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Are Ride-Shares and Gas Prices Behind Falling Transit Ridership?

Overall transit ridership in the United States has been in decline since 2014, due in large part to falling gas prices. But the increased use of ride-hailing apps, like Uber and Lyft, is also playing a part.

Riders on the Los Angeles Metro transit system could soon be tapping into their favorite music streaming service, compliments of the system’s free onboard Wi-Fi.
Already, riders can chat with a service official while on an L.A. bus for information related to the route, upcoming stops and even to report a security concern.
“It’s like they’re riding alongside of you,” Douglas Anderson, senior director of Information Technology at L.A. Metro, said of the chat service representatives. “So it’s little convenient things, trying to change the experience, to make them (riders) feel a little more comfortable, a little more supported.”
These steps, and many others, are the kinds of changes transit agencies are making to entice riders. The question is: Will it be enough to compete with the pull of an expanding economy and low gas prices?
Transit ridership fell 3.1 percent nationwide in 2016, compared to 2014, which marked a high point for ridership on public transit in the United States, according to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). And the trend seems to be continuing. Ridership is down 2.9 percent for the first six months of 2017, compared to same period a year ago.
The average price for a gallon of gas, nationwide, was $3.34 in 2014, 36.5 percent higher than the average price in 2016, according to AAA.
“Low fuel prices is huge. And that combined with low unemployment – employment being up. So economics plays a big part, I think,” said Anderson. Ridership on L.A. Metro dropped 10.5 percent from 2014 to 2016, according to the agency’s statistics.
It’s not just large agencies like L.A. Metro — spread across 1,433 square miles with 105 miles of rail service and 170 bus routes — that have seen ridership suffer. Some small and mid-size cities have fared worse.
The Spokane Transit Authority in Washington is a fraction of the size of L.A. Metro or even Seattle Sound Transit. Spokane saw its ridership fall 9.3 percent from 2014 to 2016, according to APTA data.
“We mirrored the national trend, with 2014 being our peak,” said Brandon Rapez-Betty, a customer and community relations spokesperson for Spokane Transit, in a recent interview. “We saw a dip in 2015 and 2016. We even saw a decline in early 2017. But I would say in the last four or five months we’ve leveled off. And we’re projecting that we’ll finish 2017 flat, which kind of signifies the bottom of the decline.”
Other small transit agencies like Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority (DART) saw ridership sink from 4.7 million in the 2013-14 fiscal year to 4.6 million in fiscal year ending June 2017. During that time, DART was testing onboard Wi-Fi, launched a mobile ticketing app and formed “mobility hubs,” which are bus stops that also include bike-share services and other perks.
“We’re thinking about all the interconnectedness of transportation and making it as convenient for people as possible,” said Amanda Wanke, chief engagement and communications officer at DART, explaining the steps the capital city’s bus service is taking to encourage ridership.
In the Southeastern United States, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) provides service to more than 500,000 riders daily. It too has had to manage decreases in ridership. From 2014 to 2016 ridership on MARTA fell 4.7 percent, according to statistics compiled by the American Public Transportation Association.
“Gas prices have been low, and are continuing to stay low,” said Ben Limmer, assistant general manager at MARTA, pointing to the common culprit.
Gas prices may not be the only dynamic stymieing use of public transit. A recent report by the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies found that transportation network companies — the Ubers and Lyfts of the world — are siphoning riders away from public transit.
Ride-hailing has translated to a 6 percent average reduction in public bus use among riders in major American cities, according to the report “Disruptive Transportation: The Adoption, Utilization, and Impacts of Ride-Hailing in the United States.” The comprehensive travel and residential survey was deployed in seven major U.S. cities, in two phases from 2014 to 2016.
“When asked explicitly why one might substitute ride-hailing for public transit, the most popular response of all ride-hailing respondents was that ‘services are too slow,’” reads the report.
The impact on light rail was much less, with ride-hailing reducing use of that mode of transit by 3 percent, the study concluded. And indeed, the UC Davis study found that ride-hailing could be contributing to an increase in commuter rail use, citing a 3 percent increase in ridership among users of ride-hailing apps.
This would go along with many of the trends seen in cities that have a combination of bus and rail options. Generally, bus use has fallen more sharply than light rail.
In Los Angeles, bus ridership fell 13.6 percent from 2014 to 2016, according to Metro statistics, while ridership on light rail only slipped 1 percent during this same period.
Anderson, the senior IT official at L.A. Metro, said ride-hailing has had an impact on ridership, particularly when thinking about the casual rider, who is not necessarily dependent on public transit.
“It’s really the discretionary riders that we’re losing,” Anderson remarked, adding that this begins to change ridership demographics, skewing more toward lower socio-economic “transit dependent” riders, causing some riders to feel less comfortable.
“I think one of our last surveys said one of the main reasons people left was because they didn’t feel safe on the buses,” he added. 
“You’ve got different groups here that don’t feel comfortable with strangers,” Anderson continued. 
Roughly 80 percent of ridership on most public transit systems comes from what Anderson calls “your everyday stuff — to and from work, to and from school, that kind of thing. And that’s what we’re losing.”
“I would say Uber and Lyft … are taking some ridership away from us. I don’t think it’s our daily ridership,” said Anderson, noting the daily costs that would be associated with taking Uber to work every day. “But they’re definitely having an impact on some of the ridership.”
Limmer, at MARTA, disputed the argument that ride-hailing was cutting into transit ridership in any significant way.
“I think transportation network companies are maybe taking a very small number of riders away from public transportation,” he conceded. “But in my opinion, it’s very small. I do not think it’s significant.”
In the end, making transit an attractive mobility option means making transit a positive experience that is, at the same time, convenient, say experts. Anderson points to trip-planners — both those created by transit agencies and the broader types like the Google Maps app — which often route a traveler across multiple buses and transfers, maybe even including a bike-share at some point.
“Well, that’s nonsense. They might try it one time,” Anderson remarked. “But the bottom line is people won’t do that consistently day-after-day-after-day. It’s just too inconvenient. If I’ve got to make three or four transfers going, and then coming back, that’s what, six transfers a day, times five days a week; who’s gonna put up with that?”
Some of the feedback Anderson and his staff hears falls along the lines of “It’s okay to ride the train. I’m not sure I would say it’s cool. It’s okay. But it’s definitely not okay to ride the buses.”
“I haven’t had anybody tell me this directly,” said Anderson. “But indirectly, that’s the vibe we keep getting."
“But buses just aren’t cool. And I don’t know how we change that,” he continued. “But it does point me again to, it’s the experience that we have to change.” 

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.