» 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.
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.