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France General United States

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.

Categories
General Infrastructure

Openings and Construction Starts Planned for 2019

Despite recent declines in transit ridership in the U.S., the construction of major transit networks continues across the country—as well as Canada, Mexico, and the rest of North America.

Use Transit Explorer

to explore transit

projects across

North America.

In 2019, there will be 89 major heavy rail, light rail, streetcar, bus rapid transit, and commuter rail projects under construction across the continent. These projects will add more than 830 miles of new fixed-guideway transit—generally high-quality service that will improve the lines of residents. In total, they’ll cost more than $91 billion to complete—most of which is funded by local governments.

In the U.S., the Trump Administration has repeatedly been reluctant to invest in new transit lines, even as the U.S. Department of Transportation has continually poured money into highways across the country. Nevertheless, following the Democratic takeover of the U.S. House after the November 2018 elections, the government has begun releasing funding commitments for major new projects. Those grants are likely to continue as long as Democrats continue to hold control of the House.

But, as in years past, high construction costs plague infrastructure projects in the U.S.—and those high costs make the completion of effective transit networks more difficult. Among heavy rail projects under construction in 2019, the average line in the U.S. will cost $650 million per mile—compared to just $362 million per mile in Canada (when adjusted to U.S. dollars). Among light rail projects, the average U.S. line will cost $339 million per mile to build, compared to just $146 million per mile in Canada.*

In this article, I first compare the networks that are being completed in cities in the U.S. and Canada, showing how different regions are promoting different priorities in their investments. I then document all of the projects planned for opening this year and that are under construction. These are all also mapped out, with additional data, on Transit Explorer, which I update throughout the year. Finally, I provide a table with data on all the projects under construction in North America.

This is the 11th year of my compilation of new transit projects on The Transport Politic. Find previous years here: 2009  | 2010  | 2011  | 2012  | 2013  | 2014  | 2015  | 2016  | 2017 | 2018


Network effects and scales of construction

The investments in new rail and bus corridors documented here will certainly alter the manner in which people move around cities across North America. Yet the effectiveness of these investments in making it possible for people to conduct their lives using transit will depend on more than just whether new lines are constructed. It also depends on where those lines are located and how they relate to one another.

It is possible to induce high levels of commuting into downtown office jobs by creating a radial network of lines from throughout a region into the central business district. This type of transit system works best for 9-to-5 commuters and is frequently the model used by commuter rail agencies in the U.S. Yet a radial system is less likely to allow people to conduct other elements of their lives—getting to school, to shopping, or to entertainment—because it fails in serving other parts of the city. Moreover, other than in the downtown core, where it promotes hyper-concentration, it encourages dispersal elsewhere. The alternative is a grid of routes that creates a multi-nodal, multi-destination system of transportation. This allows people to not only get downtown, but to other parts of the city, and it makes denser development possible in other neighborhoods.

The other important question in orienting the design of a transit network is whether to prioritize dense, central communities, or whether to extend the system as far as possible into the hinterlands of the region. The first approach has the advantage of serving neighborhoods that are already walkable and that have the greatest chance of encouraging people to use transit for many trips. The second approach serves people who take the longest trips, though it does so in a way that will likely work most effectively only for those aforementioned 9-to-5 commuters.

Metropolitan regions in different parts of the U.S. and Canada are using varying methods in designing their networks, as illustrated in the following maps, taken from Transit Explorer, all of which are at the same scale. I’ve included a comparison with New York City for context.

Denver, Minneapolis, and Portland are developing primarily radial networks, focusing on expanding access into their downtowns. Their lines—not only those that already exist, but also those under construction and proposed—are widely spaced across the region.

On the other hand, Atlanta, Montréal, and Toronto are largely pursuing a grid of new lines that focus on their respective regions’ densest areas. This approach is likely to increase overall transit use more effectively, though it may not provide as useful an alternative to regional traffic. Los Angeles and Seattle are pursuing transit investment programs that tow the line somewhat between the two.


Atlanta

Denver

Los Angeles

Minneapolis

Montréal

New York City

Portland

Seattle

Toronto

Projects planned for 2019 opening

In 2019, two heavy rail lines, seven light rail lines, ten bus rapid transit lines, and six commuter rail lines are expected to open. Of these, the most expensive to build was the 10-mile extension of San Francisco’s BART network to San Jose. This project, which has been under construction since 2013 and was supposed to open in 2018, is expected to serve about 46,000 daily riders; it will eventually be complemented by a further extension of BART to Santa Clara.

Yet the most expensive does not mean the most transformative. Ottawa’s Confederation Line, a new light rail project that replaces a preexisting busway and complements it with a downtown subway, will serve far more users—an expected 240,000 daily riders. In Guadalajara, the city’s third light rail line will serve even more: almost 350,000 trips a day.

Among others, San Francisco’s new Central Subway, which will extend its T-Third Muni Line through downtown, is also remarkable in that it’s been being actively discussed since the 1990s and is the first subway completed in central San Francisco since the BART Market Street tunnel in 1973.

BART Silicon Valley
Ottawa Confederation Line
San Francisco Central Subway

These projects will feature frequent, all-day service. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for each of the new lines opening this year. Fort Worth’s TEX Rail project, which commences operations on January 10, is only scheduled for hourly service between downtown Fort Worth and the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. That will limit the route’s usefulness for people who rely on transit and can’t wait an hour for the next train to show up. The system is planned for half-hourly service once additional trains arrive, yet the project is indicative of a problem among many major transit projects in the U.S.: we’re willing to spend billions of dollars on construction, but we have less interest in paying the long-term costs of making sure trains and buses on these lines are frequent and reliable.

Find a full listing of these projects below; to access their route maps on Transit Explorer, click the icon.


Other projects under construction in 2019—but opening in 2020 or later

Dozens of additional projects will be under construction in 2019 but aren’t planned for opening this year. Of these, by far the most expensive to build will be New York’s East Side Access project, which will extend Long Island Rail Road service to Grand Central Terminal by 2022 ($10.3 billion), and Honolulu’s rail transit investment, which will cross Oahu using automated, elevated trains in 2025 ($8.2 billion).

Yet other regions feature more new projects under construction. In Los Angeles, the new downtown subway for light rail trains—the Regional Connector—is expected to open in 2021, and in doing so improve service for two other light rail lines, the Crenshaw Line (2020) and the Gold Line Foothill Extension (2026). LA also has construction underway on all three phases of its Purple Line subway extension to the city’s west side (2026).

In the Seattle region, the massive expansion of the Link light rail system funded by voters in 2008 is underway, with three expansions from central Seattle east and north. In Montréal, the REM automated metro network is under construction, with scheduled completion in 2023. And in Toronto, four new light rail lines, a subway extension, and several bus rapid transit projects will be under construction this year.

Find a full listing of these projects below; to access their route maps on Transit Explorer, click the icon.


Comparing projects across the continent

The following sortable table provides detailed information about each of the 89 major transit projects under construction in North America in 2019.

The projects that are expected to serve the most number of riders on a per-mile basis—a typical measure of project effectiveness—are Monterrey’s Linea 3, New York’s East Side Access project, and Los Angeles’ Regional Connector. Each will serve more than 45,000 riders per mile on a typical weekday.

Expensive projects that nonetheless are expected to serve very few riders per mile include Fort Worth’s TEX Rail, Denver’s Gold Line, and Los Angeles’ Crenshaw Line, all of which will serve fewer than 2,000 riders per mile.

Of the eight most expensive projects in terms of their per-mile construction cost, seven are subways, including New York’s East Side Access project, San Francisco’s Central Subway, Toronto’s Scarborough Subway Extension, and Los Angeles’ Purple Line extensions and Regional Connector. Boston’s mostly at-grade Green Line extension will be almost as expensive to build.

ModeRegionProjectMilesCost ($)Cost/ MileConstructDaily ridersRiders/ MileGradeROW
Heavy RailBay Area CABART Silicon Valley Berryessa Extension1024002402013-2019460004600At gradeIndependent
Bus Rapid TransitBay Area CAEast Bay BRT9.5176192015-2019360003789At gradeIndependent (mostly)
Light RailBay Area CACentral Subway1.715789282013-20193510020647SubwayIndependent
Bus Rapid TransitBay Area CAVan Ness Avenue BRT23091552016-20212500012500At gradeIndependent
Bus Rapid TransitBay Area CAGeary BRT6.63552018-20219400014242At gradeSemi-Independent
Commuter Rail DMUBay Area CASMART Train Phase 22.143212017-2019800381At gradeIndependent
Light RailBoston MAGreen Line Extension4.723004892013-2021450009574At grade (mostly)Independent
Bus Rapid TransitCalgary ABSouthwest Transitway13.7304222016-2019460003358At gradeSemi-Independent
StreetcarCharlotte NCCityLYNX Gold Line Phase 22.5150602017-202057002280At gradeShared
Bus Rapid TransitChicago ILPace Pulse Milwaukee Line7.61422017-20194100539At gradeShared
Bus Rapid TransitChicago ILPace Pulse Dempster151012019-2020At gradeShared
Commuter Rail DMUDallas TXTEX Rail27.2996372016-201913700504At gradeIndependent
Commuter RailDallas TXCotton Belt261100422019-2022At gradeIndependent
Commuter Rail EMUDenver CONorth Metro Phase 1 (N)13343262014-2020At grade (mostly)Independent
Light RailDenver COSoutheast Rail Extension2.32331012016-201966002870At gradeIndependent
Commuter Rail EMUDenver COGold Line (G)11.221001882012-2019180001607At gradeIndependent
Light RailEdmonton ABValley Line Stage 1 Southeast8.118002222016-2020420005185Subway/At gradeIndependent
Bus Rapid TransitEl Paso TXBrio Alameda Corridor12.23632016-2019At gradeShared
Bus Rapid TransitEl Paso TXBrio Dyer Corridor10.23642017-2019At gradeShared
Bus Rapid TransitGrand Rapids MILaker Line13.37152019-20204400331At gradeShared
Light RailGuadalajara MXLinea 313.3994752014-201934800026165Elevated/SubwayIndependent
Heavy Rail AutomatedHonolulu HIHonolulu Rail Transit2081654082011-20201196005980ElevatedIndependent
Bus Rapid TransitHouston TXUptown (Post Oak) BRT4.5193432016-2019190004222At gradeIndependent
Bus Rapid TransitIndianapolis INIndyGo Red Line13.19672017-201911000840At gradeIndependent
Bus Rapid TransitIndianapolis INIndyGO Purple Line14.813992019-20219600649At gradeIndependent (mostly)
Bus Rapid TransitKansas City MOProspect Avenue MAX542018-2020At gradeShared
Light RailLos Angeles CACrenshaw Line8.520582422014-2020160001882Elevated/Subway/At gradeIndependent
Heavy RailLos Angeles CAPurple Line Extension Phase 13.928407282014-2023168004308SubwayIndependent
Light RailLos Angeles CARegional Connector1.917569242014-20219000047368SubwayIndependent
Heavy RailLos Angeles CAPurple Line Extension Phase 22.624779532018-20253610013885SubwayIndependent
Heavy RailLos Angeles CAPurple Line Extension Phase 32.520008002018-2026SubwayIndependent
Light RailLos Angeles CAFoothill Gold Line Extension to Montclair12.315001222017-2027At gradeIndependent
StreetcarLos Angeles CAOC Streetcar Santa Ana/Garden Grove4.14081002018-202173001780At gradeShared
Heavy RailLos Angeles CALAX Airport Connector2.3270011742019-20239500041304ElevatedIndependent
Heavy RailMexico MXLinea 12 Extension2.5153612016-20212600010400SubwayIndependent
Commuter RailMexico MXTren Interurbano de Pasajeros Toluca-Valle de Mexico35.91978552014-20182300006407Subway/At gradeIndependent
StreetcarMilwaukee WILakefront Line0.429732017-2020At gradeShared
Bus Rapid TransitMilwaukee WIEast-West BRT75482019-202095001357At gradeSemi-Independent
Light RailMinneapolis MNSouthwest Corridor/Green Line Extension14.518581282017-2023340002345At grade (mostly)Independent
Bus Rapid TransitMinneapolis MNC Line302018-20199000At gradeShared
Bus Rapid TransitMinneapolis MNOrange Line1715192017-2021At gradeShared
Commuter RailMonterey CAMonterey County Rail Extension3813742018-2022At gradeIndependent
Light RailMonterrey MXLinea 34.7439932013-202028000059574Elevated/SubwayIndependent
Automated Heavy RailMontreal QCReseau Express Metropolitain (REM)41.644801082018-20231670004014Elevated/Subway/At gradeIndependent
Bus Rapid TransitMontreal QCSRB Pie-IX6.8264392018-20227000010294At gradeIndependent
Bus Rapid TransitMontreal QCSauve/Cote-Vertu2.92019-20204000013793At gradeIndependent (mostly)
Commuter RailNew York NJLackawanna Cutoff Phase 17.32014-2020At gradeIndependent
Commuter Rail EMUNew York NYEast Side Access31033334442006-202216200054000SubwayIndependent
Bus Rapid TransitOmaha NEOmaha BRT83142019-2020At gradeShared
Light RailOttawa ONConfederation Line7.721002732013-201924000031169Subway/At gradeIndependent
Light RailOttawa ONTrillium Line South9.92019-2021At gradeIndependent
Light RailOttawa ONConfederation Line West9.32019-2023At gradeIndependent
Light RailOttawa ONConfederation Line East7.52019-2022At gradeIndependent
Heavy RailPanama PALinea 213.12014-2019ElevatedIndependent
Commuter RailPhiladelphia PAMedia/Elwyn Extension to Wawa3151502017-2020At gradeIndependent
Light RailPhoenix AZGilbert Road Extension1.9184972015-201940002105At gradeIndependent
StreetcarPhoenix AZTempe Streetcar3202672017-2021At gradeShared
Bus Rapid TransitPortland ORDivision Transit15175122019-202210000667At gradeShared
Bus Rapid TransitReno NVVirginia Street BRT1.880442018-2020At gradeShared
StreetcarSacramento CADowntown Riverfront Streetcar1.22091742019-2022At gradeShared
Commuter Rail DMUSan BernardinoArrow Redlands Passenger Rail Project9285322019-20211200133At gradeIndependent
Bus Rapid TransitSan Diego CASouth Bay Rapid2612852016-2019At gradeShared
Light RailSan Diego CAMid-Coast Corridor Transit10.921121942015-2021338003101At gradeIndependent
Light RailSeattle WANorthgate Link4.321004882012-20216000013953Elevated/SubwayIndependent
Light RailSeattle WAEast Link1428002002016-2023500003571Elevated/Subway/At gradeIndependent
Bus Rapid TransitSeattle WASwift 2 Green Line12.46752017-20194700379At gradeSemi-Independent
StreetcarSeattle WACenter City Connector1.31971522017-20202010015462At gradeIndependent
Light RailSeattle WALynnwood Link8.530703612018-2024700008235At gradeIndependent
StreetcarSeattle WATacoma Link2.4166692018-2022At gradeShared
Bus Rapid TransitSpokane WACentral City Line672122019-20213000500At gradeShared
Bus Rapid TransitSt. Petersburg FLCentral Avenue BRT114142019-20215400491At gradeSemi-Independent
Light RailToronto ONEglinton Crosstown11.849904232011-202117000014407Subway/At gradeIndependent
Bus Rapid TransitToronto ONViva Next Rapidways Yonge (Phase 1)52015-2020At gradeIndependent
Bus Rapid TransitToronto ONViva Next Rapidways Yonge (Phase 2)1.32015-2020At gradeIndependent
Bus Rapid TransitToronto ONViva Rapidway Highway 7 West Phase 22016-2020At gradeIndependent
Bus Rapid TransitToronto ONViva Highway 7 Rapidway Phase 22016-2020At gradeIndependent
Light RailToronto ONFinch West LRT6.812001762018-2023400005882At gradeIndependent
Commuter RailToronto ONRichmond Hill Line Extension to Bloomington822017-2019At gradeIndependent
Commuter RailToronto ONGO Extension to Niagara Falls42.612032017-2019At gradeIndependent
Commuter RailToronto ONLakeshore East Bowmanville Extension12.42019-2024At gradeIndependent
Light RailToronto ONHamilton LRT B-Line6.77601132019-2024310004627At gradeIndependent
Light RailToronto ONHurontario LRT11.61000862018-20221100009483At gradeIndependent
Heavy RailToronto ONScarborough Subway Extension3.933508592019-2026SubwayIndependent
Heavy RailWashington DCSilver Line Phase 211.427782442014-2020Elevated/At gradeIndependent
Light RailWashington DCPurple Line16.221001302017-2022690004259At grade (mostly)Independent
StreetcarWashington DCAnacostia Initial Line1.15449?-?At gradeSemi-Independent
Bus Rapid TransitWashington DCUS 29 Flash BRT13.53132018-2020At gradeShared
Light RailWaterloo ONION Light Rail Transit Phase 111.8770652014-2019270002288At gradeIndependent
Bus Rapid TransitWinnipeg MBSouthwest Rapid Transitway (Stage 2)4.75081092016-2020At gradeIndependent

Note: Canadian projects are listed in Canadian dollars, which as of January 8, 2019 are each worth 0.75 USD.

* Costs are not uniformly presented (some are year of expenditure, others are in year of planning).


Categories
Elections

On the ballot in 2018, a clear contrast among those who would move into Governors’ mansions

» On the gubernatorial ballot, Democratic and Republican nominees have vastly differing views when it comes to transportation. And voters across the country will be making important choices about referenda.

November’s U.S. elections will determine the control of the Congress, and as such may play an important role in impacting the nation’s transportation policy. Over the past two years, the Trump Administration has put dozens of transit projects in limbo. Even as the Congress has reaffirmed its funding for new investments in rail and dedicated bus lines throughout the country, the executive branch has put most grant-making on hold. As a result, long-planned projects in places like Dallas, Minneapolis, and Seattle are simply not being funded.

Keep track of key elections at thetransportpolitic.com/elections

If Democrats retake the House of Representatives or the Senate, they may gain more power to force the Department of Transportation to release funds needed for transit projects, and potentially reorient the BUILD discretionary grant program, which has reinforced the administration’s focus on rural, rather than urban, projects.

Yet the real action this year may actually be in the nation’s states and cities, where 36 gubernatorial seats are up for grabs, dozens of transportation-related referenda are being considered, and several major mayoral positions are being contested. Voter input on these races will orient the course of action for states representing about 80 percent of the U.S. population.

If state and local elections are less visible, they are likely to be quite impactful in terms of actually defining how urban transportation works, since cities decide what projects they want to pursue, states allocate resources between transportation modes, and referenda often determine funding streams.

Here, I round up some of the key races at stake this November. Most importantly, there are clear differences in approaches among the candidates running for governor—with, as I show below, many Democrats promoting platforms that would increase transportation funding, support specific transit projects, and encourage transit-oriented development. Republicans, in contrast, for the most part have platforms that actively oppose increasing transportation funding and offer little reason to suspect they would support transit investments.

In addition, I am providing a summary of key elections at thetransportpolitic.com/elections and on a dedicated Google sheet. On election night, I will update both of those pages, as well as my Twitter profile, with results, and you can keep track there.

Major gubernatorial elections

Of the 76 major candidates for governor in the 36 states with elections (36 Democrats, 36 Republicans, and four Libertarians or independents), a majority have stated positions on transportation on their policy platforms posted on their respective websites. But Democratic candidates are far more likely to have made a transportation-related statement (72 percent have such a statement) than their GOP opponents (just 42 percent of them).

Of the states with gubernatorial elections this year, 72 percent currently have GOP governors.

The GOP candidates who do have positions on mobility almost universally focus on themes such as cutting spending, “improving efficiencies” and “reforms.” Other than the Republican candidate for New York Governor, Marc Molinaro—who supports a plan to generate new funding for the New York City Subway—none of the GOP candidates supports increasing taxes or fees for transportation; in fact, South Carolina gubernatorial incumbent Henry McMaster specifically highlights his veto of a gas tax increase as one of his accomplishments, and Minnesota candidate Jeff Johnson says he would cut car license fees.

In terms of their policies on transportation spending, the Republicans focus overwhelmingly on roads. John H. Cox, the GOP candidate in California, says he would cancel that state’s high-speed rail program; Jeff Johnson would put a moratorium on light-rail construction. None of them appear to make a link between transportation and land use.

The Democrats running for office, on whole, have endorsed quite a different transportation program. The candidate in Alabama, Walt Maddox, suggests a new funding plan for transportation, pointing to a 12¢ increase in the gas tax as a possible approach; Jared Polis in Colorado, Jay Pritzker in Illinois, Jay Gonzalez in Massachusetts, Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan, Tim Walz in Minnesota, Michelle Lujan Grisham in New Mexico, Richard Cordray in Ohio, and Tony Evers all endorse identifying new funds for transportation. Walz specifically commits to increasing the gas tax and Gonzalez to passing an income tax increase on the wealthiest to pay for transportation and education investments.

A large share of the Democrats—unlike the Republicans—say they would improve transit offerings, and provide specific examples of changes they would pursue.

California candidate Gavin Newsom has reaffirmed his support for high-speed rail. Polis would complete Denver’s Northwest rail line and invest in the Front Range Passenger Rail project; Connecticut candidate Ned Lamont would extend the Waterbury commuter rail line to Hartford and improve the New Haven line; Maryland’s Ben Jealous would build the Baltimore Red Line light rail, which was cancelled by incumbent Republican governor Larry Hogan; and Massachusetts’ Gonzalez would invest in an extension of Boston’s Blue Line to Lynn, while funding new planning for a North-South Rail Link for regional rail through Boston and high-speed rail to Springfield.

The transit commitments of several other Democratic candidates—all attempting to overturn existing Republican power at the governor’s mansion—are a bit less specific but still indicative of what would happen were they to win the election. In Georgia, Stacey Abrams would make transit a statewide priority, and in Ohio, Cordray would dedicate state funding for transit for the first time in years. Finally, Michigan’s Whitmer would pass a Detroit-region transit plan and Texas candidate Lupe Valdez would find ways to encourage a state with better transit and high-speed rail.

Several of the Democrats, finally, note the connections between land use and transportation and intend to pursue policies related to them. Maryland’s Jealous says he would incentivize transit-oriented development (TOD), and Colorado’s Polis says he would develop new state regulations for TOD. Connecticut’s Lamont says he would eliminate parking requirements around stations to encourage more housing in those locations.

It is worth noting, of course, that the candidates’ platforms profiled here only tell us so much about what will actually happen in their states were they to be elected. Many of them are relying on federal grants for their programs, and they’ll have to get support from state legislatures, which must pass legislation.

Major municipal elections

In the U.S., most mayoral elections occur in off-years, but several cities have scheduled their races for this November. Unlike the gubernatorial elections, of the three elections profiled here, only one has candidates associated with a party.

In Austin, incumbent Mayor Steve Adler is promoting a systemwide transit plan to replace the previous proposal, which failed to attract the support of voters in a 2014 referendum. His opponent Travis Duncan says he would encourage zero-emissions vehicles, provide free public transit, and improve bike and pedestrian infrastructure; others running have less concrete strategies.

in Phoenix, Kate Gallego, who is apparently the frontrunner, says she is a “strong proponent of investing in the infrastructure” the city needs to grow, but her platform makes few other commitments. Her opponent Nicholas Sarwark, on the other hand, specifically promotes the idea of encouraging the city’s residents to leave their cars at home through improved bike lanes, and Daniel Valenzuela supports light-rail extensions.

In Washington, D.C., incumbent Muriel Bowser, a Democrat in this partisan race, has no acknowledgement about transportation in her platform. Nor, unfortunately, do her opponents say much about what they would do differently.

It is also worth pointing out that Toronto’s mayoral election is next week, October 22. There, former head of city planning Jennifer Keesmaat is attempting to oust incumbent mayor John Tory. Keesmaat is running an aggressively planning-oriented campaign, premised on developing a new network plan for transit, expanding light rail, and building a Relief Line for downtown Toronto more quickly. She also says she would tear down a portion of the Gardiner Expressway, which runs along the city’s waterfront. Tory is running a far tamer campaign, but nevertheless does continue to support several transit improvements.

Transportation-related referenda

The dozens of referenda related to transportation on the ballot in November have been chronicled extensively elsewhere, notably by the Eno Center for Transportation.

The major referenda are catalogued at thetransportpolitic.com/elections, but several are specifically worth noting here.

Voters are being asked to consider sales tax increases for transportation at the local level in Baton Rouge, Broward County (Florida), Collier County (Florida), Flagstaff, Hillsborough County (Florida), Marin County (California), St. Lucie County (Florida). San Benito County (California), San Mateo County (California), and Thurston County (Washington). Of these, the Broward, Hillsborough, and San Mateo referenda are the most significant, all raising billions of dollars over 30 years, a significant share of which would be dedicated to transit improvements.

Several statewide referenda are also worth following. In California, voters are being asked (Proposition 6) whether to repeal a gas tax increase and vehicle fee passed by the state legislature in 2017. Colorado voters are being asked to consider two separate referenda that would increase funding for transportation, one of which would increase the sales tax and fund significant transit improvements (Proposition 110), and the other of which would simply bond out funding for roadways (Proposition 109). In Missouri, voters are considering a 10¢ gas tax increase (Proposition D).

Finally, in Washington state, voters are considering whether to impose a carbon fee (Initiative 1631), which would represent a significant effort by the state to address climate issues.

Explore these and more races and referenda at thetransportpolitic.com/elections. I’ll be updating it on election night.

Categories
Automobile Chicago Illinois Infrastructure

The politics of wishful thinking: American cities and their commitment to the expressway

» If cities want to reduce automobile use and address climate change, the status quo simply isn’t good enough. In Chicago, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform the lakeshore could turn into a step backwards.

For American cities, highways are a drug. They’re expensive to acquire. They devastate healthy tissue and arteries, replacing previous modes of nourishment with destructive ones. They force the rest of the body to adapt to their needs, and they inflict pain on those nearby.

After a massive slash-and-burn campaign that forced the demolition of hundreds of already inhabited, central-city neighborhoods from the 1950s through 1970s, few U.S. cities continue to build new expressways within built-up areas (though there are some depressing exceptions to that rule). Less funding from the federal government, combined with active opposition, seems to have done these projects in.

But the difficulties related to drug use don’t stop after the user has begun. Indeed, once started, drugs are difficult to stop abusing—even when everyone is aware of their negative effects.

Herein lies the tension at the core of transportation politics in many American cities. Though elected officials and planners claim an interest in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, increasing transit use, and producing more livable, walkable communities, when push comes to shove, it’s nearly impossible for them to make the hard choice: Reducing or eliminating space for automobiles. Indeed, in many cases, that choice isn’t even available for discussion.

The planning for the renovation of Chicago’s North Lake Shore Drive—now underway—offers a useful example of this phenomenon. Here, in a city along the shores of beautiful Lake Michigan and with high transit use, the possibility of tearing down a roadway that prioritizes car use and blocks access to the waterfront has never really been up for discussion. In fact, as I’ll describe below, the city and state departments of transportation are pushing rapidly toward the road’s reconstruction in a manner that will increase the ease by which drivers get around.

A change that would actually meet climate and transportation goals set forth by the city and region is off the table. In the process, the city will miss a unique opportunity to reorient half of its lakefront to the needs of people, not cars. Too many cities have made, and continue to make, the same mistake.

The lakefront expressway

Chicago denizens are practically obsessed with quoting Daniel Burnham, who pushed to “make no little plans” and who co-wrote the 1909 Plan of Chicago with Edward Bennett. That plan recommended the creation of parks and a parkway along the lakefront. Many of the parks have indeed been built, producing—in some places—one of the nation’s most beautiful waterfronts.

Residents also point to Montgomery Ward’s push to ensure that the lakefront remain “forever open, clear and free.” While this stance was motivated at least in part to maintain views from his department store, it has inspired generations of Chicagoans to preserve and improve lakefront parks.

But Chicago has a disjointed relationship with its lakefront.

Though the 1909 plan is frequently discussed as if it has structured the city’s development, in fact, most of its waterfront interventions—such as a series of park-islands—have not been completed. And Ward’s efforts to keep the lakefront “free” didn’t do much to prevent the construction of a massive convention center along the water.

But the most dramatic violation of the parks-and-freedom message put forward by Burnham and Ward was the creation of Lake Shore Drive, a multi-lane roadway that now extends from 67th Street* in the South Side to Hollywood Avenue on the North Side, roughly 16 miles via downtown.

As envisioned in the 1909 plan, the road would be a “combination of park and driveway” without truck traffic. And as initially built, it came close to that purpose, looking and acting something like a tree-lined city street along which vehicles moved at slow speed.

But it was rebuilt over time, in the 1930s acquiring most of the function of an urban expressway and being transferred from the Park District to the city in 1959 and then to the state department of transportation in the 1970s.

Responding to concerns about the lakefront’s future, in 1973, the city passed the Lake Michigan and Chicago Lakefront Protection Ordinance, which was designed to prevent further intrusions onto the lakefront parks. It legislated that “no roadway of expressway standards… shall be permitted in the lakefront parks.” The city code defines expressway as a road designed for speeds in excess of 45 mph.

Lake Shore Drive, however, is an expressway in all but name. It features grade-separated intersections outside of downtown and, despite the speed limit, anyone who has ever used the road knows its drivers treat it as if it were an Interstate. It features four lanes in both directions. Because of its position along the lakefront, the highway acts as a barrier between the city and the lake, in several cases cutting through the heart of parks. It is a great source of noise and pollution. It would be delusional to claim it meets Burnham’s vision for the lakefront.

It has also, along with the construction of other (official) expressways, encouraged the transformation of Chicago from a transit-focused city to an automobile-dominated region. The city’s transit mode share—the portion of people who use public transportation to get to work—has declined from 44 percent in 1960 to just 28 percent in 2016.

Automobiles dominate on the route; on the busiest section north of downtown, it serves up to 170,000 cars daily. Nevertheless, others have taken to using the Drive for other purposes. 69,000 daily riders use bus routes that travel along it; 31,000 daily walkers and bikers navigate the adjacent trails.

The southern portion of the facility was renovated in the early 2000s renovation, but the northern portion, which is more used by all types of users, is falling apart. The road is degraded; congestion is common; bus services are frequently delayed; and the path is crowded with bikers and pedestrians.

A planning process is now underway, to be completed by 2020, but construction funding remains uncommitted.

Given the size of the road and its position along the city’s famed waterfront, choices about what to do with it will define part of the city’s future. Will the city take advantage of the opportunity to reconnect its urban blocks to the waterfront and prioritize transit, walking, and biking? Or will it simply reinforce the status quo?

Planning for a sustainable, transit-filled future

Given what planners and elected officials in the Chicago region say they want to do, you’d think that the possibility of transforming the Drive into something else would be a major priority.

After all, the region’s new comprehensive plan, developed by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (the MPO), endorses the goal of doubling transit ridership, a goal the agency has been committed to since 2010. Moreover, the plan recommends “mak[ing] transit more competitive” and increasing the share of regional commuters traveling by modes other than driving alone from 30 percent to 37 percent in 2050.

The City of Chicago and Cook County—the large county that includes and surrounds the city—have both signed on to a popular declaration holding that they will support the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement through local policies. This implies that they will identify mechanisms to reduce local greenhouse gas emissions. Now that transportation accounts for the largest share of American emissions, you’d think that would be a focus.

Similar goals are endorsed by cities and regional agencies throughout the U.S. New York City, for example, hopes to reduce its carbon footprint by 80 percent; Seattle expects to become carbon neutral and reduce the share of commuters driving alone to work from 43 percent today to 35 percent in 2035. Each suggests that future investments should prioritize reducing car use and encouraging transit ridership.

A reworked drive that doesn’t add up

From the start of planning for the future of the North Side portion of the Drive, it’s been clear that neither the state nor city departments of transportation—which are leading its $2-3 billion redevelopment—are particularly interested in rethinking the way the highway works. The route of the areas being studied is below (with north to the right and south to the left).

The planning process identified its goals early on, back in 2014, which included “improving vehicular mobility” as a primary purpose for the project. In making the choice to “improve mobility for all users,” the planning process was effectively dismissing alternatives, such as eliminating the roadway altogether. From the beginning, the choice of “improving mobility” put in stone the rejection of turning Chicago’s lakefront into the people-oriented space other cities have executed so successfully.

The focus on “mobility” rather than “access,” also suggested a prioritization of speed rather than other goals, such as creating more livable neighborhoods along the lakefront with better access to jobs and commercial needs. For, while the project is a “transportation” one, its impacts will be on land use.

Having to stick to the 1973 ordinance, the project cannot increase minimum speeds to levels higher than 45 mph. Planning documents thus far have suggested no effort to expand the number of lanes for cars. Yet the purpose of improving vehicular mobility has essentially disallowed any alternative that would lower automobile capacity.

It is worth thinking through what an alternative to today’s lakefront might be, because that act of conceptualization—imagining a different world—has been remarkably absent from the discussion.

Consider, for example, not a Chicago cut off from its lakefront by a highway that forces pedestrians to pass under or over it, but rather a city whose neighborhood streets turn into pathways down to the beaches. A rapid transit line with welcoming stations every half mile offering an alternative to the packed Red Line ‘L’ down the street. New opportunities for development, featuring water-fronting retail and cafes, without the ever-present noise and dust of the freeway—allowing people living and working in the towers lining the lake to finally open their windows. Larger parks, no longer divided in two by concrete.

None of these concepts were seriously considered. The city’s residents had little chance to explore what they might think of these ideas.

What officials do seem to have agreed to, after several years of planning, are the complete reconstruction of the highway, with eight lanes throughout the corridor and new dedicated bus lanes, for a total of 10 lanes, and increasing capacity over extant. These changes will not add any transit stations along the corridor; buses will simply use the route as an mechanism for moving between neighborhoods and downtown and a way to avoid getting stuck in traffic. Current projections suggest the bus lanes could increase transit use by 60 percent.

Despite the improvements for transit service, it’s hard not to conclude that the project will have as its primary effect the reinforcement of the highly automobile-oriented environment that now dominates the lakefront.

The extraction of buses into their own lanes will leave eight purely for automobile use; that simply means more space for personal cars. And the new corridor will be up to 19 lanes wide in some locations, such as south of the intersection with North Avenue, as shown here.

Enmeshed in brand-new concrete, that’s a barrier to the waterfront that won’t be altered for another half century.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that the proposed renovations will make driving easier. After all, the project is being partly led by the state department of transportation, which a few years ago attempted to force a new highway down the throat of the Chicago region, ignoring the evidence suggesting its downsides. It was only stopped by litigation over its environmental impacts.

Moreover, the Drive is, of course, very well-used by motorists. Their collective anguish at the possibility that their express route to downtown might be eliminated would surely capture much of the discussion in future mayoral and gubernatorial campaigns.

Even the planning profession’s tools would have a role to play in reinforcing the status quo. Transportation models premised on resistance to mode change undoubtedly would demonstrate a city paralyzed were the highway to be eliminated.

But the story is more complex than that. Along the waterfront itself north of central Chicago, no Census tract has more than 50 percent of its resident commuters driving alone to work. Indeed, in most of those tracts, about 50 percent of commuters travel by transit and only about 30 percent drive alone to work (35 to 40 percent of households in this area own no cars). Thus the people who would be most impacted by the replacement of the expressway with something else—the people who live nearby—are already limited car users, as shown below.

There is, just as importantly, significant evidence that cities that have replaced waterfront highways with surface boulevards or simply pedestrian space don’t suffer from massive congestion on nearby streets or a crushed economy, as some transportation models would suggest. Expressways eliminated from use in cities like Madrid, Paris, San Francisco, and Seoul have seen their traffic “evaporate” as trips formerly taken by car have moved to transit, walking, and biking.

These cities’ economies certainly haven’t suffered—in many cases, they’ve actually seen more development and higher property values as the fumes and noise of cars have diminished. These transformations suggest that people are able to adapt, even in the face of massive alterations in urban infrastructure.

But these arguments are largely irrelevant to decision makers, because the possibility of eliminating the expressway along Chicago’s lakefront wasn’t struck from discussion because of some comparison of the merits of alternative solutions. This possibility has been largely ignored because planners and elected officials in US cities are mired in the wishful thinking of a drug abuser. They’re aware that projects that benefit automobile use will diminish transit ridership and increase greenhouse gas emissions. They just want one more dose, one more chance to address the needs of car users.

The problem, of course, isn’t just a matter of this project alone. Perhaps Chicago could achieve its climate and transit mode-share goals even with Lake Shore Drive remade as it is. The issue is that the Drive’s reconstruction is just the latest in a decades-long stream of decisions to reinforce the automobile-focused status quo rather than fight it. Every time a city makes the choice to do something like rebuilding an expressway to carry more cars than it does today, it is pulling away from the broader efforts it should be pursuing.

Opportunities like the reconstruction of Lake Shore Drive come along rarely. They present the ideal circumstances to pilot new ways for people to get around—to promote change that might otherwise be impossible to move forward. Yet city after city continues to miss the chance. New York and Seattle, noted above as other cities also looking to reduce their climate impacts and increase transit ridership, are also the sites of major highway redevelopment and construction projects.

Ultimately, it is naive to believe that a city can both achieve its progressive goals and continue to invest in projects that reaffirm the way the transportation system currently works. Regional plans to double transit ridership won’t happen at the same time as space for automobile circulation is expanded. These two are irreconcilable; cities are going to have to choose what is more important to them. You can’t take another hit while you’re trying to go cold turkey.

* An extension of the highway, from 79th through 92nd Street on the South Side, was completed in 2013, but it is unconnected to the rest of the route.

Photos from (a) Flickr user Roman Boed (cc); (b) Flickr user Yonah Freemark (cc). Maps above from Redefine the Drive and Social Explorer.

Categories
United States

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.