The year 2017 has been a nightmare for transit agencies across the nation. Transit carried fewer riders in the first ten months of 2017 than in the same months in 2016 in 46 of the nation’s 50 largest urban areas.
According to the latest data posted by the Federal Transit administration, the transit industry carried 1.4 percent more transit riders in October, 2017 than in the same month the year before. However, most of this growth was due to a 6.6 percent recovery of transit ridership in the New York urban area; subtract New York and national ridership fell by 2.3 percent.
After New York, the five largest urban areas–Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Philadelphia, and Dallas-Ft. Worth–all saw continued declines in ridership. Houston ridership grew by 8.1 percent, possibly indicating that Houston’s 2015 bus reforms are still paying off but perhaps also because so many automobiles were destroyed by Hurricane Harvey. Seattle ridership grew by 5.3 percent, Detroit’s by 6.4 percent, and small gains were also posted in the Washington, Boston, San Francisco, Portland, and a few other urban areas. But October ridership declined in 36 of the top 50 urban areas.
Charlotte, supposedly a light-rail success story, saw October ridership fall by a staggering 17.5 percent from the previous October, contributing to a 9.0 percent decline in the year to date. October ridership fell by 14.2 percent in Cleveland, 13.0 percent in Sacramento, and 10.4 percent in Milwaukee. Although the American Public Transportation Association claims that top transit officials aren’t much worried about recent ridership declines, they should be, especially if they are from one of these cities.
The reasons for the declines vary somewhat from region to region, but the growth of ride-sharing services seems to play an important role. Deteriorating infrastructure definitely played a role in New York, Washington, and a few other urban areas. Cuts to bus service to pay for expensive new rail lines are a big factor in Los Angeles, Charlotte, and other areas that have recently opened light-rail lines.
Rail transit didn’t seem to make a consistent difference to overall ridership. The gains in San Francisco and Boston were due mainly to buses, as both light and heavy rail lost riders in those two regions in October. In Los Angeles and Charlotte, rail ridership grew but bus ridership fell by more.
FTA’s raw data shows monthly ridership by mode and transit agency since 2002. As usual, I’ve posted a version modified to include annual totals and totals by transit agency (starting on row 2100) and for the 200 largest urban areas (starting on row 3300). Columns HL through HO show ridership gains or losses over various periods such as October 2017 vs. 2016 or January-October 2017 vs. 2016, 2014, and 2010.