How Can Transit Agencies Win Back Their Riders?

Photo: TransitCenter
Photo: TransitCenter

Transit ridership has been declining nationwide, but transit agencies can win them back with more frequent service and a focus on safety, reliability and cleanliness, a new report argues.

TransitCenter surveyed more than 1,700 transit riders in eight cities to learn what’s luring riders away from transit. The reasons for (and the amount of) the decline vary by region, but some central themes emerge:

Cheap cars

The key thing that predicted when a transit rider would stop using transit, or use it less, was buying a car. Lax auto lending standards have made car ownership — even for lower-income people — much more accessible in the last few years and that seems to be playing a key role in the decline of transit ridership.

And the increase in car ownership is staggering: In the 2016 version of the survey only 43 percent of respondents said they have sole ownership of a car. That number is now 54 percent.

About a quarter of the decline in transit ridership was people just walking away from transit entirely. But most of the decline could be explained by less frequent use. Those who had increased their access to a car since 2016 rode transit on average six fewer days a month.

Graph: TransitCenter
Graph: TransitCenter


Another big factor seemed to be gentrification. Where you live — and the level of transit service provided there — is a key determinant of who will ride transit.

Unfortunately, survey  respondents with incomes below $75,000 were twice as likely as higher-income respondents to say “wanting cheaper housing” was their reason for moving.

“The lowest-income respondents endured the greatest loss in transit quality after moving,” authors Steven Higashide and Mary Buchanan wrote. “Their lesser transit access at their new homes is similar to transit in Baltimore, Maryland, compared to Washington, DC, or that in Astoria, Queens, compared to Midtown Manhattan: a marked decrease in quality arising from lower frequency, fewer routes, and less within reach of transit.”

Chicago, Pittsburgh, Seattle, and Los Angeles showed the greatest decline in transit access for lower-income movers.

Graph: TransitCenter
Graph: TransitCenter

Uber and Lyft

The presence of Uber and Lyft also seemed to have an impact — although less than private car ownership.

Some survey respondents reported using it as a complement to transit — for example for a last-mile connection or for one leg of a transit journey.

Transit riders were much more likely to use Uber and Lyft than those who did not use transit overall.

Transit riders who started using Uber and Lyft reduced their transit ridership by about 6 percent, the survey found. In addition, Uber and Lyft seemed to be a factor for some people in deciding to purchase cars. Of the survey respondents who said they bought a car between 2016 and 2018, 7 percent said they did so to drive a car for either Uber 0r Lyft.

For transit ridership that substituted Uber and Lyft for the bus or train, “slow speeds, limited hours of service, unreliability, and too few stops or stations” were the main reasons given.

How to improve

The best antidote to declining ridership is better service.

Los Angeles, Denver and New Orleans had greater ridership declines over the study period than Seattle, which  has been investing in improving service frequency on buses.

Among the factors cited as most important to riders were service frequency, crowding reliability but also cleanliness and safety. Safety was especially important to women.

Interestingly, the price of ridership — fares — was a relatively low concern compared to the more nuts-and-bolts aspects of service quality. Even low income riders rated frequency, crowding, safety and reliability as more important than fare price.

“The notion of making transit ‘free’ — though politically appealing — would provide less utility to the public than if the equivalence in foregone revenue were spent improving service and continuing to charge a fare,” the authors wrote.

28 thoughts on How Can Transit Agencies Win Back Their Riders?

  1. Let’s not forget the fact that billions of dollars continue to be poured into road (often expansion) projects that directly compete with or even undermine transit. That alone is probably the single biggest reason why people continue to desert transit: it’s easier to drive, particularly outside of all but the biggest of cities. That becomes even more true for those who don’t actually live in the CBD but instead just travel between suburbs. For them, transit is next to impossible to use because it requires lengthy transfers to go even a handful of miles. Two hours on the bus simply can’t compete with 10 minutes by car.

  2. But it’s worth a mention if we invested in bicycle infrastructure in the suburbs there might be a third alternative of perhaps 20 minutes by bike. Even in the suburbs, average car travel speeds aren’t that high. I’ve heard the number 30 mph a lot of times. Any regular commuter cyclist can average 15 mph on suburban roads without many traffic lights.

  3. New electric car design options allows transit agencies to directly compete with and improve current car commuting.

    Transit agencies, departments of transportation, and city parking agencies could create bike-share/bike lane-like options for 100% electric highway capable narrow cars with narrow car and narrow lane and parking space access. Given ability to travel individually or with a partner in a private thin electric car would allow the commuters to improve side-seated commute times by more than 40%.

    Yes; transit options would be faster and more convenient for current driving commuters. It’s hiding in plain sight.

  4. Of course, the FTA still rates projects based on how many vehicles they remove, making new transit infrastructure designed as an alternative to driving. Such parallel infrastucture is at the whim direct comparison, usually by access or cost.

    We could instead fund projects based on how many people they will move, which justify high service levels in dense areas, preventing car ownership in the first place.

  5. how about getting rid of the people who poop on the trains here in los angeles. its too sketchy to ride on

  6. I know personally I would ride the bus more if
    it was faster (than my bike, really),
    was more consistent with transfers to BART,
    had 30 minute service at night instead of hourly,
    had a stop in front of work instead of 3/4 of a mile away (and then 3 stops within 1000ft),
    and if transfers downtown were faster (getting into the newly redesigned transfer center means a lot of loops, and a lot of loops means I can bike faster and more directly).

  7. However I would like to point out it would be a big improvement just to keep new riders. Locally I know there’s a 20% turnover per year. Imagine if we kept them coming back (for those we can, housing prices not withstanding)

  8. I’ve found that there’s little advantage to taking the bus over biking except that it’s less tiring and drier when it’s rainy. Otherwise, biking is faster and more convenient.

  9. In urban environments, we really need to tackle the curb. This is not hard to do and the curb can even flex to different neighborhood’s needs. Once we do that and prioritize loading zones, pick-up/drop-off zones for taxis/Lyfts/Via, bike share, car share, and (gasp) move our sidewalk trash to the curb, transit will start humming along and our sidewalks will be clear for walkers. Until we can touch the third rail, transit suffers.

  10. Not sure if the article headline is a really dumb question or merely rhetorical…
    Anyway, speaking as a transit rider AND car owner, here’s my answer…provide safe, reliable and affordable transit to encourage me to not drive. There. Simple answer. If it takes me 90 minutes on several buses or 20 minutes driving to reach my destination I’m going to drive. If I have to wait for a Muni train for 45 minutes then I’m going to take Uber or Lyft.
    Look at all the success stories outside of the U.S. as guidance. If you don’t provide a viable solution then you’re not going to win over new riders or keep existing riders.

  11. If we did that AND eliminated the NIMBYs we would have rail under Geary in SF to move nearly 100,000 folks. But, we don’t. And we never will.

  12. Indeed. Also keep in mind that many of the post-war transit systems built in the U.S. are traditional hub and spoke systems to shuttle in riders from the suburbs to job centers in the center of town. Commuting patterns have shifted, but transit has remained inflexible in response. Another issue comes from developers…tract home developments in neat/tidy subdivisions and strip malls merely encourage car ownership. Even in SF, we battle low-rise development adjacent to transit or in downtown areas (Central SOMA plan) and high-rise towers next to train stations with egregious amounts of parking. You reap what you sow.

  13. Someone actually paid money for this survey? Could the results not be more obvious? If you want more people to use a service, make that service better than the alternatives. Duh. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that out. How about spending less time on wasteful surveys like this and more time actually improving transit services?

  14. Obvious to some, but can’t tell you how many pols and policy leaders say the problem with buses is bad marketing. ‘If only the riding the bus could be seen as “sexy”!” No discussion or analysis of causes of ridership decline. Every study helps.

  15. Tell me about it. Governor Cuomo (in the moments when wants to admit that he controls the MTA) keeps touting how the new buses have Wifi! And USB ports!. Meanwhile, transit advocates and regular commuters roll their eyes and scream in frustration that what we need is reliable, regular service, not “sexy” bells and whistles.

  16. There has been public transportation in the US for well over 100 years. It used to work really well, back before autos. Since autos arrived, most people who are given a choice choose cars. Is it because they’re bad people? It is because of those evil subprime lenders? Is it because the buses aren’t clean?

    Of course not. It was a rhetorical question. I read all this hoodoo nonsense about GM destroying the streetcar. It’s not that. It’s that the streetcar was great until something better came along. Like it or not, cars are better to most people.

    I get the feeling that if Ms. Schmitt and people like here were in charge, they would deny people choice and force them onto buses and trains (at the end of a bayonet, if necessary). That builds tremendous resentment and always fails in the end. I can’t abide that. I say this as someone who prefers transit, cycling or walking to driving. Advocates for transit need to rethink the whole value proposition. It’s much bigger than they seem to think it is. This incremental nonsense is doomed to fail. Convince my neighbors that transit is better than driving. That’s how you win.

  17. Yes, which is in itself an absurd situation that needs to be remedied. Bus-only lanes, transit priority signals, stop thinning, etc. all need to be undertaken on a massive scale.

  18. “The notion of making transit ‘free’ — though politically appealing — would provide less utility to the public than if the equivalence in foregone revenue were spent improving service and continuing to charge a fare,”

    I’m not sure about that… In the USA, fares cover about 30% of the total cost of taking a transit bus, but the process of fare payment slows down operations.

    We know the cost structure of bus systems is labor intensive – about 80% payroll cost/20% capital costs – so the math is pretty straight forward: if we lose 30% of bus system funding by switching to no fare box, but can increase the speed service by 37.5% by getting rid of the fare box, we’d have the EXACTLY same number for daily vehicle miles. There really would be a change in service.

    In fact, if fare payment delays are more than 37.5%, we’d get more daily miles out of 70% of the buses sans fare box, than 100% of the buses with fare boxes. IMO, anywhere that fare payment takes ~37.5% or more of operating time, we should eliminate the fare box immediately. The delays are most costly than the revenue gains. Anywhere that the delays are 20-37.5%, it’s borderline – I’m guessing the benefits to riders of free transit plus of efficiency gains of getting rid of the fare box exceeds the marginal loss in daily service. Less than 20% time delays from fare payment, it probably make sense to keep the fares in place.

    The way this would play out is commuter buses & low ridership buses probably keep their fare structure, high ridership local buses probably become free. So called “Novelty” transit probably becomes free (like the antique streetcars in SF or NO, for example). Subways & proof of payment keep their fares.

  19. In the Puget Sound area, the ORCA card system makes fare payment pretty quick – for those who use it. But the occasional rider who is meticulously dropping coins into the fare box, and the problems of exact change needed… yeah, it slows things down.

  20. While that’s a fair assessment of many mass transit proponents, I’m not sure it’s fair here. She did write “The best antidote to declining ridership is better service.”

    I think the article is basically an admission that private cars are very attractive and if transit wants to retain ridership, it needs to be better than it has been. In fact, read between the lines and it’s an admission public transit allowed itself to become transportation for people with no other options, and it doesn’t have to be that.

  21. The key financial equations of transit are actually fairly straight forward. There’s a certain number of daily miles across a system that provides the Level of Service that we want. Capital costs per mile is pretty static. I.e. there’s not a big difference between driving 10 buses for 10 miles each, or 1 bus for 100 miles over the long term.

    So keys costs really come down to labor… and labor is just a function of speed. If we’re averaging X MPH & can take that to 2X, we can cut labor by 50% while providing the same average LOS.

    Pretty much every city bus I’ve ever take could be speed up at least 2X so there’s a lot “waste.” The waste is veering to the curb, antiquated fair payment systems, overcrowding. Anything that slows down a bus adds substantial costs.

  22. To convince them, you need to have good service. That requires funding, which most localities are unwilling to dedicate. Ohio, for example, just passed a new transportation bill which gives transit 1% of the funding given to the DOT. That funding is necessary to increase routes, frequency and improve service all around.

    We also need to change the convenience equation. Currently, since cars have the vast majority of funding and infrastructure, the convenience they provide is unmatched. Transit needs to be frequent and available to even come close to being competitive in convenience.

    For example, it takes me an hour to take the bus but 20 minutes to drive and 30 minutes to bike. How is the bus convenient for me? We need to give transit a higher priority in places. Separated and dedicated bus lanes could shave a good portion of that time off, along with better/quicker payment options.

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