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2018 Was the Year of the Car, and Transit Ridership Felt It

Public transit ridership in 2018 was down 2 percent from the year before, continuing a trend of declining transit use across the country. While there are a number of factors at play, privately owned cars seem to be a driving force.

In cities across the country, 2018 transit ridership numbers continued to slip as would-be riders turned to other modes of transportation — namely private vehicles.

Public transit ridership declined to a level not seen since 2006, according to statistics compiled by the American Public Transportation Association, falling 2 percent compared to 2017 levels.

The drop marks a trend that started in 2015, following a banner year in 2014, when ridership reached 10.8 billion trips, a level not seen since the middle of the last century.

And the declines seem to affect transit agencies at all levels. In fact, the largest public transit systems — New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco Bay Area and Washington, D.C. — all posted declines in 2018 ridership.

The reasons for the declines are many, according to researchers and industry watchers. And each community is different, with its own set of factors. However, in a number of cases, private car trips are taking the place of transit trips, according to the TransitCenter. Total per capita mileage driven on U.S. roads was its highest ever in 2018, according to the New York-based public transit foundation's report, Who’s on Board.

Affordable car loans combined with affordable gas also helped paved the way for more car trips.

The report surveyed some 1,700 riders in New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Denver and New Orleans, and among other questions, asked them how their use of transit had changed during the last two years.

“What we found is that in all seven regions, our rider sample reduced their transit use, on average,” said Mary Buchanan, report co-author. “And also, on average, the riders who cut back were replacing their transit trips with car trips, in a private car."

“There was a degree of TNC [transportation network company] travel increase as well,” said Buchanan, using the shorthand for,  “But really, our survey seemed to indicate that the private car is the most competitive with transit.”

Buchanan said that while ride-hailing services like Uber or Lyft are often blamed for siphoning ridership away from public transit, they take a backseat to personal vehicles in most locales. 

“Despite all the changes that we see in transportation technology, it’s still really ‘transit versus the private automobile’ in most cities,” said Steven Higashide, director of Research at the TransitCenter and co-author of the report.

Buses — still the workhorses of public transportation in most cities — have seen some of the steepest declines in ridership over the years. Since 2013, ridership has fallen 14.3 percent nationwide, according to APTA statistics. The quality of the bus service — measured by factors like frequency, on-time arrivals and overall experience — is often a significant factor influencing ridership.

“It really comes down to these fundamental factors that make transit useful,” said Higashide. “Does it come frequently? Is it fast? Can you rely on it?”

“None of this is to discount the role that TNCs are playing,” said Higashide. “But we do think it’s important for cities to keep in mind that it really comes down to these basic questions of, does transit deliver a competitive travel plan or not? And for the most part, if it doesn’t, you’re still seeing people buying private vehicles.”

Some cities like Seattle, Houston or Austin have seen slight upticks in transit ridership, with all of them posting increases in bus use. Those cities have also taken steps to revamp their bus systems to the shifting trends in employment, demographics or population.

In 2016, voters in Seattle approved a $54 billion transit package, which will eventually add 116 miles of light-rail lines.

“We also opened two new light rail stations earlier in 2016, which caused an immediate increase in ridership that continues today,” said Chad Lewis, director of communications for performance, strategy and budget in King County, Wash. Light-rail ridership in Seattle was up 19 percent in 2018. Sound Transit, which operates commuter rail service across the Seattle region, saw light rail ridership increase 6.1 percent in 2018 compared to 2017 levels.

“Our steady ridership growth further confirms the urgency of the light rail, commuter rail and bus rapid transit expansions our region’s voters approved,” said Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff, in a statement.

Los Angeles Metro, one of the largest transit systems in the country, saw ridership decline across all major sectors in 2018, according APTA data. Bus ridership in L.A., which accounts for 70 percent of the transit trips, was down 3.1 percent.

Metro is in the process of a “NextGen Bus Study,” which will examine the system for areas where improvements can be made. The system “hasn’t had a major overhaul in more than 25-30 years,” said Rick Jager, a spokesman for L.A. Metro, adding the county — one of the largest in the nation with more than 10 million residents — has changed a great deal during that time.

“There are many reasons for a decline in ridership that include ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft, a better economy, lower gas prices — until recently — perceptions of safety issues when riding transit, but one of the many factors is an increase in car ownership,” said Jager.

The study will be reviewed by Metro’s board of directors this summer, with plans to begin implementing some of the recommended changes by the end of the year.

The goal of the study is to design a new bus network that is more relevant, reflective of, and attractive to the residents of LA County,” said Jager. “We believe this redesigned network will improve service to current customers, attract new customers and win back past customers.”

Large-scale projects like redesigning bus networks for today’s needs and using real-time data to gain insights into some of the factors that continue to make buses as slow as the car congestion they invariably get stuck in are some of the innovations cities and transit agencies should be exploring, TransitCenter officials said.

For example, many bus networks now offer real-time vehicle tracking — a perk for riders who can follow their bus along its route. But this real-time data can also be beneficial for transit planners, offering insights into issues like repeatedly congested intersections, said Higashide.

“In congested cities, giving transit priority on the street is really important. And you can use data to pinpoint the areas where it’s needed most,” Higashide said. “Traffic is by far the biggest cause of unreliable bus service."

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.