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Study Finds Bike-Share Hurts Buses, but Might Help Trains

A new study by the University of Kentucky concluded bike and scooter-share operations may be depressing bus ridership. On the other hand, train systems such as light rail and subways might benefit from the same options.

As if the headwinds facing bus ridership were not strong enough, it seems that yet another form of conveyance may be siphoning riders.

Bike-share operations — along with e-scooters — could be contributing to reductions in bus ridership as city dwellers forgo waiting at bus stops and grab a bike easily and cheaply via smartphone app. A study has found that every 1,000 bikes on or near a bus route in New York City contributed to a 1.7 percent to 2.4 decrease in bus ridership. That's from a new study out of the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of Kentucky.

Bus trips tend to be two to three miles in length, said Greg Erhardt, one of the authors of the report Understanding the Recent Transit Ridership Decline in Major US Cities: Service Cuts or Emerging Modes?

“A typical bike trip might be two or three miles,” said Erhardt. “Bike trips tend to be short too.”

Given that the length of bus trips closely mirrors those of bike trips, the two modes operate in competition to each other.

To be clear, the sources for declines in bus ridership are many: reductions in service, increasing car ownership, cheap gas and of course, the rise in transportation network companies like Uber. And both researchers and transit officials stress that every market is different, with differing sets of struggles faced by bus systems. Nationwide, bus ridership declined nearly 4.3 percent in 2017 from 2016 levels, according to American Public Transportation Association stats. And for the first nine months of 2018, bus ridership continued its drop, landing 2.3 percent below the first nine months of 2017.

Among the 37 largest bus systems in the country, all but four of the systems experienced declines in ridership 2017, according to the APTA, with the steepest drop occurring in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where ridership fell 15.6 percent in 2017. Bus ridership growth was strongest in Phoenix, up 6.2 percent in 2017.

“To the extent that I’ve talked to them, they are monitoring this closely and are taking it seriously. And they want to understand what’s going on,” said Erhardt.

In the last decade cities have taken significant steps to improve biking infrastructure with new bike lanes, parking corrals and expanding fleets of app-based rentable bikes by companies like Lime, JUMP, Mobike and others. At the same time, electric scooters have also arrived on city streets, providing yet another easy and cheap transportation option that lets riders zip past traffic.

Bike-share programs have been shown to increase subway ridership 6.9 percent and increase light rail ridership 4.2 percent, while reducing bus ridership 1.8 percent, the University of Kentucky study found, which examined the transit systems in 22 large U.S. cities. 

For their part, transit agencies have largely welcomed the bikes and scooters, and have worked to integrate the systems into their own trip-planning platforms, seeing these new mobility options as a possible answer to closing first-mile-last-mile gaps in service. L.A. Metro in Los Angeles has even launched its own bike-share called Metro Bike.

Transit agencies are also looking to partner with bike-shares in other ways like allowing bike providers to locate docking stations at transit stops — particularly light rail stations.

“Bike share is sort of complimentary to rail, in a way, where people might bike to and from the rail station. But it is competitive with the bus,” said Erhardt.

If bikes are siphoning riders from buses, maybe that’s not so bad, say industry watchers.

“From both an environmental and congestion perspective, do we really care if bikeshare and scooter-share replace bus ridership? I don't,” said Regina Clewlow, CEO and co-founder of Populus, a mobility data platform, citing numerous gains in areas like sustainability cities make achieve as more commuters opt to bike rather than drive or even take the bus.

Often environmental and other benefits coming to cities as more people turn to bikes and scooters may be offset by the growth of TNCs, the Kentucky study pointed out. Companies like Uber and Lyft have had a real impact, driving down ridership across sectors, ranging from subway and light rail systems, to commuter rail and bus networks.

Those impacts only increase the longer TNCs are in a market. The study found that TNCs will decrease subway ridership 1.3 percent per year and reduce bus ridership 1.7 percent per year.

TriMet, the transit agency serving the Portland, Ore., region — an area known for having a well-established cycling culture — has reported mostly flat bus ridership, said Tim Becker, a spokesman for TriMet.

The agency “did see a small correlation with increasing biking and decreasing bus trips,” said Becker.

But he added, “other factors” have also been at play such as “changing demography around transit lines,” shifting job centers and neighborhoods that have become more walkable, thus offering another reason to forgo the bus.

"[Public transit] can definitely improve,” said Erhardt. “It’s not to say that it’s a flawless system. It’s just to understand what’s going on and understand how to improve it.”

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.