May Transit Ridership Down 3.3 Percent

Nationwide transit ridership in May 2018 was 3.3 percent less than in the same month of 2017. May transit ridership fell in 36 of the nation’s 50 largest urban areas. Ridership in the first five months of 2018 was lower than the same months of 2017 in 41 of the 50 largest urban areas. Buses, light rail, heavy rail, and streetcars all lost riders. 

These numbers are from the Federal Transit Administration’s monthly data report. I’ve posted an enhanced spreadsheet that has annual totals in columns GY through HO, mode totals for major modes in rows 2123 through 2129, agency totals in rows 2120 through 3129, and urban area totals for the nation’s 200 largest urban areas in rows 3131 through 3330.

Declines in 2018 continue a trend that began in 2014. Year-on-year monthly ridership has fallen in 21 of the last 24 months and all of the last seven months. The principle cause is likely the growth of Uber, Lyft, and other ride-hailing services, but whatever the cause, there seems to be no positive future for public transit.

Of the urban areas that saw ridership increase, ridership grew by 1.2 percent in Houston, 2.2 percent in Seattle, 2.4 percent in Denver, 1.2 percent in Portland, 5.0 percent in Indianapolis, 7.8 percent in Providence, 7.2 percent in Nashville, and an incredible 63.1 percent in Raleigh. Most of the growth in Raleigh was students carried by North Carolina State University’s bus system.

On a percentage basis, the biggest losers were Miami, Boston, Cleveland, Kansas City, and Milwaukee, all of which saw about 11 percent fewer riders in May 2018 than May 2017. Ridership fell 9.2 percent in Phoenix, 8.0 percent in Jacksonville, 7.2 percent in Virginia Beach-Norfolk, 6.4 percent in Dallas-Fort Worth, 5.9 percent in Atlanta, and 5.6 percent in Philadelphia.

Numerically, the biggest losses were in New York, whose transit systems carried 12.7 million fewer riders in May 2018 than 2017; Boston, -4.1 million; Los Angeles, -2.4 million; Philadelphia, -1.7 million; and Miami, -1.4 million. Chicago, Washington, Atlanta, and Phoenix all lost more than half a million monthly riders.

Some people have argued that ridership is declining because of cuts to transit services. Others have concluded that the cuts to transit service “mostly followed, and not led falling ridership.” The posted spreadsheet includes data for vehicle-revenue miles of service that could support either view.

Transit service in both Houston and Seattle grew by 2.6 percent, supporting Houston’s 1.2 percent and Seattle’s 2.2 percent ridership gains. Indianapolis’ 5.0 percent increase in ridership was supported by a 9.9 percent increase in service. Service declined 2.0 percent in New York and 3.7 percent in Los Angeles, either reflecting or contributing to falling ridership in those urban areas.

However, ridership declined 2.5 percent in San Diego despite a 10.9 percent increase in service. Ridership in San Jose fell by 4.2 percent despite a 2.4 percent increase in service. Jacksonville’s 8.0 percent loss of riders came in spite of a 2.6 percent increase in service.

It seems clear that service levels are only one of the factors influencing transit ridership. Moreover, there appear to be rapidly diminishing returns to service: large service increases are needed to get small ridership gains. On the other hand, ridership declines reduce agency revenues forcing reductions in service, leading to further ridership declines: a classic death spiral.

Transit industry leaders must be hoping for some kind of catastrophe that will send gasoline prices above $4 a gallon, for that is probably the only thing that could save the industry from its current trajectory. That is unlikely, and the industry is not worth saving any other way.