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.