Transit Death Watch: April Ridership Declines 2.3 Percent

Nationwide transit ridership continued its downward spiral with April 2018 falling 2.3 percent below the same month in 2017, according to data released yesterday by the Federal Transit Administration. Commuter-rail ridership grew by 3.5 percent, but light-rail, heavy-rail, hybrid rail, streetcar, and bus ridership all declined. The biggest decline was light rail at 5.5 percent.

April’s drop was smaller than the 5.9 percent year-over-year decline experienced in March because April 2018 had one more work day (21 vs. 20) than April 2017, while March 2018 had one less work day. As a result, 16 of the fifty largest urban areas saw transit ridership grow in April 2018, compared with just four in March. Considering that most transit ridership takes place on work days, anything less than a 5 percent growth is not something to be proud of. Only Pittsburgh, Providence, Nashville, and Raleigh saw ridership grow by more than 5 percent.

The most catastrophic losses were in Boston (24.4%), Cleveland (14.4%), and Milwaukee (10.8%). Ridership fell by more than 5 percent in Miami-Ft. Lauderdale, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Atlanta, Tampa-St. Petersburg, St. Louis, Orlando, Charlotte, and Richmond. These losses follow steady declines since 2014 and, in some urban areas, as far back as 2009.

To help people understand the numbers, I’ve posted an enhanced data file that includes all the raw, month-to-month data in columns A through GW and rows 1 through 2116. The enhancements include summing the monthly data into annual data in columns GX through HN, then comparisons of percentage changes from 2017 to 2018 for January-April and April alone in columns HR and HS. The enhanced spreadsheet also has totals by major modes in rows 2118 through 2124; by transit agency in rows 2131-3129; and by the 200 largest urbanized areas in rows 3131 through 3330. All these summaries are done on both the transit ridership (UPT) worksheet and the vehicle revenue miles (VRM) worksheet.

In attempting to explain away recent declines, some transit advocates claimed it was just buses that were losing riders – the implication being that more cities should built rail transit, which requires both higher taxes and increasing debt. But the claim that only bus ridership was falling wasn’t true when they made that claim and it isn’t true today.

More recently, transit advocates have claimed that the reason ridership is falling is because transit agencies have been offering less service. A study from the urban planners at McGill University concluded that a reduction in bus miles “likely explains the reduction in ridership observed in recent years in many North American cities.” Again, the implication is that agencies need to spend more money.

In fact, I’ve been saying for years that reduced service is an important factor in declining ridership. But what the transit advocates haven’t admitted is that this is mainly a problem in cities with expensive rail transit: the cost of building and maintaining rail systems often forces agencies to cut back on bus service. Significantly, the McGill study only looked at 22 urban areas in the United States, all of which have rail transit. They left out, for example, San Antonio, which increased revenues miles of bus service by 2.7 percent in the first four months of 2018 yet saw a 3.1 percent decline in ridership.

The real problem with transit finances is not that agencies don’t have enough money but that they have too much money and spend it the wrong way, namely on fixed infrastructure improvements such as light rail or dedicated bus lanes that look good politically but do little or nothing for transit riders. For example, the CEO of Dallas Area Rapid Transit likes to brag that Dallas has “the longest light-rail system in North America.” But building a rail empire didn’t prevent – and probably accelerated – the decline in transit’s regional share of commuting from 2.8 percent (according to the 1990 Census) before they build light rail to 1.7 percent in 2016 (according to the American Community Survey).

At least some of the decline in transit ridership has different causes in different cities. Deteriorating service in regions with older rail systems – New York, Chicago, Washington, Philadelphia, Boston, and San Francisco-Oakland – has cost those systems ridership. Decisions to cut bus service in order to build rail in Los Angeles and many other urban areas has cost riders in those areas.

The one thing almost all urban areas have in common, however, is the growth of ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft since 2012. If, as surveys suggest, a third of ride-hailing users would have otherwise used transit, then these services account for well over half the losses in transit ridership. Those ride-hailing services aren’t going to go away; in fact, their advantage over transit will be multiplied many times as they substitute driverless cars for human-driven cars.

The transit industry is dying because the alternatives to transit are increasingly superior. More money won’t save the industry, and the last thing a dying industry needs to do is go more heavily into debt to try to save itself. In the short run, agencies can experiment with low-cost improvements in bus service so that their systems better serve the needs of transit riders. In the long run, however, they need to back out of transit services that fewer and fewer people are using without leaving a legacy of debt and unfunded pension and health-care obligations; in short, to die with dignity.