The nation’s heavily subsidized transit industry continued its descent into oblivion with a 2.9 percent decline in ridership in June 2019, compared with June 2018, according to the Federal Transit Administration’s most recent data. Ridership dropped in 41 of the nation’s 50 largest urban areas, falling even in Seattle, which had previously appeared immune to the decline that is afflicting most of the industry.
Transit is one of the most heavily subsidized industries in the country, receiving more than $50 billion a year from taxpayers. While highways are also subsidized, subsidies to driving average about a penny per passenger mile while subsidies to transit average more than 90 cents per passenger mile. Yet those subsidies haven’t prevented the industry from losing customers in each of the past five years.
Hardest hit in June was Philadelphia’s Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), whose ridership declined by 22 percent, representing 6.2 million fewer riders in June 2019 than in June 2018. Part of this was due to maintenance-related disruption’s to the city’s trolley system, whose ridership fell 21 percent, but SEPTA’s buses lost 31 percent of their riders and its heavy-rail lines lost 15 percent.
While a 22 percent loss is steep, this is just a continuation of trends in Philadelphia since at least 2016. Moreover, SEPTA ridership is falling despite increases in transit service. Since 2013, SEPTA’s vehicle-revenue miles of service have increased by nearly 6 percent, yet ridership has dropped by nearly 18 percent.
Philadelphia is not the only urban area to suffer double-digit losses in ridership. Transit systems in Cleveland, Kansas City, Louisville, Memphis, San Antonio, and Virginia Beach-Norfolk also lost between 10 and 15 percent of their riders.
Over the last five years, a dozen of the nation’s 50 largest urban areas lost at least 20 percent of their riders and 30 lost 10 percent or more. Only seven saw ridership grow. Ridership is dropping in regions in the Rust Belt and Sun Belt, in urban areas that have rail transit and ones that have only bus transit, in older cities with dense downtowns and newer sprawling cities.
Historically, the key to transit ridership has been the number of downtown jobs, as these are most easily served by hub-and-spoke transit systems. Seattle transit numbers have grown because its downtown grew from around 220,000 jobs in 2010 to more than 310,000 in 2018. But that growth has slowed, partly because of the Seattle city council’s open hostility to Amazon and other downtown employers, which helps explain why Seattle’s transit ridership is dropping.
Many in the transit industry hope that even more subsidies will help it reverse these losses. But the fundamental reasons for transit’s decline are beyond the industry’s control: alternatives to transit are faster, more convenient, and less expensive. Most low-income commuters now own their own cars, which University of Minnesota researchers have shown allow them to reach far more jobs than transit. The number of people who work at home is growing rapidly and they outnumbered transit commuters for the first time in 2017. People who once took transit to shops and restaurants now use Uber and Lyft.
The outlook for transit is bleak. The only question is when politicians will recognize this and stop subsidizing a dying industry. For more information about recent transit ridership, see my policy brief on June’s numbers, which includes a link to a spreadsheet detailing nearly two decades worth of ridership numbers for every transit agency in the country.