Is transit ridership loss inevitable? A U.S.–France comparison

» The number of riders using transit in the U.S. continues to decline. But a comparison with French cities shows that the American experience is not a universal one.

Transit ridership declined again in the United States in 2018. As a whole, the nation’s transit systems lost 2 percent of their riders over the previous year—about 200 million fewer trips, according to the American Public Transportation Association. The number of people boarding buses and trains has declined tremendously since the last peak in 2014.

To what can we attribute this change?

American transit ridership is cyclical, but since the 1950s, Americans have been car-dependent. That car dependency is the product of a vicious circle: Reliance on automobiles encourages the development of automobile-focused urban environments, which, in turn, encourage more car use. Roughly three quarters of workers commute by car alone nationwide, and that’s remained true since 1990.

Recent changes, including the rise of ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft, unquestionably have limited transit’s performance. Numerous studies demonstrate that ride-hailing has increased congestion, slowing buses, and siphoned people out of transit in cities like New York and San Francisco. Moreover, in cities like Los Angeles, cheaper vehicle-acquisition options and the widening of who is allowed to get a license has reduced transit’s appeal. Finally, poor service provision among transit operators is a major problem; since 2004, the number of vehicle miles provided by bus systems has declined by 3% in the New York metro area, 10% in Miami, 12% in Chicago, and 15% in Los Angeles.

Just how universal is the U.S. experience?

To evaluate this question, I collected data on total transit ridership in the 30 largest urban areas in both the U.S. and France* between 2002 and 2018 (including bus, urban rail, ferry, and paratransit services). For the U.S., I used information provided by the National Transit Database; these 30 urban areas accounted for about 89 percent of national ridership in 2018. For France, I contacted transit agencies and examined online reports (I did not include TER regional rail services, since these operate beyond urban areas). Unfortunately, the French data are incomplete, but they still tell a compelling story about the deficiencies of transit performance in the U.S. It is worth noting, of course, that the French regions are quite a bit smaller than the American ones, with median populations of about 500,000 versus 3.1 million.

Let’s first consider how ridership changed before and after 2010.

In the following graph, I chart the ridership performance of all 30 U.S. and French urban areas between 2002 and 2018. The heavy lines show the change from 2010 for the average U.S. region (in black) and the average French region (in blue). (This is not the total ridership, which would be dominated by New York and Paris.)

Between 2002 and 2010, both countries saw increases in transit use in their major cities. The average U.S. city’s ridership increased by 6 percent over that time (though the peak was in 2008). In some cases, the increase was even more dramatic; the New York region’s ridership boomed by 20 percent during this time. French cities increased their ridership by 30 percent on average.

This trend has diverged dramatically since the Great Recession, however. While the average French urban region saw its ridership increase by 32 percent between 2010 and 2018, U.S. regions saw ridership decline by 6 percent on average.

Ridership in the typical large U.S. region is lower now than it was in 2002.

Change in transit ridership compared to 2010, major U.S. and French urban areas

Average ridership by city has declined every year in the U.S. since 2014. It has increased every year in France since 2000.

It’s worth considering in more detail what has occurred in the largest urban areas in both countries.

Below, on the left, I chart how total transit ridership changed in each of the ten largest U.S. and French regions between 2010 and 2018 (2017 for some French cities because of insufficient data availability; see the bottom of the post with the same graphs, but the Bay Area and Seattle added). The ten largest U.S. urban areas accounted for 71 percent of nationwide transit ridership in 2018.

In three U.S. urban areas—Boston, Houston, and New York—ridership increased (though Houston’s ridership is considerably lower now than it was in 2006). In the other seven regions, ridership declined, with Los Angeles leading the way numerically (annual ridership fell by more than 100 million), and Atlanta and Miami leading the way on a percentage basis (losing 26 and 22 percent of riders, respectively).

In all of the ten largest French urban areas over that period, on the other hand, ridership increased on transit services.

Perhaps more interesting is per-capita transit ridership, which adjusts boardings on bus and rail services to the number of people living in each of the regions. This figure is a better reflection of just how well local transit systems are actually serving the population of a metropolitan area.

From this perspective, shown on the right below, the U.S. performance over the past eight years has been miserable. All of the ten-largest U.S. regions saw a lower per-capita transit ridership in 2018 than 2010; this figure declined by 15 percent on average. The decline in Atlanta—30 percent fewer riders per capita—was the worst.

At the same time, all of the ten-largest French regions saw a higher rate of per-capita transit ridership; this figure increased by 18 percent on average for these areas.

Since 2010, then, U.S. transit systems have failed to expand their market share—in fact, they’ve almost universally lost ground compared to the population of the urban regions they’re supposed to be serving. The French cities have moved in the opposite direction.

The result is that a French urban region like Rennes—with a population of about 750,000—now serves more overall annual transit riders than the Dallas region, in which 5.8 million people live. There are now at least 12 French urban regions where local residents take an average of at least 100 transit trips a year (Paris, Lyon, Marseille, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Lille, Nantes, Strasbourg, Rennes, Grenoble, Dijon, and Reims).

There are only two U.S. metropolitan areas—New York and San Francisco—where this is the case.

There are, of course, some exceptions to these national trends. Of the 22 French regions for which I have data on ridership from 2010 to 2017 or 2018, all saw an increase in per-capita ridership. However, it is true that I may be missing data on urban areas that saw declines; for example, Valenciennes, a city in northern France, saw a reduction in ridership between 2010 and 2015, but I do not have more recent information.

Moreover, among the 30-largest U.S. urban areas, two saw an increase in per-capita ridership from 2010 to 2018: Las Vegas (+3%) and Seattle (+5%). So there are some American success stories.

For region-by-region trends, the following interactive charts—first for the U.S., then France—allow a visualization of change over time. (These may be difficult to view on mobile devices.)

What explains the generalized success of French regions in building transit ridership—and the failure of U.S. regions to do the same?

Unquestionably, there are national trends at play; there may be broad cultural or economic differences that have recently made U.S. transit (even) less attractive than buses and trains in France.

At the same time, there are reasons to be skeptical of that claim. Seattle’s increased transit use—the region’s services carried 50 percent more riders in 2018 than in 2003—suggest that it is possible to increase ridership, even in the U.S.

The rise of ride-hailing and lower gas prices in the U.S. are often highlighted as causes of transit’s decline. But Uber is available in most French cities and fuel costs are actually lower in France than they were in 2014.

There are, however, certain changes in France that have made transit more effective. Most medium and large French cities have invested in tramway services; length of those lines increased from about 115 miles nationwide in 2000 to 515 miles today. Many cities, such as Metz, have developed effective bus rapid transit services. In both cases, and throughout the country, these services have been designed to serve the densest neighborhoods, rather than auto-dominated suburban communities, as is common along U.S. light-rail lines. They’ve been allocated independent street right-of-way, rather than forced to sit behind traffic, as is common for U.S. BRT lines. French cities have invested heavily in pedestrian-dominated city centers even as U.S. cities have hesitated to take lanes away from cars. And they’ve limited development in exurban communities where transit is unlikely to work.

At the same time, perhaps most importantly, U.S. transit providers simply haven’t increased service to account for a growing population. Between 2010 and 2018, vehicle-miles provided by New York region transit services actually declined by 1.6 percent even as population increased by 4.6 percent.

In the Paris region, transit service provided increased by 6.9 percent over the same period, as population increased by 3.8 percent.

Is it surprising that per-capita transit ridership declined in New York even as it soared in Paris?

Shifting people out of cars and into transit is an essential strategy for cities hoping to reduce pollution, combat climate change, and improve the vitality of their neighborhoods. The U.S. strategy, as this comparison shows, hasn’t worked.

Full data on ridership change can be found here. * I compare the U.S. and France for two principal reasons: First, both are wealthy, modern Western countries with a large number of urban regions; second, I know French and am able to acquire data from there more easily than elsewhere.

Ridership changes in major urban regions, including the Bay Area (combining San Francisco and San Jose urban areas) and Seattle.

19 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Thomas Wilson

    This is a very insightful post, and an excellent in-depth study. But I think you darted past the major factor in the decline of U.S. mass transit ridership: Capitalism. With the advent of real-estate bubble-styled easy automotive financing, there has also been a ridiculous rise in private car ownership, even among the poor. I think you said it best when you cited (in regard to Los Angeles): “…cheaper vehicle-acquisition options and the widening of who is allowed to get a license has reduced transit’s appeal.”

    • drs

      France is also a capitalist country, and the USA is marked here not by untrammeled capitalism but by massive ‘socialism’ in support of cars and low-density housing. Vast public subsidies and mandates go into building roads and parking, zoning laws ban developing land in ways that capitalism/markets would like (such as high-density and mixed use.) A sea of detached single-family homes on large lots is not a triumph of capitalism but a triumph over capitalism.

  • Do you have diachronic mode share data from INSEE? Asking because at least synchronically as of 2014, the figures aren’t always in line with the per capita ridership numbers. Alpes-Maritimes has about the same mode share as Bouches-du-Rhône, Nord, Côte-d’Or, Gironde, Bas-Rhin, Loire-Atlantique, and Haute-Garonne, all in the 11-14% range. The MSAs of Washington, Boston, and Chicago are in this range too, while SF (ex-Silicon Valley) is a little higher while Philadelphia and Seattle a little lower.

    So what’s the interpretation? I can buy that in the US ridership is weaker than you’d expect from mode share, because off-peak frequency is so terrible that people only ride for peak work trips. Boston, whose rapid transit network is the least highway-oriented of the major non-US cities, manages to have higher per capita ridership than Chicago and Washington despite (slightly) weaker mode share.

    But then I don’t think the same interpretation is true of the Riviera. The TER PACA is terrible at all times of day, but my understanding is that this is true of every TER. The tramway in Nice has high frequency. Middle-class cars-and-trains commuter behavior isn’t particularly common there – middle-class jobs are disproportionately in Sophia-Antipolis, so transit ridership skews working-class.

    • Unfortunately, no, I don’t have that mode share data—I’m just relying on agency-provided figures of ridership.

      In terms of mode share differences across French regions, I don’t have a clear sense of how, exactly, to answer your question other than to postulate that while the urban area of Nice is basically the same size as the Alpes-Maritimes, that’s not true for Nord (2.6 million vs. 1.1 million in Lille urban area), Cote-d’Or (530,000 vs. 380,000 in Dijon urban area), Gironde (1.6 million vs. 1.2 million in Bordeaux urban area), etc. (I just looked up these three). So some of the difference might simply be definitional—what is the urban area.

      In terms of TER service, I did not include TER in these ridership figures, so that is what it is.

  • Marc Brenman

    Gas prices in the largest market in the US, California, have gone up considerably, not down. And traffic, including buses, has become more congested and less efficient as 20% of asphalt has been given over to bike lanes for 5% (or much less) of commuters. Demand response systems like Uber and Lyft are an order of magnitude (or more) more efficient than buses in terms of time, convenience, reliability, and door to door service. Systems like BART in the SF Bay Area and Metrorail in the DC area are increasingly unreliable, unsafe, and ridden by “homeless” people. I try to ride Muni in SF, but am discouraged by 20, 30, and 40 minute headways, and then having to stand up for much of the ride. Why would anyone who can afford different subject herself to this? Housing costs have driven workers further out, to places that public transit doesn’t go. All forms of infrastructure need to work together for solutions. Very very few solutions have been carried out for the housing affordability problem. France is not the US, and Americans don’t like to tax ourselves as the French do. We also live in a much bigger, more diverse country, without a hub and spokes system. In France, everything converges on Paris. So France, for a number of reasons, is a bad comparator.

    • Eric

      20% of asphalt has been given over to bike lanes

      This is a massive exaggeration.

      France is not the US, and Americans don’t like to tax ourselves as the French do. We also live in a much bigger, more diverse country, without a hub and spokes system. In France, everything converges on Paris. So France, for a number of reasons, is a bad comparator.

      The Northeast Corridor is similar to France in all these ways, and transit ridership was stagnant there too.

    • Mike

      You make good points but it’s a serious exaggeration to say 20% of the city’s asphalt is dedicated to bikes. It’s <1%! And it should be higher – bikes are the most efficient and sustainable way to move people across a 7×7 mile city. I can cover 5 miles in less than 30 min and spend 0 min looking for parking, all while not creating any congestion or noise/air pollution.

  • Hal Kapell

    Another contributing factor to the decline of transit usage in the United States is the increasing shift to alternative work schedules and telework. It stands to reason if a commuter is reporting to work four (or three) days instead of five, his transit usage will decrease proportionately, while simultaneously freeing him or her for leisure or shopping trips by car. Similarly, alternative schedule time shifting provides an opportunity for commuters to travel before (or after) peak commuting times when not only transit options geared to peak peiods are less available, but off-peak traffic loads may be more inviting.

    • French people get 6 weeks of paid vacation per year. Despite that, annual transit ridership in French cities is higher than in American ones with equal trip-to-work mode shares.

  • Public transportation has to be able to compete with its alternatives in the following:
    1) Total time from point a to b
    2) Net price difference between public and other
    3) Ease of ingress and egress at on-boarding and off-boarding sites
    This is difficult for a central planner to manage. Perhaps the time has come for a collaboration with the private sector on how to best allocate the resources so that the user finds them appealing.

    • Even if one controls for Uber/Lyft and Telecommuting growth, large American metro areas have been dominated by highways & boulevards zeitgeist that favors solo-driving for work commutes. That is the fundamental limiting factor on rapid transit. NYC is the only exception. Chicago had the size & density would have been a 2nd exception, if it kept expanding CTA Metro Rail, enhancing Commuter Rail and not overbuilt public housing complexes after Word War II. For example, Chicago’s massive public housing complexes scared most white voters from authorizing an inner circle Metro rail line connecting multiple CTA and Metra lines & U. of Chicago.

      Second, the average American tries to minimize their gasoline expense while maintaining private space in metro area work commutes. Until a Greenhouse Gas tax is placed on oil and counties to fund more transit while cities spend less on highway widening, the pocketbook economics & private space advantage will continue favoring highway & boulevard driving in America.

  • Another factor causing Per Capita Ridership decline in LA, Chicago, SF Bay Area, and Washington is that Freeways have widened and Boulevards have expanded faster than building comprehensive rapid transit networks that place more riders within 1/3 mile of work or home. Building Metro Rail and Commuter/Amtrak Railway Grade Separations takes hideously long in America. Cutting bus funding has hurt too.

    As American metro areas have grown in population, commuters still see more driving options to/from work (coupled with cheap gasoline). To emphasize the point, contrast LA, DC, Chicago & SF Bay Area Passenger Rail Maps with Paris, Berlin, Madrid & Amsterdam Passenger Rail Maps:

    http://www.urbanrail.net/am/lsan/los-angeles.htm
    http://www.urbanrail.net/am/wash/washington.htm
    http://www.urbanrail.net/am/chic/chicago-map.htm
    http://www.urbanrail.net/am/snfr/sf-bay-area-map.htm

    http://www.urbanrail.net/eu/fr/paris/paris.htm
    http://www.urbanrail.net/eu/de/b/berlin.htm
    http://www.urbanrail.net/eu/es/mad/madrid.htm
    http://www.urbanrail.net/eu/nl/ams/tram/amsterdam-tram.htm

    The slowdown in transit & intercity passenger rail funding relative to Population & GDP growth, from 1981-2008 and 2011-19, is crippling America’s transportation productivity.

  • Michael

    Unfortunately, your article shows your lack of understanding of the public transit in Europe, especially France!

    This is the quote for you to understand it better, and why the US public transit is falling behind:
    “In cities where streetcars are designed for commuters, they are faster and arrive much more frequently. Paris’s T3a line, for example, travels an average of more than 11 miles per hour (17.7 kmph) and arrives at stops at least every six minutes during the day. That is possible because trains operate in dedicated lanes separated from cars and are designed to turn traffic lights in front of them green to ensure faster speeds through intersections. That line attracts more than 130,000 daily users—more than any single bus, streetcar, or light rail route in the United States. ”
    https://urbanland.uli.org/industry-sectors/infrastructure-transit/streetcars-transportation-first-economic-development/

    But instead of following these sound principles and building an efficient public transit here, we have wasted BILLIONS of dollars on failed streetcars to nowhere!
    Detroit’s “MetroTimes” did research streetcars in 12 cities and they write:”Detroit’s struggle to retain ridership is not unique. The so-called streetcar renaissance that began less than a decade ago has largely fallen short of overhyped expectations, and the federal government has stopped funding them.
    Metro Times examined streetcars in 12 other cities and found that most are hemorrhaging ridership, costing more to operate, and are prone to long delays.”
    https://www.metrotimes.com/detroit/two-years-in-detroits-qline-falls-far-short-of-expectations/Content?oid=21552552

    And if you would take a look at the difference in gasoline prices between France and the US, with gasoline in France costing 215% of the US prices, you would understand why the public transit in France is more popular:
    https://www.nationmaster.com/country-info/stats/Energy/Gasoline-prices

    So my advise: don’t look only on the surface, but dig deeper into the numbers and try to understand the structural differences and the economic drivers, before you jump to superficial conclusions!

  • Mike

    First world public transport renaissance began in the 1970’s in European cities that embraced the verkehrsverbund concept of the fully integrated public transport offer no matter what the political boundaries in the area were or who operated the modes whatever they were. The French were quite slow to embrace this and outside Paris urban transit did really get decent investment until the 1990’s. They are still catching up to the Germans but at least they are trying. Fully integrated operations in terms of fares and services are nowhere near fruition in America. Look at the wasted heavy rail opportunities in American cities. Outside the really largest cities I think decent public transport in America is a lost cause. There is no political will.
    A second factor is the ever increasing sprawl in metro areas. Looking at google earth it’s frightening the land being swallowed up not just in the sunbelt but even the old north east. Long Island is huge but it’s all sprawl now apart from small patches in the Far East.

  • UCLA researchers – Manville, Taylor, Blumenberg http://www.scag.ca.gov/Documents/ITS_SCAG_Transit_Ridership.pdf – suggest a variety of factors causing US decline – a primary one being that housing has become more and more unaffordable in transit service districts leading to low-income once transit dependent riders having to move outside district boundaries and purchase cars.

    • wanderer

      These folks also found that the cost of purchasing and operating a car has been relatively cheap. People also needed cars more because working class jobs (think an Amazon fulfillment center) have been suburbanizing, even as Downtowns have seen growth in professional and managerial jobs.

  • Scott D Witt

    The Impact of Massive Discounts by Ride-Share Services on Market Shares

    To gain market share, the ride-sharing services have used their deep-pockets of VC money to support for heavy discounts. It’s a classic strategy: get customers hooked on your artificially cheap service, and then raise prices when customers are less price-sensitive.

    For example, the cost of a taxi in New York City is about 4-times higher than a subway ride. But a similar trip on Uber is about 2-times. So riders get a premium real-time service for slightly more than they’d pay for a less convenient subway ride. It’s no surprise that riders have voted with their dollars.

    But the current pricing for the rideshare services is not sustainable.

    Uber and Lyft have lost billions, and their only path to survival is charging higher prices to riders, and reducing their labor costs (drivers) thru automation. (Check out podcast: ‘Why Uber Still Can’t Make a Profit’ http://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/29/podcasts/the-daily/uber-profit.html )

    Ride-share disrupted traditional public transit. But perhaps we should anticipate a second disruption and ‘equilibrium’ to occur when the ride share services raise their prices to sustainable levels and riders lose their ‘free lunch.’

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