The Washington Post has declared the continuing decline of urban transit ridership an emergency. The Post takes it for granted that the real purpose of cities is to maintain the transit industry and not the other way around. While it is clearly an emergency for those obsolete transit agencies, especially ones saddled with even more obsolete rail transit systems, it isn’t an emergency at all for cities and individual travelers who are finding faster, more convenient, and often less expensive ways of getting around.
And the decline continues. Nationwide transit ridership in January 2018 was 2.5 percent less than in January 2017, according to the latest National Transit Database numbers posted by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). This drop was even more significant because January 2018 had one more work day in it than January 2017.
Supposedly, according to experts consulted by the Post, we have to maintain urban transit because it is more “space efficient” than other forms of travel. Yes, it is real space efficient to have 60-passenger buses that drive around with an average of 9 on board, or 150-passenger (some claim 200) light-rail cars that carry an average of fewer than 23 on board (the averages in 2016). If you drive alone in your six-passenger SUV, your car is carrying a higher percentage of its capacity than the average transit vehicle.
Nationwide, transit ridership has declined in every year since 2014. Some major urban areas have seen declines in every year since at least 2010.
Several urban areas saw minor increases in ridership, but they were more than offset by large declines in others. Of the fifty largest urban areas, just than a dozen saw ridership grow: Los Angeles, San Francisco-Oakland, Seattle, San Diego, Denver, Riverside-San Bernardino, Las Vegas, Portland, San Jose, Buffalo, Hartford, and Raleigh. Most of these saw less than 3 percent growth.
Meanwhile, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Virginia Beach-Norfolk, and Charlotte all saw double-digit declines. Twenty-one other urban areas, including Miami, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Houston, Philadelphia, Washington, Atlanta, and Boston, saw declines between 5 and 10 percent. Ridership declined by “only” 1.5 percent in the New York urban area, but in terms of number of rides that decline was greater than the total transit ridership in most of the 50 largest urban areas.
The Antiplanner has uploaded an enhanced spreadsheet that totals ridership by year (2002-2017) in columns GU to HL, by transit agency in rows 2121 through 3119, and by each of the 200 largest urban areas in rows 3121 to 3320. For each agency, mode, and urban area it also shows the percentage change in ridership in January 2018 compared with January 2017 in column HM.
Los Angeles Metro light-rail ridership.
Michigan transit skeptic Jeff Steinport has created a website that generates charts showing transit ridership by agency and mode since 2002 using the National Transit Database’s month-by-month files. These charts graphically illustrate the problems the industry faces. For example, the above chart shows the increase in light-rail ridership over the past few years due to the opening of new rail lines. The chart below shows that Los Angeles heavy-rail ridership hasn’t fared so well, having declined every year since 2013.
Los Angeles Metro heavy-rail ridership.
The really devastating chart is for buses directly operated by LA Metro, whose ridership has declined every year since 2006. (This doesn’t include bus-rapid transit or buses contracted out, but those numbers are relatively small.) A careful look at the charts reveals that the decline in bus ridership since 2006 is greater than the combined total of light- and heavy-rail ridership in their best years, showing just how wasteful and destructive Los Angeles’ rail program has been.
Los Angeles Metro directly-operated bus ridership.
Steinport says he plans to improve the graphical database in several ways, including providing summaries by state and totals for all modes by transit agency. I’m sure he would welcome any comments or suggests that Antiplanner readers may have.