Texas’ 2019 Transit Ridership Decline is Consistent with the Total United States Decline

by Jim Skaggs, COST Team, 4-07-2020

This is a companion article to the previous posting “U.S. and Texas 2019 Transit Ridership Declines Predict Transit’s Dim Future,” presenting additional detail regarding transit ridership in Texas’ four largest cities. Texas’ major cities’ transit decline is consistent with other major U.S. Cities., but has a longer declining trend than most.

Texas’ Transit ridership is less today than it was 20 years ago. During this period, Austin has experienced the largest percentage transit ridership decline of 16% and has been the fastest growing region with an 85% population increase. The total ridership decline for the 4 largest cities (Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin) has been 12% as indicated in the second graph below.

Please note: Dallas made a significant change in the way its counts/reports bus ridership in 2019. This resulted in a 30% ridership increase from 2018 to 2019. It is clear this increase is due to the counting procedure. First, no city, under normal, continuing operations has ever increased ridership this magnitude in one year. Dallas media reports indicate a ridership decline in 2019 versus 2018. They did not go back and historically change all years to have a common comparison. The new counting, apparently, did not affect light rail ridership which declined 2.4% in 2019 versus 2018. Until this year’s formal report to the ‘American Public Transportation Association’ (APTA), Dallas’ bus ridership had been reported slightly higher than Light Rail for some time. The reported 2019 bus ridership is 30% higher than 2018 and is 37% higher than light rail in 2019. DART, Dallas’ transit agency, has already approved a plan to improve its bus route structure by 2022, as Houston completed in 2015 and Austin did in 2019. Therefore, with incomplete facts, but good indications, I left the 2019 bus ridership the same as it was in 2018, which does not consider the decline reported, in non-specific numbers, by Dallas media. This results in Dallas having almost the same total light rail and bus ridership as 20 years ago and the the least decline of the 4 cities. This is after Dallas has spent billions of dollars on rail and creating the longest light rail in the U.S., in an attempt to increase rail ridership when population increased more than 50%.

Although Dallas spent many billions of dollars more than the other 4 major Texas cities to create the longest light rail in the Nation, Dallas’ transit ridership per-capita (per-citizen population) is less than all 4 cities. Houston, Austin and San Antonio have heavily weighted bus transit, all with significantly greater transit riders per capita. Even with Dallas’ major increase in 2019 bus ridership, due to their modified counting system, Austin per-capita ridership is 35% higher than Dallas and therefore more cost-effective without light rail. San Antonio is, by far, the most cost-effective transit system and is the only one of the 4 cities with zero rail transit. San Antonio collects a 0.5% sales tax to fund transit, only one-half of the 1% sales tax collected for transit in the other 3 cities.

As noted in the chart below, Houston experienced a huge ridership decline when they embarked on light rail. A small portion of this decline was recovered when Houston completed the redesign of its bus route system in 2015. These bus route improvements have been accomplished in several cities, including Austin (2018), and have typically resulted in delaying the ridership decline with short term ridership gains of a small percent and then continuing the decline. Austin’s new bus transit route structure opened in 2018 and the impact was very small in 2019. We will see!

Austin has experienced the longest term, reasonably consistent ridership decline of all the Texas cities. Adding the commuter rail in 2010 resulted in little movement in the trend. The slight up-tic in 2019 is a bit of a deception by Cap Metro. The actual improvement in the bus route structure is even smaller than the small increase that the chart indicates. At the same time Cap Metro opened the improved routes, it changed a key policy and allowed K-12 students to ride free. This resulted in more than 2 million free K-12 riders in the first year of operation. While the media coverage indicated a significant number of students were switching from school buses to Cap Metro free-ride buses, we do not know the proportion.
4 City Ridership
The next chart reflects the total ridership and population of the 4 major Texas cities. As shown the total population increase for the 4 regions was 7.2 million or 57%. With the population increase and the ridership decline, the Ridership Per-Capita declined a whopping 44% over the past 20 years.
4 Cities Total Ridership_Population Master
The Future: New Mobility

Recent events with the COVID-19 virus have highlighted the strong potential of accelerating a number of current trends in the U.S. Two of these trends have been moving somewhat slowly for several years, but their acceleration could very likely have significant, positive impacts on mobility.

1. Growing Work-at-Home trend: ‘Work-at-Home’ is one of the defined “Journey to Work” modes of commuting in the U.S. census. It has been the fastest growing commute mode for several years and recently exceeded the Public Transit mode of commuting to work in the U.S. In Austin, the Work-at-Home mode has grown faster than average, and it is more than double the Public Transit mode. A very high percentage of the ‘Work-at-Home’ citizens result in a car off the road.

2. Declining Public Transit: On the other hand, Transit use has been declining in the U.S. for years. Texas has less transit ridership than it had 20 years ago while spending several Tens of Billions of dollars in major cities to increase transit ridership, including the addition of Dallas’ longest light rail in the Nation. Of the four major Texas cities during this 20-year period, Austin has had the largest population growth (85%) and the greatest decrease in transit ridership (-16%), even with the benefit of millions of free rides for K-12 students.

The coronavirus epidemic has dramatically increased the number of ‘Work-at-Home’ people while significantly decreasing the number of Transit commuters. What is the lasting impact of these trends? The Project Connect plan was very obsolete before the virus and a moderate increase of these two trends could result in an even more tragic, devastating waste of citizens’ tax dollars. These trends and the current and approaching technology trends would be transformational, creating The New Mobility, including less congestion, less road building and less parking, to name a few. This would result in lower cost, faster commuting; greater affordability; lower taxes; and, lower cost mobility with greater access to opportunities and offerings. One small example: Just doubling the Work-at-Home population in Austin would substantially reduce congestion on the roadways, reduce the need for additional road capacity and educe travel times.

Austin needs to pause, thoroughly evaluate the rapidly arriving “New Mobility” and better understand the role each mobility segment will play in the very near future. It would be unconscionable to “double-down” on Project Connect’s massive rail transit plan to serve a minuscule portion of the citizens, when a several times less costly plan is very possible and will improve cost-effective mobility, better meeting needs of all citizen. Let’s move Forward, not Backwards.

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