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.

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