National Academies Press: OpenBook

Analysis of Recent Public Transit Ridership Trends (2019)

Chapter: Chapter 1: Background

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Suggested Citation:"Chapter 1: Background." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2019. Analysis of Recent Public Transit Ridership Trends. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25635.
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Suggested Citation:"Chapter 1: Background." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2019. Analysis of Recent Public Transit Ridership Trends. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25635.
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Page 13
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Suggested Citation:"Chapter 1: Background." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2019. Analysis of Recent Public Transit Ridership Trends. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25635.
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Page 14
Page 15
Suggested Citation:"Chapter 1: Background." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2019. Analysis of Recent Public Transit Ridership Trends. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25635.
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7 Chapter 1: Background The Last Quarter of 2018 APTA Ridership Report shows that a concerning trend in transit ridership continues. Overall, unlinked passenger trips are down 2.0% from the previous year with light rail down as much as 3.0%. These declines continue across all modes except commuter rail and demand response. Although bus ridership is down the most in the mid-size cities (2.2% in regions with populations between 200,000 and 500,000), bus ridership is declining in all population groups. As shown in Figure 1, in 2018, following six years of consecutive decline, bus ridership attained its lowest point since 1990. Earlier APTA reports show that this is actually the lowest bus ridership since at least 1965. Even rail transit ridership declined following an upward trend since 2009. The only fixed schedule mode that seems to have escaped this trend is commuter rail, as shown in Figure 2, although transit ridership gains on commuter rail have also leveled off in the most recent years. These ridership declines have caught the attention of many in the industry, and rightfully so. The recent decline in transit ridership is particularly worrisome because traditional factors of ridership do not seem to be involved. In particular, as shown in Figure 3, both bus and rail Vehicle Revenue Miles (VRM) have increased steadily since 2013. Figure 1: Change in Annual Ridership by year for Bus, Rail and All Modes 

8 Figure 2: Change in Annual Ridership by year for Commuter Rail  Figure 3: Change in Annual Vehicle Revenue Miles by year for Bus, Rail and All Modes  The primary objectives of this research are, therefore, to: 1. Produce a current snapshot of public transit ridership trends in the U.S. on rail and bus services with a focus on changes in the past few years. 2. Explore and present strategies that transit agencies are considering and using in response.

9 Literature Overview In order to understand recent ridership trends in context, the study began with a review of a variety of academic and industry sources surrounding transit ridership both overall and within the past several years. Included in this literature review are studies investigating historical transit ridership effects, studies exploring specific policy changes and associated ridership effects, and studies comparing various regions and transit agencies. Our approach was to first look to national studies on transit ridership both recently and in the past. These studies tend to look at ten or more metropolitan areas in North America to highlight the trends associated with transit ridership overall. We then looked closer, at studies on specific factors such as density or presence of Transportation Network Companies (TNCs). These studies tended to focus on case studies or surveys sent to transit riders to summarize the impacts of a specific aspect or set of aspect that affects transit ridership. Finally, to get a sense of the efforts of transit agencies to bring back riders in recent years, we read news articles and transit agency reports on specific efforts, their public perception, and early results. This method allowed us to get a holistic view of transit ridership, recent trends, and what is being done to combat them. Appendix A summarizes the 66 sources reviewed. Based on a review of the literature identified above, several overarching trends have been identified and are presented below.  In nationwide studies, the most vital factor affecting transit ridership is the amount of service provided. Historically, ridership and service (such as vehicle revenue miles or hours) are highly correlated at every level of transit service. Transit agencies that increase service tend to see corresponding ridership increases. This service may be in the form of a new area served by transit or simply more frequent service to existing areas.  However, in the past few years, many transit agencies have increased service without associated ridership increases. Contrary to historic trends, transit agencies have not seen the ridership gains from service improvements that they had seen prior to 2008.  Transit ridership is tied to economic factors. Unemployment and to a lesser extent gas prices affect transit ridership nationwide, and while low unemployment creates more trips, it also increases vehicle miles and purchases. Since about 2012, the economy has improved, likely playing a role in ridership declines.  Transit ridership is also tied to built environment factors. Higher housing and employment density correlate to higher transit ridership, and higher availability of parking at workplaces has been shown to decrease transit ridership nationwide.  Shifts in housing and demographics are not favoring transit access. Despite a brief trend in the other direction, suburbs are outpacing urban cores in growth nationwide. These fast-growing suburbs are generally not as accessible by transit as urban cores. Additionally,

10 gentrification in urban cores has displaced transit-dependent populations to suburbs, and wealthier groups who are less likely to take transit have been taking their place. Although some suburbanites may use transit, their usage patterns will differ.  There are a growing number of resources that replace the need to make trips. Telecommuting and working from home are trends that have grown considerably in recent years, driving down the need for monthly transit passes. Delivery services such as Amazon or GrubHub make trips to stores and restaurants less necessary and frequent, and are particularly prevalent in urban areas well served by transit.  Shared mobility services are growing in popularity and likely have mixed effects on ridership. Bike and carsharing services make auto ownership less necessary, but there is evidence that they may be replacing transit trips. Some transit agencies and city officials are skeptical of integration with these services, as they see them as competitors.  There is evidence that Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) replace transit trips, particularly outside of peak hours. TNCs, like Uber and Lyft, are used for both recreational purposes and commuting, although mostly for off-peak and airport trips. However, many users report that these services replaced their transit trips. Overall, TNCs may add auto trips to the road, and raise vehicle miles traveled.  There is also evidence that Transportation Network Companies complement transit, particularly for rail systems. TNCs have the potential to serve as last-mile connections to rail and BRT systems and may help enable a transit lifestyle. Many cities have begun supplementing their demand-responsive service with TNC services to bridge system gaps.  Transit agencies have been upgrading technology in an attempt to win back riders. Improvements in real-time information has been shown to boost transit ridership slightly. Fare technology that improves simplicity and speeds up buses is being implemented in several cities, with limited results on the ridership effects of these changes.  Bus networks are being restructured to provide more concentrated service and attract riders. This trend consolidates low-frequency meandering services into high- frequency direct services, bringing more residents closer to high-frequency bus lines. Bus ridership effects have been slightly positive, but with limited results at this point.  Overall, there is little consensus as to the full picture describing recent transit ridership declines. There are a multitude of candidate factors, from competing services like TNCs to societal factors like gentrification. More research is needed to understand the impact of multiple factors, especially new trends in transportation, on transit ridership.

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Transit ridership across the United States has declined for six straight years. Bus ridership, which has declined more than other transit services, is now at the lowest point since 1965. Rail ridership, with the exception of commuter rail, has also declined, and commuter rail ridership has recently leveled off.

The TRB Transit Cooperative Research Program's TCRP Research Report 209: Analysis of Recent Public Transit Ridership Trends presents a current snapshot of public transit ridership trends in the U.S. on bus and rail services in urban and suburban areas, focusing on what has changed in the past several years. It also explores and presents strategies that transit agencies are considering and using for all transit modes in response to changes in ridership.

Ten case studies are included to better understand individual strategies transit agencies are using to mitigate ridership losses and increase ridership overall. Nearly every transit agency investigated in the case studies had ridership increases between 2012 and 2015 followed by steady decreases in ridership. Generally, on-time performance has been improving, although it is not causing transit ridership to increase.

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