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Bus Ridership Was in Trouble Long Before COVID-19, Study Finds

A new report by the Transportation Research Board looks at public transit’s declining ridership trends from 2012 to 2016, due in part to housing and demographic changes, and of course Uber and Lyft.

a few passengers on a bus
Transit stops across the nation have become a little less crowded, despite population gains in a number of cities and myriad efforts by agencies to grow ridership. But these declines are not just because of the ill effects of COVID-19, and signal a troubling trend — especially for buses.

Bus ridership has “dipped below anything we’ve seen since 1990. And actually, anything we’ve seen since the 1970s,” said Kari Watkins, a professor with the Urban Transportation Lab at Georgia Tech and one of the researchers on a recent report released by the Transportation Research Board (TRB).

The report, titled Analysis of Recent Transportation Ridership Trends, focuses its study on the period from 2012 to 2016 and does not include an analysis of the depth of damage brought to public transportation since March, when COVID-19 forced stay-at-home orders. The virus and resultant response to it have inflicted deep damage to transit ridership, and it’s unclear when — or if — transit will recover to pre-pandemic levels, say experts.

That aside, the headwinds had long been forming, even though overall transit ridership across the nation ended 2019 with a slight increase from the year before.

From bus ridership’s peak in 2012, this mode has declined 12 percent to 18 percent, said Watkins, in her comments during a TRB webinar on Tuesday to discuss the report’s findings. The study also observed declines in rail ridership, which has dropped 4 percent to 6 percent since 2014.

“These declines in ridership are particularly concerning to the industry,” she said.

Other countries experiencing similar losses in transit ridership are also places with poor economic conditions, or countries that have seen significant changes in demographics.

“The way that population has been changing in the U.S., we should be seeing increases in ridership, not declines,” said Watkins. “We should be doing much better, similar to countries in Europe and such and we’re not.”

Historically, one of the key factors affecting transit ridership is the level of service provided.

“The problem is, in the past few years, many, many agencies have been increasing the amount of service that they’re providing. But they’re not getting the associated ridership increases with that,” said Watkins. “In addition, we know that transit ridership is cyclical, and it’s tied to economic factors, so low unemployment increases ridership. High gas prices increase ridership. Well, we haven’t had high gas prices. But we have had low unemployment.”

Shifts in housing patterns and demographics are not favorable to transit growth and adoption, researchers say, pointing to both the expansion of low-density suburbs and the gentrification of urban cores. Other outside forces like Uber and Lyft have cut into transit ridership, particularly on buses.

“That is absolutely true. The biggest cause of decline in bus ridership that we’re seeing can be attributed to the TNCs,” said Watkins, using the shorthand for transportation network companies.

In a number of cases, transit agencies have partnered with on-demand-type transit services to serve low-density suburban areas, or, even better, connecting riders to modes like light rail. Systems like King County Transit in the Seattle metro have taken a number of innovative steps like these that have been shown to buck nationwide ridership trends and lead to an increased use of transit.

“By providing service that is more reliable, that is better coordinated with other modes and other services… the transit agency has really been effective at increasing ridership at a time when the national trend was declining,” said Simon Berrebi, a transit researcher at Georgia Tech and one of the authors for the transit ridership analysis study.

King County Transit has been innovative in areas like “travel demand management practice” and others, Berrebi added during Tuesday’s webinar.

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.