Transit Ridership Slumping? Not in Canada.

Transit ridership change from 2016-2017 in service areas with more than a  million residents. Chart via Human Transit
Transit ridership change from 2016-2017 in service areas with more than a million residents. Chart via Human Transit

Transit ridership is dropping in cities across the U.S. In 2017, only a small handful of major American cities bucked the trend and posted increases in transit usage.

Falling gas prices, loose auto lending standards, and the rise of ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft are all plausible factors. But that’s no excuse for transit service that can’t retain riders. For proof, look no further than Canada.

Up north, the transit ridership trend is very different, writes Christopher Yuen at Human Transit, and the reason isn’t all that mysterious. Canadian cities run better, more abundant transit service than American cities, he notes, and that makes them less susceptible to declines in ridership:

Canadian ridership among metro areas with populations beyond one million is up about 1.3% while regions of the same size in the US saw an overall ridership decrease of about 2.5% in 2017 despite the broad similarity of the countries and their urban forms. Why? Canadian cities just have more service per capita than the most comparable US cities. This results in transit networks that remain more broadly useful in the face of competition from other modes. Note, too, that Canadian transit isn’t cuter, sexier, or more “demand responsive” than transit in the US. There is simply more of it, so more people ride, so transit is more deeply imbedded in the culture and politics.

In Canada’s largest city, Toronto, transit ridership barely budged last year. In Montreal, ridership increased more than 2 percent. The biggest increase was in Vancouver, which is exceptional for a few reasons, writes Yuen:

Vancouver’s transit ridership has historically been higher than many comparable regions as a result of decades of transit-friendly land-use and transportation policies, including an early regional goal to foster density only around the frequent network. (The Winter Olympics also had a remarkable impact: ridership exploded in 2010, the year of the Olympic games, but then didn’t fall back after the games were over; apparently, many people’s temporary lifestyle changes became permanent.) By North American standards, Vancouver is remarkable in the degree to which development is massed around transit stations.

But Translink attributes its 2017 ridership growth to continued increases in service, high fuel prices, and economic growth. The 11km (7mi) Millennium-line Evergreen Extension just opened prior to 2017, directly adding over 24,000 boardings a day. Fuel prices in Vancouver have also reached an all-time high, at $1.5 CAD / litre (4.4 USD/ gal), an anomaly in North America, although still lower than in Asia and Europe. Economic growth has also been consistent, with the region adding 75000 jobs in years 2016 and 17. Notably, ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft are not available in Vancouver due to provincial legislation.

The fact that Vancouver transit has posted such strong gains in the absence of Uber and Lyft undercuts those companies’ claims about reducing car usage in major cities. But it also shows that the formula for rising ridership isn’t that complicated: Providing ample service while clustering development around good transit will yield results.

More recommended reading today: Price Tags looks at fateful policy decisions in Seattle that prevented it from urbanizing like Vancouver has. And Transportation for America has the latest on the Trump administration’s changes to TIGER, which is now known as the BUILD program.

  • Elizabeth F

    Don’t forget that e-bikes are likely to decimate transit ridership as they gain increasing popularity. And is that so bad? E-bikes are a LOT cheaper than transit with a MUCH lower carbon footprint, while being faster and more convenient than most transit. All we have to do is build out the bike infrastructure.

  • TakeFive

    Only Seattle is roughly comparable to Vancouver. Maybe Canada isn’t so millennial, smartphone driven by wanting a more competitive product than current bus systems that are awful, generally.

  • Newtonmarunner

    You know I respect you, Elizabeth. The limitations of e-bicycles is while they are cheaper and more environmentally friendly than public transit, bikes don’t have the capacity that buses and rail have, nor are they as disability accessible or do as well in bad weather as buses and subways. So while we should definitely have more protected bike lanes, we still shouldn’t neglect buses and subways.

  • LazyReader

    Canadian ridership among metro areas with populations beyond one million is up about 1.3% Canada only has three cities with more than 1 million people, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal (with a combined daily ridership of 2.6 million; a 1.3% growth means about 33,000) The US has ten. Canada has 11 cities with more than half a million people, the US has 44. Canada only has 53 cities with 100,000 or more people in it, The US has over 300. It’s apples to oranges. Saying that transit is growing in Canada is saying a mole is getting bigger. The only reason transit is up in Canada is gas is more expensive, it’s average is $2.80 in the US, Canada gas is $4.60, I have friends in Michigan, who remark of Canadian US-Canada commuters who only fill up on the US side even with bridge tolls; they bring the jugs. Granted Canada’s transit systems are in a better shape than ours, that’ll change sooner or later. Rail infrastructure on average has a 30 year life expectancy. Once the track hit’s 30 years old you either have to replace it or painstakingly refurbish it. Another reason Canada is transit friendly is because it’s growth unfriendly because of growth management laws. Vancouver has been practicing growth-management planning at least since 1966; surprise they have some of the least affordable housing in the nation.

  • iSkyscraper

    Don’t forget that transit in Canada is much more expensive than it is in the US due to lower subsidies, so it is not a matter of fares. It just works better.

  • iSkyscraper

    You’re being especially lazy today. Canadian suburbs are investing in transit in ways you don’t typically see in, say, your friends’ towns in Michigan:

    This is what the area north of Toronto (its Westchester, if you will) has built:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viva_Rapid_Transit

    This is what the area west of Toronto (its Long Island, if you will) has built:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mississauga_Transitway

    Meanwhile smaller cities like Waterloo and Hamilton are building LRT:
    https://www.hamilton.ca/city-initiatives/priority-projects/light-rail-transit-lrt
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ion_rapid_transit

    It’s not about silly rideshare theories — they still rely on roads to work, and there are not enough of them to handle 1 and 2 person cars. You have to build transit and operate it frequently and then people will take it.

  • RT

    I was in Victoria,BC last summer and they didn’t even have Uber in a city you would expect it to be in. The Bus was the only option. Don’t know Canadian regulations on Uber, but I bet not having Uber available is part of why their transit hasn’t seen big drop offs in ridership.

  • rootvg

    Angie, do you really believe elections are won or lost based on transit ridership?

    This isn’t Canada. This will never be Canada.

  • rootvg

    There’s an article this month in Fortune talking about a Come to Jesus Moment for Congress in a future administration that will likely include a goods and services tax (a VAT) to finance our welfare state. Americans have no idea how impactful it would be to have that much money taken out of the economy on a yearly basis and if they thought for one minute that your social engineering would put them on a path to it, they would come after you with brooms and pitchforks!

    You need to get a real job, Angie. This isn’t Europe. This isn’t Canada.

  • theizaster

    It isn’t but America’s transit ridership decline can be reversed and move towards increased use if we use Canada as a model.

  • theizaster

    Troll

  • mnbob

    We in the United States have to get used to the fact that our country stopped being a national leader in so many factors; transit being a major one.

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