Only a Few American Cities Are Growing Transit Ridership — Here’s What They’re Doing Right

The recipe for success: Give transit agencies the resources to make systemwide improvements, don't just focus on one line at a time.

Photo: Angie Schmitt
Photo: Angie Schmitt

American cities should start thinking a lot harder about how they’re going to get people back on the bus.

Transit ridership is falling in 31 out of 35 major U.S. transit markets. There’s no shortage of challenges for transit right now: cheap gas, cheap car loans, and cheap ride-hailing apps all exert a pull, tugging at people to choose a car instead of a bus or a train.

But that’s no excuse for failing to make transit an effective travel option that gains more riders. Despite all the factors working against transit, a few cities have managed to buck the trend and grow ridership, and other cities should learn from their example, according to the experts at TransitCenter.

The big standout is Seattle, where transit ridership increased 3 percent in 2017 compared to the previous year. A few other cities have managed to avoid losing riders:

Graph: TransitCenter via U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Transit Database
Table: U.S. DOT National Transit Database, via TransitCenter

The cities toward the top of this list are doing a few big things right, says TransitCenter’s Zak Accuardi. Here’s how he describes the recipe for growing ridership, even in a challenging environment.

You can do more with more resources

This is not exactly surprising, but the places where more people are choosing to ride transit have made significant investments in transit.

Seattle and King County operate 13 percent more transit service today than in 2014, after bringing light rail expansions online while adding bus service. Those improvements were funded by ballot measures to raise revenue for transit. The effects of a huge 2016 transit ballot initiative have yet to even register.

In Phoenix, the other high performer, voters approved a sales tax hike in 2015 to fund $31 billion in transit upgrades. More than half the revenue is dedicated to bus improvements, and increased service is already paying off with higher ridership.

Improve the whole system, not just one route at a time

Of course, simply spending resources on transit doesn’t mean you’re spending them well. What distinguishes cities that are bucking the trend, says Accuardi, is their emphasis on the whole system, not just improving or adding one route at a time.

Seattle and Phoenix, for instance, both implemented substantial increases in bus service as they planned long-term investments in light rail lines.

Houston, one of the better performers, has not only added light rail routes in recent years, it’s also completely redesigned its bus network, emphasizing the provision of frequent service to more neighborhoods and beefing up weekend service.

Columbus, another city that recently overhauled its bus network, is also outperforming its peer cities in transit ridership, says Accuardi.

While Columbus and Houston are doing relatively well, the ridership changes in 2017 weren’t exactly impressive either. Neither city increased its bus service budget as part of its network redesign. Without devoting resources to increased service, there’s only so much that adjustments to the network can do, said Accuardi.

Although the regional 2017 numbers in the table above don’t make it very clear, another city that’s gaining riders thanks to systemwide improvements is San Francisco — specifically Muni, the agency run by the city.

Muni ridership has increased 3.6 percent since 2012, and Accuardi credits the Muni Forward initiative, “a comprehensive, citywide plan that is driven by the municipality.”

Muni Forward aims to improve bus speed and reliability throughout the system. San Francisco was the first major American city to implement citywide all-door boarding, and the Muni Forward program continues add features like bus lanes and walkability improvements near transit stops.

That kind of approach is “the only thing we can point to really clearly to say, ‘This is how you grow transit ridership,'” said Accuardi.

  • david vartanoff

    Would have been more useful to do SF and Oakland by agency rather than aggregate.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Got to face the facts — bicycles also compete with transit. Particularly local buses for trips of one to three miles, for which bicycles are vastly superior.

  • TakeFive

    The primary problem with buses is that agencies have failed to provide a “competitive product.”

    Seattle is an outlier but yes, great funding allowed it to redesign a dysfunctional system to one that functions magnitudes better. Phoenix added revenue est. at $16.7 billion over 30+ years ( https://www.phoenix.gov/t2050/funding ) and adding to a modest base makes improvement much easier. After Houston’s initial redesign benefits they’ve been largely stagnant but holding their own at least.

  • Michael

    It’s too bad that the only good stats on walking mode share comes out with the census once every 10 years – all of which is extremely dated now. Having visited the most of the bottom half of this list, I can say they are having proportionally huge amounts of residential development in their core walk-to-work neighborhoods. My guess is beyond the fact that oil dropped from 120s to 20s between late 2014 and early-2017 (back into the 60s now..) a lot of folks that a decade ago would have taken transit are now just moving to the walkable greater downtown areas.

    I suspect in the 2020 census the bottom half of this list will generally have the biggest increase in walking mode share.

  • TakeFive

    Solid point; investment into the urban core has been ubiquitous; even in Birmingham AL. So if they’re not walking/biking they’re ride-sharing, at least according to Portland where gentrification seems to have hurt bus ridership.

  • Chicagoan

    What are they doing right?

    Uh…

    They invested in more robust service or re-tooled their bus networks to make them more orderly.

    I’m not certain that Houston, Phoenix, and Seattle are cities that Boston, Chicago, and Washington want to copy, because the former did what they did to be more like the latter.

  • Carolyn Chase

    As long as walkability improvements are considered “features” – we’re pretty much doomed as far as world-class transit is concerned.

  • ReinMart

    Fail!
    No one improves transit to “be more like” some other city. Transit investments are done to improve the livability and transportation options for its residents.

  • Mark

    Michael, your oil numbers are way off. Way off. So you may be good at guessing, but not good at facts. Oil never dropped to the $20 range between 2014 and 2017.

  • Mark

    Can someone explain to me how a 3.6% increase since 2012 is somehow proof that people like riding public transportation in San Francisco? That was 5 years ago boys and girls.

  • Mark

    Also, how much money are you willing to invest in buses to get a less than 1% increase in ridership annually? $10 million? $20 million? How about a billion? Would that work? Since none of you think in terms of dollars and cents and economic benefit, I thought I would ask the question. People are taking rideshare services more now than ever, eating into the public transportation model – particularly buses. Why? We all know why. And please stop with the climate impact of cars vs buses. Just google for articles such as this https://blogs.crikey.com.au/theurbanist/2012/12/04/is-public-transport-as-green-as-you-think/ and you see the articles in support of public tranportation stop arguing about carbon emmission savings and get into equity for all, a completely different argument. And that part of the equation will soon be mute, as these transportation agencies keep taxing everyone for gazillions of dollars, see pitiful ridership increases, or actually, DECLINES, and then finally people figure out that the self driving cars of the future can get you where you want cheaper, and more efficiently, and then where will the SFMTA employees be? Actually, if any of you would care to figure it out, the argument can be made that today, an Uber ride can be more economical than a ride on a bus, due to opportunity costs (TIME), but then, none of that matters to those who work for the SFMTA or the people who have drank the kool-aide who think it doesn’t matter how much is spent on MUNI (more so the buses), just we need to have MUNI. That is a mistake.

  • 1976boy

    That is a suburban argument. Replacing transit with individual cars in cities, no matter how full, frequent, or cheap, is simply not feasible due to space constraints. What do you think would happen if transit riders suddenly switched to riding in cars? Mass gridlock and economic paralysis.

    The cost analysis you claim nobody demands is not being demanded by you as far as subsidies to drivers, road construction and maintenance, and environmental impact. Roads are a much deeper financial sinkhole than any transit system, and cities bear a much larger share of the general fund costs to maintain them than the road users do, despite the false belief that drivers pay the cost of their roads through the gas tax.

  • Michael

    Oil bottomed out in the 20s in February 2016.

  • Mark

    English please. And rational thought please. Subsidies to drivers first. Please explain your logic. First start with the amount of state and federal tax in a gallon of gasoline that is paid for at the pump. Then, look at the sales tax on a gallon of gas that is applied ON TOP of the state and federal taxes. Then tell me drivers do not pay for the streets. Oh wait, the taxes that are collected from gasoline purchases are historically placed into the General Funds municipalities and NOT spent on roadways. Road are a financial sinkhole? That is funny, since without the roads, the cities would not be in existence as they are today. The buildings that house the businesses which created the demand for the housing would not exist, and hence the housing would not be in existence. The bus transit system of buses would not be existence either. People who pay real estate taxes pay a share of road upkeep. People that come in and shop need those roads. People that do anything in a city need roads and should pay for them somehow and they do. What planet are you from? Drivers don’t just benefit from roads, EVERYONE benefits from roads. Drivers pay much much more than anyone else to maintain roads when they buy a gallon of gas. Get back to me with that number, then look up how much of that money is applied to road maintenance like it is supposed to be – hint: a fraction)

  • Mark

    I will give you that, but my data was from this chart, which does not show oil dipping that far.
    http://www.macrotrends.net/1369/crude-oil-price-history-chart. Moving the chart to 5 years does show a slight dip below $30. This must mean that it was under $30 for a very short period of time. But you are correct. The price is back in the $60’s now, and guess what? People are still getting off the bus and into cars.
    https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2018/02/why-la-is-expanding-transit-and-losing-riders/551960/

  • Michael

    A lot of the analysis in recent months has been sounding alarms about modest drops in transit ridership, which is certainly true. It’s attributed to lots of things but IMO fuel price is the tail that wags the dog in the transportation sector. It’s left out of nearly every transit conversation, but if we read analysis of car companies, even drive-through fast food, etc it’s the top variable in period over period change.

  • TakeFive

    Great 1st comment; this one not so much. Gas taxes, state and federal go for roads and bridges but they currently aren’t high enough and only cover about half of the (federal) costs. For me it isn’t important where the money comes from as it’s all fungible anyway.

    Don’t believe most states allow sales taxes on gas unless they’re instead of a per gallon tax which many states do. Municipalities will typically use property or other taxes in addition to a cut of state gas taxes, if any. It varies from state to state though.

  • neroden

    Break it down between buses and rail, and you discover that rail is doing well (everywhere), while buses are doing poorly (everywhere). This is no surprise.

  • Actually bus ridership is growing in Seattle. What matters is investment in service.

  • TakeFive

    Seattle is a Big Outlier and not a good example.

    First, they’re booming with the most cranes in the air. More importantly they cut service to the bone when the Great Recession hit. When the economy improved they started building out their RapidRide routes. They did a great job with these and they do well but the point is they were coming off a low base which made improvements in ridership easy peasy. Seattle was recently deemed the 6th best transit city and deservedly so but it’s the ‘perfect storm’ story of good things.

  • J

    A more accurate way to say this, is “where we’ve invested in high quality reliable transit, transit use is increasing, where we’ve provided crappy transit service for decades, transit use is declining.”

  • Actually bus improvement is cheap. Especially where all you need to do is to dedicate lanage to buses. The biggest reason for bus declines is that they are increasingly slowed down by car congestion.

    You do recognize the negative feedback loop caused by car congestion, don’t you? More cars=slower buses=more cars. The numbers are already in and ride-hailing is contributing to more congestion.

    Faster buses and faster also means more frequent means less cars means less congestion. You get that don’t you? Of course we are talking urban geometries here. If your picture of a bus is a suburban one then, no you might not get it. But all the multi-lane limited access highways that are going to be built in actual cities have been built. No more road lanage in actual cities is in the cards. Least wise not for cars. Even Musk now envisions his tunnels running more people in buses than in cars.

    And don’t forget that at the same time as cars becoming self-driving so are buses. You get that don’t you.

  • What Boston, Chicago and Washington want to copy is not what Seattle and Huston and Phoenix did but what South American 3rd world cities have done for decades: BRT. Or at least what Paris did which is vastly increase dedicated bus lanes. Simple, cheap and effective at speeding buses and driving ridership to buses. Oh and congestion pricing like London doesn’t hurt either.

  • GRY

    Seattle is the perfect storm for an increase in ridership. Gridlock vehicle traffic makes anything else look great. Seattle is one of the toughest cities on the west coast to travel by car; Population density is highly concentrated around the freeways, large and walkable downtown areas, etc. With the addition of Rapid bus lanes there they are starting to make dramatic differences in bus commute time and that will increase ridership.

  • Chicagoan

    Yes they do.

  • Wanderer

    This is true, but similar conditions exist in San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, Washington, and others. If cities and transit agencies in those regions worked together to improve transit, as Seattle and its transit agencies do, there could be considerable improvements in other cities as well.

  • 1976boy

    Drivers cover only 51% of road costs:
    https://usa.streetsblog.org/2013/01/23/drivers-cover-just-51-percent-of-u-s-road-spending/

    Actual costs of roads (PDF):
    https://uspirg.org/sites/pirg/files/reports/Who%20Pays%20for%20Roads%20vUS.pdf

    Gas Taxes only pay for half of road funding:
    https://taxfoundation.org/gasoline-taxes-and-user-fees-pay-only-half-state-local-road-spending/

    Your turn to prove your numbers.

    The assertion that without roads, nothing is possible is a distortion. I live in a city and walk or take a train most of the time, and I pass by gridlocked streets every single day that are made impassable by single occupant drivers.

    Yes, the roads are needed for most economic functions, but that does not include one driver with 3-6 empty seats taking up all the space. I agree that deliveries, buses, and so many other functions need the roads. I also think that single occupant drivers should be limited because they inhibit all those things. Especially because they do not pay their fair share.

  • I agree with what you have said. But I just wanted to point out that the phenomenon of more cars = slower buses = more cars is an example of a positive feedback loop.

    The word “positive” here is not a value judgement; it is merely a description of the process whereby a result of a process becomes further input that amplifies the magnitude of the process.

  • JZ71

    Meanwhile, public transit requires an 80% subsidy to “function”, even in its current, declining state . . . and buses are always 100% full all of the time . . .

  • swtmix

    @Mark

    “First start with the amount of state and federal tax in a gallon of gasoline that is paid for at the pump.”

    Yes, those are State and Federal taxes. They are not local taxes. They do not go to cities and counties. Federal gas taxes are with few exceptions used to pay for Interstate highways, not local streets. State gas taxes are with few exceptions used to pay for State routes. These can sometimes be what are considered “local” roads but on the whole do not pay for local streets.

    “Then, look at the sales tax on a gallon of gas that is applied ON TOP of the state and federal taxes”.

    In many States fuel purchases are exempt from sales taxes.

    And yes, roads are necessary for the delivery of goods, emergency vehicles and other similar tasks but all of these things are made more difficult and expensive by the vast number of single occupant vehicles clogging the roads and streets.

    Even with Federal and State gas taxes and (where allowed) sales taxes on fuel purchases, drivers cover ~51% of road costs. The rest come from sales, income and property taxes.

    A massive subsidy.

  • It’s significant because transit ridership was already higher than in many American cities. It’s easier to score a big percentage if one is starting with a smaller market share. Also, SF’s population has been changing toward demographic groups that old-time freeway planners would have modeled as motorists.

  • Thanks. That makes sense.

  • 1976boy

    False. In cities with robust systems farebox recovery is well above 50%. It’s only in car dependent cities and suburbs where subsidies are that high. And it is probably true that in places like that transit should be discontinued.

  • Evan D

    > “none of you think in terms of dollars and cents”
    > provides no actual numbers in support of argument
    > is shown actual numbers
    >

  • Mark

    What do you need Evan. To see that bus ridership is down all over the US except in Seattle? Been going on for decades. What numbers do you want? Comical. The only data out there shows ridership is on the decline. D E C L I N E.

  • Mark

    You mistakenly assume people will ride the bus if it can get from point A to point B faster. The biggest obstacle time-wise for a bus is stopping to pick up passengers. So, using the SFMTA as an example, but really, all proposed and current BRT installs throughout the country, the first thing to do to speed up a bus is eliminate bus stops. Like they did in the Mission. Like they are going to do on Geary. Stopping to pick up passengers and get going again is the biggest time waster. So, less bus stops, faster buses. Yet, in Los Angeles, where they have also put big money into both busess and rail, and that means speeding bus lines by removing stops, they find that ridership is STILL FALLING. And it has to do with the economy. When lower income people start making some bucks, they get off the bus and use a car. As soon as they can afford their own wheels, they quit riding the bus. In LA!
    https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2018/02/why-la-is-expanding-transit-and-losing-riders/551960/ It is not entirely a function of the fact the bus is slow. It is a function of other things on a bus. You do not invite every person into your home that you see on the street, and why not? Because some of the people are not good people. Yet, on the bus, one must deal with not only good citizens, but complete A-Holes and due to a lack of security, that becomes a problem. BART routinely has clowns walking up and down the aisle asking for money, or break dancing for money, or just walking around unbathed, and stinking up the place. So, when people are not forced to ride a bus (there is no real good alternative to BART to get back and forth between the East Bay and the City) and sometimes rail, they get their own wheels. There are articles all over about economics and riding the bus. It is not just about speeding the buses up. So what if buses are becoming self driving. Has nothing to do with what we are talking about.

  • Mark

    Start factoring in the contribution to the taxes that these drivers are making by getting from Point A to Point B in a more efficient amount of time than taking the bus. Take an economics class, please. And please stop with the environmental impact of cars vs buses stating it is better to ride the bus. What is the environmental impact of a bus vs a car? Do you know? When you factor in the buses running off peak, particularly later night and weekend runs, buses pollute more than individual cars. Google it an educate yourself.

  • Evan D

    Driving is dropping like a rock here: https://www.wavestone.com/app/uploads/2017/04/world-best-driverless-metro-lines-2017.pdf Private vehicles move 35% of our commuters using 87% of our road space, compared to transit moving 48% of people in less than 7% of the space.

    The average cost-per-boarding across my entire transit agency is $4.48, of which I pay $2.75, but the peak-hour commuter buses I ride are going to be less than that average since they are always full. Based on the overall cost per vehicle hour, it’s probably closer to $2.50/person on a full bus.

    If I were to drive, my 6-mile commute would cost around $10 each way, accounting for maintenance, insurance, depreciation, gas, and parking. So there’s your dollars and cents: 4× the cost for me to drive, not counting the congestion I would add to the road as a driver.

    In light of all this, the question is not whether investing in public transit is worth it; is investing in private car infrastructure worth it?

  • Mark

    You are leaving opportunity cost out of the equation, and I see nothing here about using Uber or Lyft. Why is that? Opportunity costs are real costs, and they have to do with total time invested in a commute on public transportation. Other than a straight line trip downtown or any other simple bus trip example, throw in trips where you need to change lines a few times. And your cost estimates are antiquated. If I take Uber, I am not paying for parking. No need to cherry pick commute time vs off peak time rides. Average is average, and it is not honest to use only peak time bus costs. It is proven in Los Angeles, and I would say LA is a good lab for many commuters in many cities, though not necessarily San Francisco, that they are losing riders along all forms of public transportation, as people stop taking public transportation and buy themselves a car. Millions of dollars have been invested in Los Angeles’s public transportation system and they are losing riders. Like almost every other public transit agency in America.

    Number one reason people do not like riding public transportation in America? Safety. Forcing people to ride with various characters, with unknown personalities. Ride Chariot, and you are better off because riders are known entities as far as personal identification, so they mind their p’s and Q’s. Until public transportation in the US is safer, people will continue to avoid it like the plague once they have money in their pocket. Of course, people will take BART across the Bay, but they are not going to take a MUNI bus if they can afford an Uber ride. That is a FACT.

    Also, how is your commute these days? How long are you delayed from getting on your bus? How many times are you late for work?

  • standardwilly

    There’s no doubt that for very specific cases, public transit moves more people in less space. That’s one of the primary motivations behind its idealistic goals. Unfortunately, as with so many aspirational attempts at social engineering, people still want what they want. And as LA’s recent study on its fast declining metro ridership shows, even the narrow demographic of people who are riding public transport really want their own car and when they get the resources, that’s exactly what they buy. Or they take Uber. Or they work at home in our changing gig economy.

    The point is that governments do an awful job of predicting societal developments and people’s behaviors. That’s why we have private markets; to innovate new ideas that cater to people’s needs without demanding that society as a whole shoulders the financial risks. But bureaucrats want to keep their jobs, so they keep painting rosy pictures of all the great work they’re doing and tell us why they need to raise our taxes to achieve that huge payoff that’s just around the corner. In the meantime, the private sector keeps innovating and actually solving people’s problems rather than taking their money and delivering failed promises. That’s what angers those of us who see the clear stats describing the ever-widening black hole of public transit.

  • standardwilly

    The reason there are more and more cars is because people prefer cars to buses (or any public transit). So to blame slower buses on cars is to blame people for following their own preferences, the essence of a free society. Unless societies plan to coerce people into compliance, there’s little they can do about this. Here in LA, for example, these public transit tax initiatives are passed by voters who themselves don’t use public transit. But the guilt-driven urge to virtue-signal is powerful and so we exorcise that guilt through aspirational contributions, then grab our preferred mode of transportation which is usually a car.

    So be it. The guilt-assuaging tax measures will continue to pass, the baffled bureaucracies will continue to expand, fares will continue to rise and public transit ridership will continue to fall… until it simply becomes unsustainable I imagine. Welcome to the world of supply without demand.

  • standardwilly

    “And it is probably true that in places like that transit should be discontinued.”

    Wow. An honest statement. Now if we could only convince LA transit authority to close up shop, we could significantly lower our taxes and return to some sane public policy.

  • 1976boy

    Los Angeles transit ridership is the third largest in the US. If you were to eliminate it you’d cripple the economy and force everyone into cars that would gridlock the city. Good luck with that.

  • standardwilly

    It’s hard to see how that’s not already a foregone conclusion in slow motion. That’s the nature of vicious spirals. Continued fare increases will only go so far and I presume that at some point LA residents will stop voting for tax increases to fund a failing system. Ridership declines will likely accelerate. Where does that leave us? Bankruptcy?

  • standardwilly

    And now electric scooters and Wave cars (here in LA). Private sector innovations that dinosaur governments would never think of. Instead, taxpayers are bilked to fund unpopular legacy programs that aren’t financially sustainable.

  • 1976boy

    None of the above. Your analysis of the financial impact of transit on the bottom line of the city is flawed. Roads and driving are subsidized at a far higher per capita amount at every level of government and are nowhere near sustainable, yet through continued economic growth we manage to keep it all going.

    The taxes needed to expand the transit system are already in place. That’s not going to change nor does it need to be increased. Nor is the system failing. The declines in ridership in recent years are down from all time highs from a few years earlier. Since 2001 the numbers are still way up. The losses are being led by declines in bus riders and that’s a function partly of gridlock caused by cars slowing them down, and partly by the target demographic of the bus system being priced out of the city by a housing shortage.

    LA Metro knows all of this and are working on a redesign of the entire bus network to better reflect the changing demographics and newer travel patterns. Eliminating underperforming routes is key. Those routes were usually created as a public service for the purpose of last resort mobility for populations that had no other options. The changes being formulated will shift that strategy away from overall access and more towards generalized mobility and speed of travel.

    I get it, you hate the idea of transit. That’s fine, keep driving your car and sitting in traffic, that will never change. Nor will your right to do so be challenged. But keep in mind that the subsidies you enjoy to do so are higher than those funding transit.

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