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Seattle, Houston Buck Declining Bus Ridership Trend

The two cities have improved bus service at a time when transit ridership in the United States dropped 2.9 percent in 2017.

Investments in expanding and improving transit service, as well as redrawing routes, have translated into bus ridership gains in Seattle and Houston, bucking a nationwide transit trend of declining ridership.

“[King County] Metro invested in more frequent bus service at all times of the day across many of its 200-plus routes, and restructured the bus network to connect with two new Link light rail stations that opened in 2016,” said Scott Gutierrez, a spokesman with the King County Department of Transportation, the umbrella organization overseeing Metro Transit, which serves the Seattle metro area.

“These investments are paying off. Just 25 percent of morning commuters into downtown Seattle are driving alone these days,” Gutierrez added. “That is the lowest it’s ever been, which is an important achievement in a city that is growing by the day with finite street space to accommodate traffic.”

In Houston, transit officials revamped a number of bus lines, making them more direct, which has led to faster, more frequent and predictable service throughout the day and week.

“Rather than just capital intensive things, we looked at how can we make our system — particularly our bus system — much better for our customers,” said Kurt Luhrsen, vice president of Planning at Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County. “How can we make it more customer focused, and sort of the culmination of several years' worth of study, lots of focus groups.”

The process — which included seven months of just discussing goals and objectives — provided a better picture of “what folks were interested in,” said Luhrsen.

Overall ridership in Houston grew about 0.8 percent from 2016 to 2017, with light rail growing about 3.2 percent, and bus ridership holding steady, according to METRO ridership statistics.

In Seattle, Metro Transit ridership grew roughly 0.6 percent from 2016 to 2017, according to statistics provided by Metro Transit. Meanwhile, Sound Transit, which operates bus, light rail and commuter train services in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, saw overall ridership climb 9.9 percent in 2017, according to APTA, the national association of public transportation agencies.

“The greater Seattle area led the nation last year with the highest growth in people choosing transit,” said Gutierrez.

Those trends, however, were not seen across the country, as ridership in 2017 marked another year of declines after peaking in 2014. Analysts point to lower gas prices, higher rates of car ownership and changing work patterns as factors that contributed to these declines. Transit ridership in the United States dropped 2.9 percent in 2017, with the sharpest reductions occurring in bus ridership, according to APTA.

Bus ridership fell 4.2 percent, while light rail use fell 0.8 percent. And from 2000 to 2017 total bus ridership fell nearly 16 percent, while rail ridership — which includes heavy, light and commuter rail and streetcars — increased 43 percent during this same period, according to APTA.

Those statistics, notwithstanding, cities ought not turn away from buses, say transit experts.

“In a lot of communities that we’ve seen a turnaround occur, it’s because they’ve done the work, involving bus lanes, increasing the frequency of service, and also redesigning the routes to make them more direct and clear,” said Darnell Grisby, APTA's director of Policy Development and Research. “And consumers respond to that. They respond to better service. They respond to clarity. These are proven solutions.”

The Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County in Houston reimagined its bus network, which serves an area of 1,300 square miles, traversed by 1,200 buses serving more than 9,000 bus stops. “We tried to make the frequent service as easy to use as possible," said Luhrsen. "And that meant running in straight lines, staying on major corridors, running as frequently as we could, without lots of deviations and short lines. So that it was easy to understand.”

“And we tried to make it so that whatever the frequency of service was, sort of in the middle of the day on weekdays, that was the base level that we would run on Saturday and Sunday,” he added.

Houston transit officials didn’t just redraw bus lines and operate more frequent service. METRO also turned to technology to improve riders’ experience, and introduced features like mobile ticketing and trip planning that would give riders information about when the next bus would arrive at a particular stop.

“We put a lot more information about the routes and bus stops online,” said Luhrsen.  

The agency also beefed up its social media operations to better communicate with and engage riders, and created dedicated bus lanes — which take the vehicles outside of the congestion of regular traffic. Grisby considers this move to be perhaps the most effective way to making buses arrive on time, and create the kind of rider loyalty required to build the regular transit-riding population.

“Dedicated bus lanes allow us to maintain our ability to keep time, and the customer will appreciate that,” he remarked.

In fact, one of the reasons for the growth of ridership on light rail networks is because these systems operate separately from highways on “dedicated infrastructure,” say transit observers. However, securing this type of infrastructure — which often includes rights-of-way and other urban improvements — takes the participation of numerous stakeholders and decision-makers. And reversing current ridership trends is, “going to take a greater engagement with stakeholders that may not have a direct connection to public transportation,” said Grisby.

“So, for example, we may want to be involved with understanding the homeless issue in a given community. If there’s going to be a reduction in the number of beds for the homeless in a shelter, that has an impact not just on transit, but also parks and libraries. So the public realm is always connected to everything else in a community,” he explained. “It’s really a statement of community values, and what we actually invest in.”


Editor's note: The story has been corrected to indicate that the Metropolitan Transit Authority in Houston is in Harris County, not Travis County.

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.