The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) is circulating what claims to be a mythbusting report about recent declines in transit ridership. As it is based mostly on interviews with 35 transit CEOs, however, it does more mythmaking than mythbusting. Other than the interviews, its only real data analysis looks back at transit ridership since 1992.
Based on these ridership data, the report argues that the recent declines in ridership are merely some sort of natural cycle of declines and increases. Similar declines were seen after 1992, 2002, and 2007, all of which were followed by recoveries.
The interviews found that transit CEOs weren’t too worried about the declines. Of course, why should they be when most of their money comes from people other than transit riders? To the extent that they were worried, the CEOs blamed the declines mainly on low gas prices, while only three of the 35 CEOs considered ride sharing to be “a root cause of ridership decline.” In fact, the CEOs were more concerned about how the increased congestion caused by ride-sharing vehicles was slowing down transit buses and thereby indirectly discouraging ridership.
To the Antiplanner, this only shows that transit executives are out of touch with their customers. As noted here previously, surveys show that a third of ride-sharing users would otherwise have taken transit. Given the rapid growth of Uber and Lyft since 2014, that suggests that two-thirds to three-fourths of the decline in transit ridership is explained by the growth in ride sharing.
The myth that APTA wants to spread is that ridership declines are due to traffic congestion slowing buses, so therefore transit needs more money to build dedicated rail and bus ways. A secondary myth is that another energy shortage is right around the corner, so we should spend more tax dollars on transit now so it will be ready when gas prices once again rise above $4 a gallon.
Neither myth withstands scrutiny. Yes, buses are slow, but buses have always been slow. Transit agencies can do more to speed them up by reducing the number of stops and introducing pre-boarding fare payment systems than by building dedicated transit ways. But slow buses aren’t the root cause of declining ridership.
Nor is the transit industry likely to be rescued by another energy shortage anytime soon. American petroleum production is high and should be able to sustain itself until well after driverless ride sharing becomes the norm. Whether those driverless cars will be powered by electric or internal combustion engines is open for debate, but either way does not bode well for public transit. Any spending on dedicated transit ways would therefore be a waste.
The APTA report didn’t look at future energy supplies, ride-sharing trends, or the impact driverless ride sharing will have on transit in the next decade. As such, it didn’t bust any myths at all. Instead, it merely follows transit’s long history of seeking more subsidies. The Antiplanner hopes that history will end soon.