U.S. Transit Ridership is Falling

COST Commentary: This short article about reductions in 2015 transit ridership compared to 2014 needs no commentary. Texas’ major cities are not mentioned because ridership changes are very small. Austin, Dallas and San Antonio were down slightly in ridership and Houston was up slightly. This “flat” ridership has been the trend of these Texas cities for many years. These cities/regions have been in the top 10 in population growth and transit use has been stagnant while billions of dollars have been spent to improve transit ridership. It is time for the central Texas region to focus on transportation infrastructure which will improve congestion for all. Transit has proven to have from negative to minuscule positive impact on congestion.

Transit Ridership Falling

by Randal O’Toole, April 5, 2106 in blog The Antiplanner.

Transit ridership in 2015 was 1.26 percent less than in 2014, with bus ridership falling by nearly 3 percent. But transit advocates wanted to lead with good news, so Progressive Railroading‘s coverage is headlined, “rail ridership increased as overall public transit use dipped 1.3 percent.”

Why did rail ridership increase? In the case of heavy rail (subways and elevateds), the answer is that New York is enjoying its “largest jobs boom ever,” so subway ridership there grew by 14 million annual rides. Heavy rail as a whole grew by only 9 million annual rides, so take away New York and nationwide subway/elevated ridership declined. Among the big losers in heavy rail were Baltimore (-11%), San Juan (-15%), Los Angeles (-5%), and Washington DC (-4%). Of course, rail supporters in most of those cities still want to build more train lines.

For light rail, the answer is that Minneapolis-St. Paul opened its new Green line. This boosted the region’s light-rail ridership by 7 million rides, without which nationwide light-rail ridership would have declined by 5 million annual trips. Among the biggest losers were Baltimore (-15%), Cleveland (-6%), Los Angeles, and Sacramento (each -5%).

Commuter rail was flat, overall gaining just 20,000 riders for the entire year, which considering the total is 490 million is a 0.00 percent increase. Some of the biggest losers were Portland, Maine (-14%), Albuquerque (-12%), and Portland, Oregon (-8%).

Bus ridership declined in all but eight of the nation’s 42 largest bus systems. Ridership fell by 8.4% in Minneapolis-St. Paul, meaning most of the new light-rail riders there were former bus riders. Similarly, ridership in New York fell by 20 million rides, more than making up for that city’s growth in subway ridership. The only major city showing more than a 3 percent gain in bus ridership was rail-free Las Vegas, which saw a 7 percent increase.

Naturally, transit advocates will blame the decline on low fuel prices. But the drop also shows that Millennials and other Americans aren’t making some cultural transition from driving to transit. Instead, it remains true that American commuters and other urban travelers respond more to factors like employment rates and fuel prices than to heavy spending on new rail or other expensive transit projects.

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