U.S. transit systems are shedding riders. Are they under threat?

» Transit agencies are losing ridership across the country. Just how bad is this problem?

Between 1996 and 2014, overall transit ridership in the U.S. grew by about 35 percent, roughly twice as quickly as the nation’s population as a whole. That increase was driven, to a large degree, by very significant growth in boardings on New York City’s Subway, which in 2017 accounted for more than a quarter of all transit trips in the country. The rest of the country kept up, seeing relatively steady increases, particularly in places where new light rail systems opened.

Yet over the past few years, the trend reversed itself. Overall ridership declined by about six percent, or almost 600 million rides annually, between 2014 and 2017. In the context of the breakdown in service on New York’s Subway, the crises of confidence in Washington’s Metro, the arrival of ride-hailing services, and automated vehicle testing, the future of American transit now feels unsteady.

To conservatives like economist Tyler Cowen, the recent trends are simply a reflection of the fact that “mass transit is largely a 20th century technology, it is being slowly abandoned, and in the United States at least its future is dim.”

Should we actually be worried about transit’s recent ridership declines—are we facing an emergency? And to what degree are they reflective of some sort of long-term transition?

These are subjects that have been (and continue to be) meticulously analyzed and researched by scholars of all sorts, so I’m hardly the first and won’t be the last to weigh in. But in the face of what appears to me as either growing hysteria (about the chances for transit’s survival), or technological/public choice triumphalism (about the fact that Americans are moving out of transit because of its deficiencies and thus that it can be abandoned in favor of new options), I’d like to take a step back to calm the waters, so to speak.

What I argue here is that what we’re seeing now is unquestionably a decline in transit ridership—almost universal among large cities. Yet there are reasons to believe it isn’t a permanent shift, given that its causes don’t appear to be primarily related to technological change. Transit’s recent woes are thus hardly insurmountable. But the future of American transit systems—their ability to support today’s riders as well as to attract new ones—is dependent on a rejection of fears of decline and a political willingness to invest in change.

How much is transit ridership falling?

Ridership on the nation’s transit systems declined steadily between its peak in 2014 and 2017, according to national-level data provided by the American Public Transportation Association, and those trends appear to be continuing into 2018, according to month-by-month statistics reported by the Federal Transit Administration.

This is the longest continuous period of declines in national public transportation use since at least 1990. Though transit ridership overall remains significantly higher than it was in the 1990s, on a per-capita basis, ridership is now reaching the depths of the mid-1990s. This means that the nation’s transit systems not only have been unable to maintain their recent levels of use, but also that they are systematically losing mode share. In other words, people are switching to other options to get around.

Interactive version of the above chart on Transport Databook.

This is undoubtedly a depressing trend for the nation’s transit operators. But to magnify the less than 10 percent decline over the past few years into a new trend is, I think, going too far.

That’s because transit’s role in American society has been declining for decades. What we see as a recent loss is, when zooming out, more accurately the continuation of a century of efforts by public and private forces in the U.S. to diminish the role of public transportation and replace it with, primarily, private car use. A country whose cities were once largely oriented toward transit has changed direction.

As the following graph shows, transit hasn’t accounted for more than 10 percent of overall commutes since before 1970—and the share of people driving alone to work has stayed relatively steady at around 75 percent since 1990.

Interactive version of the above chart on Transport Databook.

In other words, the significant decline over the past few years is reinforcing what has been happening for ages, probably not reflecting the availability of new transportation modes likes ride-hailing or a sudden change of interest of the public away from transit.

It’s worth, though, considering how these changes have occurred at the urban scale, within specific cities, since national-level trends only tell us so much. Given the fact that the U.S. has for decades been hostile to investment in transit and has perpetuated automobile-based travel options and related land uses, it would be surprising to see anything else for the country as a whole. That’s not as true within specific cities, where the story is more nuanced.

Among major urban regions, as shown in the following graph, most have seen an overall transit ridership decline since 2015. There are exceptions—notably Houston and Seattle—but the trends suggest a concerning decline.

Nevertheless, it is worth noting that the most recent ridership figures (March 2018) show higher ridership today than in 2002 in half of the urban regions profiled below. The Minneapolis, New York, and Seattle regions all have significantly higher ridership now than they did then. Moreover, while the recent declines are large, so were those in these cities between 2009 and 2011.

Interactive version of the above chart on Transport Databook.

We also must examine changes among different transit modes. Between 2016 and 2017, all major transit modes—bus, light rail, commuter rail, and heavy rail—lost ridership. But these trends are recent; the past thirty years have been a story of growth in rail use and declines in bus ridership. Total U.S. transit ridership is about 10 percent higher now than it was in 1990, with commuter rail, heavy rail, and light rail use 52, 58, and 271 percent higher, respectively, than then. But bus use has fallen by at least 17 percent. As a result, buses now account for just 48 percent of overall U.S. transit ridership, compared to 64 percent in 1990.

Interactive version of the above chart on Transport Databook.

Ridership declines among bus systems are practically universal. Among the U.S. urban areas with the highest bus use, all have fewer riders today than they had in 2004—except Seattle, which has 32 percent more.

Interactive version of the above chart on Transport Databook.

Ridership on light rail systems, on the other hand, has not changed much, with the exception of a large dip in Boston and large increase in Seattle. Heavy rail use did decline on most systems since 2016, but all systems except those in Atlanta, Baltimore, and Washington are carrying more riders now than they did in 2002.

Interactive version of the above chart on Transport Databook.

What can we take from these changes, then? Unquestionably the decline in bus ridership in most cities is dramatic and is, in itself, the primary cause of general ridership declines among U.S. systems.

But that decline should be put within context. Between 1990 and 1996, U.S. bus use fell by almost 14 percent. That’s a far larger decline than that between 2012 and 2017. In other words, recent trends are not a historical anomaly. Moreover, recent bus ridership peaked in 2006, eight years before ride hailing was commonly available. Finally, the decline in ridership among other sorts of transit over the past year—notably most heavy and light rail systems—suggests that whatever is occurring now is not just about bus systems.

What is causing the decline?

There are a number of reasonable explanations that might spell out why transit networks have suffered from reduced use in recent years. Noah Smith points to higher employment levels, lower gas prices, and the availability of on-demand rides. Each of those changes make it more feasible for more people to use automobiles to get around. It is also worth pointing out that the declining population of lower-income people in city centers has likely shifted a large share of transit users out of the area accessibly by public transportation.

Recent research by Michael Manville, Brian Taylor, and Evelyn Blumenberg of UCLA delves into the Los Angeles experience specifically. They find that there has been a large growth in household vehicle ownership (in part due to the ability of immigrants to get licenses), and that combined with higher fares has meant lower transit use.

Indeed, Americans have been on something of a car-buying spree since the recession. The number of vehicles per capita increased dramatically from 0.83 in 2010 to 0.89 in 2016. Meanwhile, the number of miles Americans drive per capita increased by about 5 percent between 2014 and 2017. They were driving instead of hopping on the bus or train.

Interactive version of the above chart on Transport Databook.

What the researchers don’t find has had much of an effect are gas prices. While it is true that higher transit use nationwide between 2000 and 2008 coincided with higher gas prices, the increase in gas prices from early 2016 to now has not been reflected in higher transit use.

Interactive version of the above chart on Transport Databook.

The researchers also argue that ride-hailing has not had much of a role to play in the declines, as LA’s ridership drops began far earlier than such services were offered. If there is increased automobile use, it is primarily in people driving around in their own cars. And in fact, there appears to be little relationship between the growth in ride-hailing and peak-hour transit ridership. This seems reasonable given the fact that in most major transit-using cities, the share of commuters using transit to get to work remained relatively stable from 2014 to 2016.

Interactive version of the above chart on Transport Databook.

On the other hand, discretionary transit ridership seems to have been hit heavily by recent trends. New York City’s Subway system, for example, saw a roughly 2.3 percent decline in ridership on weekdays between February 2016 and February 2018. But its weekend ridership fell by 4.7 percent over the same period, almost twice as large a decline.

It seems reasonable to conclude that a combination of poor off-peak service and the availability of cheap ride-hailing options has encouraged people to stop using transit during these periods.

While many advocates have suggested that one potential solution to declining transit ridership is increasing service—pointing to Seattle, notably, as evidence for this case—the UCLA researchers aren’t convinced. I’m of mixed minds.

While it is true that the LA region offers significantly less bus service than it did in 2004—almost 15 percent less according to recent data—it’s the worst among all regions. The Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington regions all offer substantially more bus service than then (all have increased service more than Seattle), but each has seen its ridership decline substantially over the same period.

It is true that Seattle increased bus service by 7 percent between 2015 and 2018 and saw a 1 percent increase in bus ridership. But Baltimore increased its service by 8 percent and saw a decline in ridership of 13 percent. There isn’t a direct correspondence here.

Interactive version of the above chart on Transport Databook.

Can transit agencies be acting to address ridership decline?

Increasing and improving transit service won’t automatically mean higher ridership, as the examples above illustrate. Moreover, it is difficult to avoid the broader trends affecting the economy as a whole.

Nevertheless, Seattle is special. Since 2002, its urban area transit ridership has increased by 50 percent. It has increased by 8 percent since 2015 alone. Certainly the opening of that region’s Central Link light rail line in 2009 and its extension to the University of Washington in 2016 were key changes. Effective light rail services that allow easy transfers to bus routes, combined with Seattle’s creation of several bus-priority routes, likely stemmed what otherwise would have been lower bus usage.

But perhaps most importantly, Seattle has pursued a transit policy that rewards using transit in the off-peak period. The city, for example, has increased the share of its residents who live within a 10-minute walk of a transit service that runs at least every 10 minutes all day from 51 percent in 2016 to 64 percent in 2017.

It also has a fare policy that encourages people to buy unlimited passes. For example, a monthly pass costs the equivalent of 36 single trips—meaning that people who ride two times a day during the week (40 trips/month) have a strong incentive to buy it. In Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York, the equivalent ratios are 42, 57, and 46 trips per month, respectively. In other words, weekday commuters in Seattle, unlike their counterparts elsewhere, might as well upgrade to unlimited all-day transit. That, then, encourages them to take buses and trains during the middle of the day or on weekends “for free,” when, were they to have to “pay for it,” they might otherwise take a ride-hailing service or their own cars.

Seattle, unlike most other cities, also has discounts for low-income riders, a policy that is now fortunately being discussed in New York.*

U.S. cities won’t realistically invest in the sort of game-changing expansion of urban metro systems that the Chinese central government has undertaken over the past few years. That kind of investment (or similar improvements made throughout Asia and Europe) could, I am convinced, make a major contribution in altering American society to increase transit ridership. These projects are also evidence that there is no “slow abandonment” of transit elsewhere in the world.

U.S. cities have, thanks to destructive public policies and poor attention to service provision, chosen the ridership declines they are now experiencing.

The declines in ridership we’re experiencing today appear to be primarily a continuation of a century-long trend of general transit mode share loss at the national level, combined with a cyclical change in major cities. The last few years have meant a loss of transit users in most urban regions, and the crises in New York and Washington haven’t helped. Yet ridership will likely come back, especially since per-capita driving appears to be, once again, headed down.

Interactive version of the above chart on Transport Databook.

Seattle’s focused investment in new light rail and improved bus service, combined with a reasonable fare policy, does seem to be working in the meantime. Other cities that make similar improvements, however, cannot assume that similar improvements will mean more riders.

But perhaps that shouldn’t even be the primary goal. Lost in the context of the discussion of ridership decline is the reality that the large majority of transit riders continue to be transit riders. A large share of them cannot afford ride-hailing alternatives or their own cars. Others simply prefer the convenience, lower price, and ease of taking transit. They deserve our attention just as much as—if not more than—potential future riders. Making their commutes easier, faster, and more affordable is a public policy goal in itself.

Despite the hoopla about the rise of ride-hailing and the excitement about automated vehicles, U.S. cities have an opportunity to attempt to address ridership decline while improving the quality of the daily lives of existing transit users. Making a genuine effort to improve their lives will, I am convinced, eventually bring more people back onto systems.

The most significant threat to transit’s revival isn’t the current trend itself. It is acquiescence to that trend. Convinced by the argument that transit is retrograde—nowhere to go but down—and unworthy of improvement, city and state officials may simply allow its slow abandonment. Those officials, however, would be making an ideological choice about the future of urban transportation, choosing a particular technological future rather than challenging themselves to make their existing transit systems work well. In doing so, they’d be leaving millions of people behind.

Data on many of the trends and issues discussed here are available on Transport Databook.

* Jonathan Hopkins notes on Twitter that transit passes are considered a job benefit in Seattle, an important additional cause of the city’s transit use.

11 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Carter O'Brien

    This pretty much describes my experience in Chicago. The L is pretty reliable at all hours, but later in the evening the bus is often undependable.

    I have a monthly CTA pass so I’m likely to try and make use of it when it’s just me, regardless. But if I’m out with groups of friends and we’re going from one place to another, or where multiple buses would be required, etc. ride sharing is by far the most logical mode, both in terms of cost and efficiency.

    “It seems reasonable to conclude that a combination of poor off-peak service and the availability of cheap ride-hailing options has encouraged people to stop using transit during these periods.”

  • Steven Vance

    “[Seattle], for example, has increased the share of its residents who live within a 10-minute walk of a transit service that runs at least every 10 minutes all day from 51 percent in 2016 to 64 percent in 2017.”

    Did any policies of the Seattle government cause this to happen?

  • Marvin Kennebeck

    I LIVE IN MADISON, WI, AND ALMOST ALWAYS USE THE BUS. IT GETS ME WITHIN 1/4 MILE OF MY DESTINATION.

  • Anonymous

    “[Sort of game-changing expansion of urban metro systems] are also evidence that there is no “slow abandonment” of transit elsewhere in the world.”

    Cannot agree more. We need lots of game-changing transit projects here in the U.S. to avoid “slow abandonment of transit” as current trend shows. There needs to be some sort of innovative funding scheme and business models to make such game-changers happen and last.

    One sad thing is however, it might be too late to make major investment to flip the ultra-long-term downward trend as Figure 6 and Figure 7 of this paper show:
    https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S038611121460217X

    Even if the game-changing transit projects were realized, there is disconnect in skills and experience to operate and maintain the systems here. I guess we are screwed…

  • Eric

    Can you reorder the graph legends so that the order corresponds to the order of the lines on the graph (from highest to lowest in 2018)? Right now, for the city graphs, there are so many cities having similar colors that it’s impossible to tell which line corresponds to which city,

  • Great analysis. I do think you understate the importance of gas prices. I believe the main effect of gas prices appears with a time delay, as gas prices influence locational decisions.

    • JJJ

      I agree with Ben, gas prices have a delay. People who bought a car last year with low gas prices are not going to abandon it because gas goes up 50 cents.

      But if gas hits $4 again, then people may hold off on the purchase. How long they hold off depends on how long the price stays high and how the rest of the economy is doing.

      One thing I think is ignored is that from 2008-2010, most transit agencies had huge price hikes and massive service cuts due to the economic crisis. That partially shows up in your revenue hour chart.

      However, many of those cuts werent restored. Additionally, the price hikes have been baked in to future prices. IE, a 5% increase in 2015 would be on top of a 25% increase in 2010. The agencies all claim that their 2015,16,17 increases are all in line with inflation, but they ignore how they raised their price floor in 2009/2010.

  • PRE

    Every city has its local issues, but what I’ve seen in the SF Bay Area is the dominant transit operator, BART, puts out an increasingly awful product. The trains and stations are filthy and no rules in either are enforced, and that starts with being required to pay the fare. This has led to an increasing feeling of being in an out of control situation especially in the evenings after the commuter crowds are gone. As an added result of zero fare enforcement every car has at least one crazy person, smelly, aggressive bum or often both. Why would anyone want to ride a dirty system, that’s often late, and gives you the opportunity to be up close and personal with ranting crazy people in a closed space under SF Bay? People are voting with their feet. It’s not rocket science what’s going on.

  • Tom West

    “mass transit is largely a 20th century technology, it is being slowly abandoned, and in the United States at least its future is dim.”

    You could replace “mass transit” with “cars” in that sentence.

  • PBE

    Sheesh–transit tanked in the early 90s! What happened there?

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