Transit’s Accelerating Decline

Nationwide transit ridership in September, 2017, was 4.6 percent less than in the same month in 2016. That compares to a 3.5 percent drop in August and a 2.8 percent drop in July. Transit ridership for the first nine months of 2017 was 3.0 percent less than the same months in 2016.

These numbers are from the latest monthly data (8.3-MB) from the National Transit Database. As usual, the Antiplanner has enhanced this file (7.9-MB) by adding columns showing annual totals and rows showing totals by transit agency (starting at row 2100) and for the largest 200 urbanized areas (starting at row 3100).

A few months ago, Streetsblog observed that cities such as Houston and Seattle that had redesigned their bus routes (generally by replacing a hub-and-spoke system with a grid system) seemed to be exempt from the decline in transit ridership. That’s no longer the case, as Houston’s ridership declined by 4.3 percent in September and is down by 1.5 percent for the year to date.

That leaves Seattle as the only large urban area to not suffer a decline in 2017 ridership. But this can’t be attributed to a restructuring of Seattle’s bus lines, as King County bus ridership fell. The increase is due almost entirely to light rail, which apparently is still benefiting from the $626 million/mile University extension that opened in March, 2016.

This shouldn’t encourage cities to build light rail, however, as light-rail ridership is declining in most cities that have it including Baltimore, Boston, Buffalo, Charlotte, Cleveland, Portland, St. Louis, Sacramento, Salt Lake City, San Diego, and San Jose. While it is increasing in some cities, such as Dallas, Houston, and Los Angeles, those increases are more than offset by declining bus ridership, often due to cuts in bus service forced by the high cost of rail.

Ridership in some regions continues to free-fall to a catastrophic extent. Compared with the first nine months of 2010, ridership in 2017 had fallen by 27 percent in Detroit, 25 percent in Sacramento, 20 percent in Milwaukee, and a staggering 40 percent in Memphis. (I’m ignoring the 51 percent decline in San Juan as I’m not really familiar with Puerto Rican transit.) Among the nation’s ten largest urban areas, ridership since 2010 has fallen by 16 percent in Los Angeles, 12 percent in Miami, 14 percent in Washington, and 15 percent in Atlanta.

All of this should be, but often isn’t, cause for reconsideration in those cities that want to build new rail projects. Broward County Transit (Ft. Lauderdale) has seen a 29 percent decline since 2010, yet still wants to build both a streetcar and light rail. Hillsborough County transit (Tampa) has seen a 22 percent decline in riders since 2010, yet wants to build light rail to Pinellas County (St. Petersburg), which has seen an 11 percent decline.

Many people are trying to figure out how to save transit, a subject that the Antiplanner will discuss more later this week. The more relevant question is how to allow transit to die with dignity.


3 thoughts on “Transit’s Accelerating Decline

  1. prk166

    @Sketter, I’d be curious too. Time will help sort that one out.

    @anti-planner, I tried to find it but couldn’t. Just the other day I read an article on Memphis. MATA ( ? ) is testing out another restored trolley car or something like that.. The point being is the news interviewed a gentleman from a local Memphis advocacy group that was pointing out that MATA needs to stop spending money on these things and start running buses that people can use.

  2. prk166

    The work of the MBRU is essential in highlighting and fighting the racism and the oppression based on socioeconomic status as reflected in our city’s grossly inadequate public transportation system: 90% of bus riders are Black, a majority of whom are Women, and 60% have incomes of $18.000 or less. Cuts to bus service combined with inequitable economic development and residential segregation disproportionately effect low-income residents and communities of color.

    “Buses stop running in some neighborhoods at 6PM which puts a curfew on us like we’re locked up in some kind of modern-day slavery”

    -Georgia “Mother” King, Founder, Organizer, MBRU

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