Nine out of the top ten and forty out of the top fifty urban areas saw transit ridership decline in February, 2018 compared with the previous February, according to the latest data posted by the Federal Transit Administration. That’s slightly worse than in January: When compared with 2017, ridership in Buffalo, Denver, and Portland had grown slightly in the first month of 2018 but shrank in the second, which is slightly offset by Providence ridership growing in February after having declined in January.
The other regions seeing ridership grow are Los Angeles, San Francisco-Oakland, Seattle, San Diego, Riverside-San Bernardino, Las Vegas, San Jose, Hartford, and Raleigh. However, all of these regions except Seattle saw ridership decline in 2017, so the growth trend may be short-lived.
The declines are much more spectacular than the growth. While Los Angeles ridership grew by just 0.6 percent, Chicago lost 5.6 percent of its riders. San Francisco-Oakland did better with 6.9 percent growth, but Dallas-Ft. Worth lost 14.3 percent. Ridership in Seattle, which has been the only major urban area with consistent growth, grew by just 1.8 percent, but Portland ridership declined by the same percentage. Houston, which supposedly benefitted from a restructured bus system, saw ridership fall by 5.0 percent.
As in previous monthly updates, the Antiplanner has posted an enhanced spreadsheet with annual totals in columns GV through HL, totals for major modes in rows 2112 through 2117, transit agency totals in rows 2110 through 3119, and totals for the 200 largest urban areas in rows 3122 through 3321.
The data show that nationwide ridership was 2.0 percent less in February 2018 than in 2017. February 2017 and February 2018 both had the same number of work days so the calendar can’t be blamed for the decline.
Bus ridership fell by 3.4 percent, compared with 2.0 percent for light rail, 0.5 percent for heavy rail, and a rare increase of 0.7 percent for commuter rail. Streetcar ridership fell by 4.7 percent, partly because a couple of systems began charging for previously free rides but more because the bulk of streetcar riders are in just two cities, Philadelphia and New Orleans, both of which saw substantial declines.
The fact that bus ridership is falling faster than rail has led some to speculate that rail is a better way of attracting and keeping riders. But the reality is that bus ridership is partly falling because the high cost of rail has forced many agencies to cut back on bus service. Bus vehicle-revenue miles declined by 5.2 percent between February 2017 and February 2018, explaining much of the 4.7 percent ridership decline.
Rail certainly offers no immunity from decline. Phoenix has claimed that its light-rail program is a great success, yet it saw ridership fall by 6.8 percent, while Las Vegas, which has focused on buses, saw ridership grow by 0.5 percent. Charlotte has been patting itself on the back for building light rail, yet it saw ridership decline by a staggering 20.0 percent. Meanwhile, Raleigh, which pointedly rejected light rail, enjoyed a 7.3 percent increase in ridership. Charlotte will be worth watching in March and April, when the numbers from its latest light-rail extension kick in.
These numbers provide no comfort to the transit industry. Instead, many are simply ignoring them, with Atlanta, Austin, Los Angeles, Nashville, Portland, and others continuing to plan expensive new rail transit lines despite the failure of the rail systems that already exist in these regions. The industry needs to undergo some revolutionary thinking if it is to do anything more than be a deadweight around taxpayers’ necks.