More Signs of the Transit Apocalypse

According to the Washingtonian, a transit advocacy group called TransitCenter “analyzed” the data and found that declining ridership on the Washington Metro system is “dragging down national ridership figures.” With the Metro’s numbers, the national total of heavy-rail riders is declining; without Metro, heavy-rail plus light-rail ridership is increasing. In other words, just give Metro $15 billion or so to restore its system and ridership will recover, both in DC and nationally.

I haven’t been able to find TransitCenter’s analysis, but I didn’t tried very hard because it is clearly out of date. TransitCenter used the National Transit Database to compare data for 2015 and 2016. But the database uses data from each agency’s fiscal year, and for most transit agencies, fiscal year 2016 ended more than a year ago. As the Antiplanner noted last week, the Federal Transit Administration has published ridership data through August, 2017, and it shows ridership declining in all major categories and in almost all major transit agencies and urban areas.

If that’s not enough, the American Public Transportation Association just published its second quarter ridership numbers. APTA collects its data separately from the FTA, though it later corrects its numbers if there are major discrepancies or gaps in its data that can be filled by the FTA numbers. In any case, the second quarter numbers confirm that, when compared with the second quarter of 2016, ridership declined for both light rail (which, in APTA’s world, includes streetcars) and heavy rail, as well as commuter rail, buses, and trolley buses. The only categories that did not decline were demand response (paratransit) and “other,” which includes people movers, monorail, ferries, cable cars, and van pools.

Moreover, even if you take out the Washington Metro system, both heavy rail and buses still declined. In fact, almost all major heavy-rail systems declined; the only ones that did not were in Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York City PATH trains, Philadelphia-Camden PATCO, and Staten Island.

TransitCenter had to add light rail to heavy rail to get an increase in 2016 without the Washington Metro. But most major light-rail systems, including those in Boston, Baltimore, Charlotte, Denver, Sacramento, San Francisco, San Jose, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Portland, and Salt Lake City, among others, declined in the second quarter of 2017. The vast majority of bus systems also lost riders.

In short, the national decline in ridership can’t be blamed on DC Metro’s maintenance woes. It is pervasive throughout the industry and won’t be reversed by spending billions to bring older rail systems up to a state of good repair. Legislators and policy makers need to seriously consider whether such renovations are worthwhile when, for a lot less money, buses could provide a similar service to a declining customer base.

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2 thoughts on “More Signs of the Transit Apocalypse

  1. prk166

    If this national trend continues, how will we know what it’s likely due to? Will it be any deeper than other dips, and at that , just a dip that recovers with time? Or with Uber, Lyft and even more people becoming comfortable biking in urban environments, a dip that will continue on for years to come?

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