Nationwide transit ridership in November 2017 was 1.9 percent lower than the same month in 2016, while ridership for the first eleven months of 2017 was 2.5 percent lower than the same period in 2016. If similar numbers are posted for December, then total annual ridership will have fallen below 10 billion trips for the first time since 2010.
These numbers are from the Federal Transit Administration’s November update to its National Transit Database. The update includes passenger trips, vehicle revenue miles, and vehicle revenue hours by month from January 2002 through November 2017, broken down by transit agency and mode. These numbers may be preliminary and might change slightly in later updates. These numbers are also for calendar years so will differ from the final 2017 report, which is based on each agency’s fiscal year.
As usual, I’ve uploaded an enhanced file that includes totals by year (starting in column GT), by transit agency (starting in row 2100), and for each of the 200 largest urbanized areas (starting in row 3100). Column HM shows the change in ridership in November 2017 vs. November 2016, while columns HN through HP show the change for the first eleven months of 2017 vs. 2010, 2014, and 2016.
For those who want to compare the impacts of service on ridership, I’ve performed the same calculations on the vehicle miles sheet. This reveals, for example, that Los Angeles Metro cut its bus service by 6.6 percent from the year before and lost 8.4 percent of its bus riders. Nationwide, bus service was 7.3 percent lower in November 2017 than November 2016, contributing to the 3.9 percent decline in bus ridership.
Few are immune from transit decline. Of the nation’s fifty largest urban areas, transit gained riders in the first eleven months of 2017 only in Houston (by a mere 0.01 percent), Phoenix (4.5%), Seattle (2.5%), Kansas City (0.2%), and New Orleans (0.4%). When compared with the first eleven months of 2014, ridership declined in Phoenix, Kansas City, and New Orleans, so there is little reason for any transit supporters outside of Seattle and Houston to be optimistic about the industry’s future.
The biggest year-to-date losers were Milwaukee (–11.9%), Albuquerque (–10.7%), Cleveland (–10.3%), Charlotte (–9.8%), Miami (–9.3%), Richmond (–8.7%), San Jose (–8.1%), Memphis (–7.5%), and Sacramento (–7.4%). Of the nation’s largest transit markets, Philadelphia lost 6.7 percent, Los Angeles 5.5 percent, Chicago 3.3 percent, Washington 3.2 percent, Boston 2.8 percent, San Francisco-Oakland 2.6 percent, and New York 0.7 percent.
All of these numbers are confirmed by the American Public Transportation Association’s latest ridership report, which includes data for the first three quarters of 2017. According to this report, 2017 ridership is 3.1 percent below that of 2016. APTA gets its numbers directly from transit agencies, some of which may not report to the Federal Transit Administration, so the exact numbers may be a little different.
As the Antiplanner has noted before, transit is declining for several reasons. In New York, Washington, and other regions with older rail systems, deteriorating infrastructure is reducing train reliability. Los Angeles, Dallas, and some other regions building new rail lines have cut bus service to pay for the rail construction, losing more bus riders than they gained in rail riders. While these are significant problems, ride sharing services are probably responsible for roughly half of transit declines. This is likely to accelerate, so ridership would continue to decline even if rail construction and maintenance could be fully funded without service cuts.
The transit lobby is eager to get what it regards as its fair share (meaning more than its fair share) of federal infrastructure spending. But Congress and the administration should be aware that transit declines are large and almost certainly irreversible.
This argues against any significant spending on transit infrastructure construction or rehabilitation in the next few years. Instead, it makes more sense to phase out dedicated transit infrastructure as it wears out and replace it with buses, which can use infrastructure shared with other vehicles.