randomly terminated before reaching the terminal at least 25% of the time due to signal problems or some drama with passengers on the train (3 incidents within the past month made it to the NYPost). Friends who live on the R/N lines have similar complaints about service delays. I agree that it is practically impossible to be completely stranded on a platform, but I also expect better than to be delayed at least 25% of the time.

    Yes, there is comprehensive signage regarding the weekend changes. Unfortunately, the crowding is still present on weekends, so after doing the dance all weekend, I opt out as much as possible.

  • oceanstater

    I think in Rhode Island the underlying reason is jobs moving out of the metro area to suburban “free” parking sites with poor and expensive transit. They do this fro the parking and to get away from the poor and minorities. Citizens Bank is the latest example but we’ve had many vefire including misnamed “Neighborhood Health Plan!”

  • Thanks for the response. I also live on the J line, home stop of Woodhaven.

    Because I bike to work in all but rainy or snowy weather, I no longer rely on the J for commuting. But I take the train when the weather forces me to, such as for the entirety of last week. And on such days, the morning rush-hour commutes and the nighttime trips home that come at any hour between rush hour and 10pm are usually very smooth. I am tempted to say luxurious, as I get a seat both ways, and can read or pay full attention to the audio content to which I can give only partial attention while I am riding.

    Also, ever since the weekend service was extended to Broad Street rather than terminating at Chambers Street, the J has been that much more useful.

    I will admit that I have been cold while waiting on the platform at Broadway Junction for a Jamaica-bound J after having transferred from the A. But the occasional 20-minute wait, while excessive in terms of our expectations for rapid transit, really amounts to very little in terms of real life. So, even though I was pretty annoyed at the time of those waits, I was able to contextualise them soon after. And in no way do these experiences dissuade me from using the J train (or any subway line) to go where I want to go.

  • Urbanely

    My home stop was 121 until it closed. Now I’m at 111. I hope to someday achieve your zen attitude towards the J. I admire your bike riding fortitude! Unfortunately for me, I came of age with the 4 and the L trains, and prior to moving to my current area, I lived near the relative transit mecca of Roosevelt Ave. Among other things, the service (or lack thereof) on the J/Z is one of the reasons I don’t foresee staying in the area for very long.

  • SZwartz

    For the vast majority of Angelenos, transit via bus or rail is not fast, is not comfortable and is not efficient. The reality is the opposite. Compared to a car, transit is slow, uncomfortable and inefficient (due to being extremely inflexible). Providing free ridership for a new line does not mean that actual ridership is up. It’s like the butcher putting his thumb on the scale.

    http://bit.ly/2aHcbAW July 28, 2016, CityWatch, Expo Line Expansion Fails to Make Up for LA Transit Loss, by Wendell Cox

  • SZwartz

    Rail ridership is not up 5-7%. All we have is the novelty of new lines with no base line whether it will be sustainable. Every rail line has new riders, but that should not be confused with sustained ridership.
    http://bit.ly/2aHcbAW July 28, 2016, CityWatch, Expo Line Expansion Fails to Make Up for LA Transit Loss, by Wendell Cox

  • SZwartz

    Family Millennials are NOT moving to larger cities. They are doing the exact opposite. They are moving away from large cities, especially away from Los Angeles. When they move to urban areas, the Millennials move more to the suburbs and exurbs than to the dense cores. Housing prices rise as an area becomes more dense and adds transit and that causes Family Millennials to move to parts of the county where they can afford a detached home and a couple cars.

    In fact one company is now paying employees $10,000 cash to move away from the SF Bay area. Why? Because the dense housing with transit lines has made living in SF so high that the employers have to pay a lot more to hire employees than do companies which have moved to Denver or Texas. Thus, they find that a one time $10,000 payment for a family to move to a lower cost area saves them millions of dollars.

    Los Angeles has become a High Cost Low Opportunity area which is why smart Millennials who want to raise a family and have a good job are leaving LA.
    http://bit.ly/2hY8hGD January 5, 2017, CityWatch, Scientific Theory of LA’s Decline

  • Ray

    If you start with some simple facts, you will reach some interesting conclusions:
    1) Most public transit is bus-based.
    2) Congestion is worsening, directly affecting buses
    3) Public transit subsidies are being shifted from bus service to rail service
    4) The price to own and operate a vehicle is decreasing in real terms (fuel taxes stagnated a long time ago)
    5) Uber-style services are a new paradigm
    6) Vanpooling & commuter bus subsidies are increasing

    So, overall public bus service is taking a big hit. There will need to be a revolution in thinking to fix the transportation issue, because today’s current approach to subsidizing transportation is broken. The current approach with the government subsidizing behavior we prefer (goes beyond transportation) has lead to inefficient choices. In order to make alternative transportation more attractive than a car, the subsidy will have to increase by multiples. But instead, why don’t we just start pricing the road, to make it expensive to drive in your car. Road pricing will lead to the following:
    1) Bus-based transit will move uncongested.
    2) Less heavy government subsidy towards rail, as buses will be time-competitive
    3) Less cars
    4) Less single-ride Uber, more Uberpool, Ubervans, Ubershuttles
    5) More commuter buses & shuttles, including privately operated services
    6) Much greater incentive to move to automated vehicles

  • Richard

    Perhaps you should use more current statistics. Rail ridership has grown another 20,000 riders since June 2016

  • Instead of making it more expensive to drive — which increases inequality on the roadway — why don’t we make it cheaper, or free, to take public transit?

  • sebra leaves

    My questions would be of a more personal nature and I would put them to the public.
    Why do you take public transit when you take it?
    Why do you chose to take another transit option when you don’t?
    Do your priorities align with SFMTA and City Hall priorities?
    What Muni changes do you support?
    What Muni changes do you oppose?
    Do you prefer speed or comfort?
    Would you rather stand on public transit if you get there faster?
    Would you rather sit if it takes longer to get there?

  • CX

    It’s important to distinguish what type of transit is increasing or decreasing in transit. Type must address mode, frequency, connectivity, location, and goals, among others. We much also ask who are riding transit. For one, many bus systems have not had a comprehensive overall in decades. Additionally, transit continues to be disconnected from transit. These things continue to undermine growth in ridership even without car-share services and the inexpensiveness of car ownership for most people.

  • davistrain

    Someone once sent me a list of “10 reasons why people don’t use transit” and “cost” didn’t make the top ten. One group that already gets free transit is employees of transit districts, and a few years ago a survey showed that somewhere around 5% of LA Metro employees use “the sponsor’s product”.

  • davistrain

    Not that old legend again–NCL bought out the Yellow Car system (narrow gauge streetcars mostly in the City of Los Angeles) in 1945. The only part of Pacific Electric that an NCL subsidiary bought was the local trolley lines in Pasadena, which PE was probably glad to get rid of.

  • They did a study here in San Francisco a few years ago, and concluded that Free Muni would increase ridership by 35-40% – http://www.beyondchron.org/free-muni-free-san-francisco

  • My wife and I moved to my present community in part because of the transit system. We’re now planning to leave. It’s mostly the drugs. My wife no longer feels comfortable on the train after an incident with a tweaker. Security was beyond worthless. There’s also the convenience issue. Commuter rail is strictly an hourly thing here, so if you miss one train you’re cooling your heels for up to an hour. There’s wifi on the trains but not the platforms so that’s pretty much dead time. Buses would take longer still as the distance is approximately 40 miles.

    For us, it’s simply not worth the hassle especially with low gas prices and a relatively functional grid of streets and highways. We still use our bicycles more than our cars, especially around town, but for us transit has been a great disappointment. Planning to move to a small. compact town and rely on bikes and Internet/telecommuting close to 100%.

  • Ray

    We need to drastically change our thinking to this problem. Right now, we can subsidize the system so it is free to take the bus & train. But, giving something away for free while heavily taxing other important services/goods (like sales taxes) leads to inefficient economics. People obviously still feel that a free bus service does not provide enough value to stop owning a car. This is a simple fact. Pricing roads in order to limit the number cars that operate will affect the decisions people make towards transportation. Currently most transportation funding creates inequality as the poor pay for the vast majority of the funding through sales taxes and gas taxes. Removing these taxes and replacing them with a congestion tax will shift the funding burden on those with the most income and provide a system that works well for all.

  • “People obviously still feel that a free bus service does not provide enough value to stop owning a car. This is a simple fact.”

    Sorry, this is not a fact. Many people here in San Francisco forgo having a car because public transit is both cheaper and often easier.

    “Pricing roads in order to limit the number of cars that operate will affect the decisions people make towards transportation.”

    Pricing roads in order to limit the number of cars will also allow the rich and well-to-do to keep driving, while forcing poor and working people off the road, or forcing us to pay through the nose in situations that require us to drive – thus only exacerbating the already-gross inequality in our society.

    I agree with you that getting rid of regressive sales and gas taxes is a good idea. But I would not replace them with another regressive tax, such as a congestion tax. I would replace them with taxes on the rich. For example, returning the top income tax rates to those that existed during the WWII and Eisenhower years.

  • disqdude

    I most often use BART in the Bay Area, and it’s pretty clear why my friends and I have started taking fewer trips:

    * Service is unreliable – trains break down and run late, so it can be difficult to rely on the train why you absolutely must be somewhere on time.

    * Service is crowded – trains are completely full during rush hour. There is no room to sit or stand comfortably. I can sit comfortably in my car, even if I’m sitting in traffic.

    * Trains are uncomfortable – BART is old, really really loud, sticky, and all around gross. HVAC generally doesn’t work, which means cold cars on cool days and hot, muggy cars on warm days. Also, they run shorter trains on the weekends, so cars are just as crowded at busy times on Saturdays and Sundays as they are during weekday rush hour.

    * Service is infrequent – Trains run only once every 20 minutes nights and weekends. If I just walk out my door and want to ride across town (i.e., one or two stops) on a Sunday, there’s a high probability that I’ll have to wait for a while at the station. I frequently travel one stop for restaurants, bars, and to visit friends, but what good is a 4-minute BART ride plus a 16-minute wait when I can just walk the same distance in 20 minutes?

    * Safety is lacking – there are incidents of crazy people verbally and physically attacking passengers on a regular basis. It isn’t a matter of possibly encountering it but rather hoping that it isn’t happening to you when it occurs. To add insult to injury, it has come to light that most of the security cameras on trains are fakes, so there is no recording in the event that you get robbed, raped, or murdered (as was the case last year when this came to light).

    * Service is not price competitive – I frequently travel the equivalent to short distances on BART (1 or 2 stops), and the BART fare of $1.95 is not competitive with the operating cost of a car (which is $1-1.50 for equivalent trips). Factor in the fact that I already have to pay for the basic costs of the car (insurance, depreciation, etc.) because I work in an area with poor public transit, and BART is even less competitive than the 25¢ or so that I pay in gas.

    The question is: Are these reasons similar for users in other areas and demographics? Perhaps.

  • Andrew

    How many of those LA Metro employees have to report to work before the service they’d need starts up in the morning or finish their work day after the service they’d need has stopped running for the night?

  • Ray

    Since public transit is both cheaper and often easier than owning a car, then having congestion-free public transit will just make it all the better. And, if people are that concerned about a once-a-week trip costing too much, we could create a system which allow for 4 (or any number) of free trips per month in their private car before the congestion-pricing kicks in.

  • So you want to ration trips?
    What about people who have to drive to get to work?
    What about moms or dads who have to drive to get their kids to school?
    What about seniors who need to drive to the grocery store?

    Any way you slice it, congestion pricing means making it harder for poor and working people, while the rich and wealthy can literally drive to the bank.

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