Rising Rents Lead to Falling Bus Ridership in Portland

In Portland, there's a lot of overlap between areas where bus ridership is falling and home values are increasing. Map: TriMet/TransitCenter
In Portland, there's a lot of overlap between areas where bus ridership is falling and home values are increasing. Map: TriMet/TransitCenter

Bus ridership is declining in almost every U.S. city. Some reasons are fairly obvious: Lower gas prices combined with higher transit fares and service cuts make transit less appealing. But observers aren’t satisfied by those explanations alone.

Transit maven Jarrett Walker put out a call for academics to look into it. Laura Bliss at CityLab interviewed a barrage of experts searching for clues.

In Portland, one factor seems to be rising housing costs, with higher-income residents displacing lower-income residents in neighborhoods that traditionally have had robust transit ridership, according to an analysis by Tom Mills and Madeline Steele at Tri-Met, the regional transit agency.

In surveys, many people told Tri-Met that they ride transit less because of a change of home or work address. This led Mills and Steele to take a closer look at the interplay of ridership changes and the housing market. Writing at TransitCenter, they describe the findings:

We found substantial overlap between areas where real market home value increased and transit ridership decreased the most. These areas are concentrated in the same traditionally low-income, inner eastside neighborhoods that have experienced significant economic displacement. Correspondingly, transit ridership grew in areas that saw minimal increases in real market home values. These areas tended to be in the first ring suburbs where many low to moderate-income earners relocated after leaving the inner city.

These economic and demographic dynamics put our most loyal transit riders farther away from our best transit service, and strengthen the market for travel modes that are favored by high-income earning residents who may only use transit to commute. This may result in more walking and biking, but it also likely means more high-income people in and near our congested core are driving or using Uber or Lyft, at least during off-peak hours. At the same time, low-income earners are increasingly concentrated in suburban developments with a dispersed street network, low population densities, single-use land development and a lack of pedestrian infrastructure, all factors that discourage bus ridership.

Having a stronger menu of transportation options is good for TriMet riders and for the region, but we face a challenge as demand for transit shrinks in the most transit-supportive areas with the best transit service levels and demand grows in areas with lower-quality service. We would love to know if this phenomenon is occurring in other metro areas. This remains one of many factors driving transit ridership change, but it is also among the clearest and most challenging to navigate.

Portland’s experience is not unique. In Atlanta, for instance, the suburbanization of poverty means more lower-income residents who lack cars have to navigate dangerous streets and poor transit service.

For transit agencies, any effective response requires coordination with the cities they serve. Mills and Steele say Tri-Met is working to win back riders by expanding suburban service, setting up a discount fare program for low-income riders, and teaming up with local governments throughout the region to prioritize bus service and pedestrian safety.

14 thoughts on Rising Rents Lead to Falling Bus Ridership in Portland

  1. That’s been going on in the Denver area for a long time, just wasn’t obvious till about 2013 when the Fastracks projects began coming on line and bus routes were being restructured. The Portland article did a good job of defining it more formally. We in Denver also began shifting service to deal with the changes, but there are a lot of factors to deal with. From the economic side, the simple geometry of distances turns into increased operating costs and less opportunity for customers to have time for three-legged trips or second round-trips. And there are social consequences in the loss of mobility.

    One problem for the transit industry as a whole is the easy use of passenger boardings or revenue passengers as a measure of presumed productivity. While working as a service planner I could see that average trip lengths were increasing over time, but instead of getting credit for the system doing more work, the use of boardings gives the impression that efficiency is declining.

  2. Elliot Njus covers the topic in Oregon Live: http://www.oregonlive.com/commuting/index.ssf/2017/09/trimet_report_rising_housing_c.html

    TriMet ridership is down overall despite significant population growth and a major light-rail expansion, and an analysis suggests that rising housing costs are partly to blame.

    and adds this interesting tidbit:

    Ridership, however, grew in farther flung areas – east of Interstate 205 and west of Beaverton, where housing prices are relatively low

  3. Richard Lee Abrams adds his own angle to the topic in CityWatch in reference to Los Angeles. http://www.citywatchla.com/index.php/los-angeles-for-rss/14132-mass-transit-experience-in-la-if-you-build-it-they-won-t-come

    Density Causes Traffic Congestion
    Building more high rises near subways or other fixed-rail lines will increase traffic congestion. People who can afford to live in these fancy high rises do not use mass transit. Additional apartment density means more traffic congestion. Already, new subways and high-rise construction have given Los Angeles the worse traffic congestion in the entire world.

  4. New York and San Francisco have always been like that. Unlike most US cities where the inner city is low rent and the affluent folks live in the suburbs, in NY and SF the rich live close in and the poor live further out.

    Result? The rich can walk, bike or transit to work, whilst the poor need a car. Which leaves liberal advocates with a dilemma – supporting transit and cycling makes you look elitist.

  5. Only if you view mass transit as something of last resort, which it is not in New York (or most places where they consider adding the transit).

  6. Is “transit is failing to connect workers to where the jobs are” or are employers failing to consider transit when choosing their locations?! If they keep moving the finish line, how can you expect to win?

  7. Don’t be looking too much for academics to do this research. They can only do so much on their base pay without research assistants. The trend is to fund technology development, not systems analysis of interest to the public sector. This is not only true in the US but in the European Union’s major research programs that stress commercial potential. Speaking of needed research, whether academics who teach transit related subjects are being replaced when they retire is another good question.

  8. I am a bit skeptical about this because Seattle, which in many ways is a pretty similar city., has experienced increased ridership.

  9. That’s more of a development and zoning issue. Employers lease space where it is available according to their needs. A larger employer like Nike or Intel who employ 1,000’s will typically develop their own facilities. Their own needs and priorities will determine site.

    With robust growth the variety and number of new or growing employers is too numerous to give a simple answer. Best way to know is to ask one who works as a site finder or leasing agent what employers are looking for but it will vary a lot.

  10. My understanding is that the displacement in Seattle usually comes along with increased density, while in Portland recently it’s just been displacement within the same existing structures. Even if rich people use transit less than poor people, if there’s twice as many of them, then transit ridership might increase.

  11. So while the population has increased 15%, transit ridership has remained flat or declined (based on your analysis). The difference between flat/declining public transit and increasing population has increased the area’s traffic congestion (ironically that was supposed to be reduced with this massive public transit investment).

    Here is an economic ‘thought’ experiment for your consideration.

    Take two things (eg apartments) initially priced the same. All things being equal (same footage, etc), apartment A has just one extra amenity included in it’s price (eg free cable or free gym membership). Which one will be more appealing? The one with the ‘extra’ amenity. As demand increases for apartment A, the price will be driven up by those who value that ‘extra’ and can afford it (perhaps not to the full price / value of the ‘extra amenity’ … but it will go up).

    So if the ‘extra amenity’ is an LRT station in close proximity, some will see it as an extra amenity and drive up the price. So while the ‘Transportation’ portion of H+T costs may decline (as measured by variable car expenses), the ‘Housing’ portion (a fixed cost) of H+T costs will increase (as well as the total cost of H+T). Thereby reducing affordability of the community.

    If you don’t value or cannot afford the increased H, you will move out where your H is less (but your T will increase as you move further away from your job / central core). Thereby reducing housing affordability, increasing urban sprawl, increased traffic congestion, and increase need for more public transit investment.

    Hence accelerated gentrification and developers get larger portion of H+T.

    So without rent control, housing pricing will increase. You will then go to the taxpayers with yet another tax increase / bond for additional transit ‘investment’, with the same lackluster results. Wash / Rinse / Repeat.

    First lesson when you find yourself in a hole … stop digging!

    Please stop wasting taxpayer’s money! Invest in more affordable BRT (at one tenth the cost per mile) that can be converted in the future into HOV lanes for on-demand, autonomous electric vehicles (including electric autonomous buses).

  12. I know when our rent went up by several hundred over the last couple years in a low income apartment, we had no money for anything fun anymore. So we don’t go hang out in Portland like we used to. Just stay home. Doesn’t matter if all we did was picnic and drink tea. Just too much. Now we stay home and do nothing. Wow. Totally benefitting to the economy. Rent should not be this high…

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