Ridership Down in the US? Look Deeper

It seems to be, and I’m sure the New Republic’s Robert Puentes is right about the causes — (1) recession-driven unemployment (which both reduces commute demand and reduces discretionary income) plus (2) the epidemic of service cuts, which is proving yet again that not many riders are so “captive” that you can’t drive them away eventually.  Both of those factors are well-observed correlations.

But it’s interesting that the New Republic chose to feature this map from the Brookings Institution’s interactive source, which shows total numbers of public transit commuters by metro area, as opposed to this one, which shows the percentage of all commutes that go by public transit, or what’s technically called the Journey-to-Work (JTW) mode share.

A map of net numbers of transit commuters is, of course, mostly a map of how big cities are, which is just not very interesting.

Commuting public transit NUMBER

But if you look closely at the map of mode shares (which I can link to but can’t seem to copy) you see a map of how dense big cities are.  Toggle the two, and as you go from raw commute numbers (the map above) to mode shares, you see the metro areas of Los Angeles, Houston, Atlanta, and Miami all shrink, which means that those areas have low public transit use compared to their big populations.  What doesn’t change is the high score of the big, denser metros: the Northeast Corridor, Chicago, Seattle, and the San Francisco Bay Area.  Of course, those metros all have lots of sprawl, but their transit numbers are driven by very, very high ridership in their dense core cities, plus the heavy commute market into those cores due to the difficulty of driving and parking there.

All of which points to a couple of typical warnings about US transit statistics:

  • Metro areas, by definition, conflate a dense core city and a lot of low-density suburbs, and thus conceal the dramatic difference between transit’s relevance in those places.  Metro area statistics may be useful for judging the relative economic performance of different parts of a country, but they always conceal most of what matters in understanding how transit really works.  If you want to understand how and why transit works and fails, you should spend less time comparing metro Los Angeles and metro New York and more time comparing Manhattan with Nassau County, or comparing the LA/Hollywood core with the western San Fernando Valley.
  • Even city limits of core cities are not always helpful.  City limits are a decent approximation of the core city in most of the northern tier of states, but in Southern California and Texas, for example, core cities are bizarre shapes that omit some dense inner city fabric and incorporate a lot of suburbia and exurbia.  I have yet to meet anyone who’s personal conception of ‘Los Angeles’ ends at the bizarre Los Angeles city limits (including the San Fernando Valley and San Pedro, for example, but excluding West Hollywood, Santa Monica, and East LA).  The exception, of course, would be City of Los Angeles leaders and employees.  I’ve met many people in New York City, Seattle, and San Francisco who’s mental notion of their city matches the city limits pretty exactly.

Back to the Brookings maps, it’s also worth noting that as you toggle, a lot of interesting smaller cities jump out — cities with high rates of transit use for their relatively small populations:  Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, Tucson, Honolulu, New Orleans, Madison, and many others.  A mixed bag, but why those cities?

These cities may remind you of the factors regarding low-car cities, where the dominant forces seemed to be city age, poverty, and dominant universities.  But when it comes to high mode-share small cities, the factors are a little different.

Poverty doesn’t seem to matter at much on this score.  Poverty keeps people from owning cars but poor people also have shorter commutes, if they are fortunate enough to commute at all.  Poverty is generally aligned with low skills, which aligns with jobs that are standardized and interchangeable (e.g. McDonalds) as opposed to specialized (e.g. bioengineering).  The one great thing about a standardized and interchangeable job is that if you can find it anywhere, you can probably find it close to home.  Long-distance commutes are more of a problem for educated workers, whose jobs are more specific and thus harder to find.

But dominant universities, I’m willing to bet, matter a lot.  You may not think of Tucson as an especially transit-oriented place, and if you’re not associated with the University of Arizona there, then it probably isn’t for you.  But a massive university is the best transit demand engine a city can have: huge masses of temporarily poor people, often with strong environmentalist values, who come and go at the campus all day, not just in expensive-to-serve peak commute periods.

The second best market after a university is government employment, as governments are more motivated to help employees make good commute choices than private employers are.  So state capitals (Salt Lake, Honolulu, Madison) may surge a bit on that score.

Density, though, always matters, even in relatively small but mostly compact cities like Honolulu.

Transit infrastructure investment matters too, but overall quantity and quality of service may matter more than the presence or absence of rail transit, for example.  Rail-heavy Salt Lake City doesn’t stand out in comparison to similar but rail-less Tucson, for example.  That’s not an argument against light rail.  Salt Lake’s light rail line to the University of Utah, for example, is a great way of handling the huge capacity demands there.  But it’s a warning that big transit infrastructure still responds to demand rather than creating it, especially in the short-term scale of the Brookings analysis.

19 Responses to Ridership Down in the US? Look Deeper

  1. Danny July 16, 2010 at 12:43 pm #

    I agree that transit never creates demand, but rather responds to it. It is always the origins and destinations that create demand.
    What rail does exceptionally well, much better than Buses, IMO, is align the origins and destinations really well.
    For example, go to craigslist for SLC, click on apts/housing, and enter the search term “TRAX”. Out pops a huge number of listings that almost invariably contains some phrase like “walking distance to TRAX”, “Close to TRAX”, etc.
    Real estate agencies know that people look for apartments specifically based upon their location, and TRAX is now a major key word describing location.
    I have recently tried the same thing with buses. I enter the term “bus”, and while I get almost as many hits, the vast majority of them don’t specify which buses which does nothing to help me align my origins and destinations.
    So I resort to searching for bus route numbers, which should be pretty easy because I am going to start working in the Zion’s Bank building, which is across the street from Temple Square. I have a total of 26 different bus routes that can take me within a one block radius of where I want to go on a daily basis.
    Any luck? NOTHING. Zip. Zero. Nada.
    Like I said, rail itself doesn’t create demand, it is the combination of origins and destinations that creates demand. But buses don’t help me create demand for transit by aligning my origins and destinations. Rail does. If I work along the TRAX, I know that anywhere along that TRAX line I can live and have a short cheap commute.
    I haven’t really measured this in an objective way, so consider this a bet more than an objective assertion. Find any bus line anywhere in the US and look at its ridership numbers over time. You will probably see a decent amount of growth initially, and then flatlining for years. Try the same with rail and you will probably see ridership growth that hasn’t flatlined.

  2. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org July 16, 2010 at 1:20 pm #

    @ Danny.  That's exactly why I encourage agencies to adopt and market a "Frequent Network".  See category by that name. 

  3. Pedestrianist July 16, 2010 at 4:35 pm #

    Those Brookings numbers look weird to me:
    San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont 308,298 14.4%
    Those look like the numbers for BART, excluding all other agencies.

  4. Alon Levy July 16, 2010 at 5:52 pm #

    Pedestrianist, the numbers include everything. What you’re missing is that every transit commuter generates two transit trips, one to work and one back.

  5. Christopher July 17, 2010 at 3:52 am #

    Jarret – I can fully understand why big transport projects don’t generate demand over the short term (if I don’t work in the city centre no amount of light rail is going to make me go there everyday) but it’s also clear that infrastructure does shape demand over the longer period. Do transport planners attempt to model the longer term effects projects will have on cities and if so how accurately can it be done?

  6. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org July 17, 2010 at 7:46 am #

    Christopher.  Complex issue.  Federal funding processes often don't allow that, because at the time you're deciding to fund the project, the development outcomes are almost always speculative.

  7. Rapidtransitman July 17, 2010 at 9:22 am #

    In Toronto, transit ridership’s up despite the recession:
    “- Ridership is 5.6-million or 3.0% above budget to May 29, and this is 0.9% above the same period last year. TTC staff had budgeted for a ridership drop resulting from the fare increase, but riding continues to climb showing that factors other than cost continue to attract people to transit, at least on a net basis.
    “- The link between employment and ridership is now totally broken. Starting in 2009, employment in Toronto fell relative to the previous year, but TTC ridership kept growing. An important distinction here, not made by the TTC, is that employment losses have been disproportionately in the suburbs where transit modal split is low.”

  8. John July 17, 2010 at 11:18 am #

    One might expect a state capitol with a giant university like Columbus to have higher transit mode share.

  9. John July 17, 2010 at 11:24 am #

    I’d say your analysis of what creates transit demand in these smaller cities is pretty dead-on. Here in Albuquerque, the real demand engines for our local bus system are the university, the air force base/national labs (government workers), and the downtown area (which is mostly government workers).
    Density is pretty low in this town, but where it does get higher in the city, that is typically the only place where you’ll find any real transit demand in Albuquerque.
    And here, overall quality and quantity of the transit system does matter more than major infrastructure investments. Yes, there are people here who advocate for light rail transit, but there are many more people who just want the buses to run later.

  10. Steve Lax July 17, 2010 at 4:33 pm #

    @Danny – I can’t speak to the Salt Lake City region; but in my very large metro area, housing ads often mention access to bus transit and bus ridership continues to rise (subject to minor downturns due to dips in the economy).
    1. As an experiment, I opened the real estate section of today’s local paper. The page I opened had advertisements for an area 30-45 miles from the center city core with both very good bus and rail service to the core. There were 11 display ads on the page.
    3 ads – No transit mention
    1 ad – “minutes to train station”
    7 ads – mentioned walking to express bus service to the core with one of the ads also mentioning local buses (though no specific routes were given)
    2. From direct experience (20 years in the bus service planning business), I can site many examples of continuing bus service growth. By far the most dramatic was a route that grew from 2 peak period trips to a 2 minute peak hour headway in that 20 year period. And it would grow some more if the agency from which I am now retired had the resources to add service.
    Another example – a bus route and a train from the same town 25 miles out of the urban core – the bus is gaining market share over the train. The bus went from a 15 minute peak headway to a 4 minute peak hour headway while the train remained on a 20 minute peak headway. In addition, the bus began operating earlier and earlier, eventually with a ten minute headway beginning at 5:30 AM which the train could not match.
    Indeed, the growth of bus service to the urban core took off when the economy in the urban core took off and remains dependent on the continuing growth of the core. And frequency begat additional riders which begat additional frequency which begat additional riders which begat…
    What has held bus service growth back has often been within the agency – lack of funding for additional service, lack of buses to provide the service, lack of garage space to maintain the buses, and even lack of operators in a hot economy (the stronger the economy, the more difficulty my former agency had getting qualified bus operators.)

  11. Danny July 17, 2010 at 8:45 pm #

    Steve –
    I guess my blind spot from my post above has to do with the fact that in SLC there isn’t really any BRT yet…so I didn’t have any BRT to compare it to.
    And I recognize it isn’t so much the fact that it is steel wheels on steel rails that makes the difference in ridership growth, but rather a strong line identity. Finding an apartment near a bus stop will never entice me as much as finding an apartment near a stop that will take me where I’m going.
    I do have a question though…why would you have both a bus and a train in parallel service? If they are serving the same markets, wouldn’t it be better to just have one mode? Are the bus and train run by the same agency?

  12. david vartanoff July 17, 2010 at 11:39 pm #

    The SF-Oak-Fremont ##s don’t make sense. SF Muni books 700k rides/day, AC Transit 230k, BART 300k. so even if you divide by 2, that is 615k.
    Is SF-Oak-Fremont a symbol for the whole area, or some arbitrary ruling out of SamTrans, Caltrain, Golden Gate Transit/Ferries?

  13. david vartanoff July 17, 2010 at 11:43 pm #

    @Danny, A local or even Limited stop bus is complementary to a more limited stop train. No single mode serves the entire market adequately if there is both density and distance.

  14. Steve Lax July 18, 2010 at 4:09 pm #

    @Danny – In the largest U.S. urban areas, the urban core can support multiple modes terminating in separate areas of the core.
    My first bus example – from two peak period trips to a two minute peak period headway was a local bus (stops every other block) from a close in suburb. There is a local rail station at the south end of the 1 mile long municipality; much of the bus ridership came from the north end. The bus from the north end to the urban core was quicker than taking a local bus or walking to the rail station, then taking rail; especially if one were going near the bus terminal in the urban core.
    The second example was an express bus that was totally time competitive with the rail service. I should note that while the bus was gaining market share from this specific station, the rail line was also growing and actually was being converted to double decker cars to handle the growth.
    In rider surveys, the determinant was often the specific destination within the urban core. If one could walk to the job site from either the bus terminal or the rail station, that was the preferred mode. Otherwise, it usually depended on the urban core connection one had to make. However, a portion of the core was roughly equidistant from the two terminals and that slice was becoming more of a bus market from this specific location.

  15. observer July 18, 2010 at 7:01 pm #

    I, too, am puzzled by the numbers; not so much the values but the precision. Am I really to believe that in the Chicago metro area, there are exactly 4,627,103 commuters and that 523,712 take public transportation? Such numbers must come from somewhere but what is their source? And how do they know that there aren’t, say, 523,718, public transport users?
    Also, how is commuter defined? I’m retired and live near the Loop so I use my car to “commute” to the grocery store and perhaps on the same day “commute” by CTA to a Michigan Avenue destination. In the evening, I may “commute” by CTA to meet friends for dinner but “commute” home by cab.
    I would like for someone who may understand statistical methods to explain both the precision of the numbers and how hybrid auto/CTA/cab commuters like me fits into the calculations.

  16. Alon Levy July 19, 2010 at 11:49 am #

    Observer, the numbers come from the American Community Survey. While they’re given officially with great precision, there is some margin of uncertainty. If you go to the Census Factfinder site, you’ll see the numbers together with their margins of error. The margins of error are quite small, though not so small as to distinguish 523,712 from 523,718.
    The definition of commuting consists only of work trips. The ACS asks you what mode of transportation you take to work; if you take a combination of modes, it asks you to name the mode on which you travel the greatest distance.

  17. imrightandyourwrongjustahunch July 19, 2010 at 2:27 pm #

    Airlines are expensive, tedious and unregulated, (thanks to Mr. Capitalism, Ronald Reagan) with the result we are treated shabbily by airlines. It is pretty obvious airlines, auto companies, oil companies, etc., do not want us to have a fast, inexpensive rail system and our representatives are in the main, little prostitutes who keep their mouths shut in any meaningful sense. The reason we are, “in love with our cars” is that anything else is so tedious and expensive, as it now stands, we want to drive to get anywhere. Our “leaders” are actually handmaidens for the industries stated above, and that is the problem. To see thousands of individual trucks on the freeways (taxpayer furnished,mostly) in lieu of hauling mostly by rail seems ludicrous to me. It’s like the Iraq war. They knew once we were in, we just argue about the details. BFD. Same with our freeway system. It is in place, so we just maintain and “improve” that dinosaur. All for profit, not for common sense. Thanks to all our elected representatives for all the corruption and antiquated, wasteful transportation systems. Really pathetic to watch this process unfold as business as usual while oil seeps into the gulf to the tune of hundreds of millions of gallons. They must enjoy watching animals suffer. They seem to enjoy the hell out of watching us twist slowly in the wind as we muddle through. I think the money used to build all the planes and autos and highways and money for invasions of countries needlessly over the years and needless weapon systems, space travel, ad nauseum, could have paid for high speed rail, streetcars, etc. Don’t even say it is not cost effective at this point. That is ridiculous. All the above expenses listed were unnecessary if we had used planning. We are ruled by profit and the result is going to be chaos, as it has nothing to do with common sense.

  18. francis July 20, 2010 at 3:23 pm #

    Re: Is SF-Oak-Fremont a symbol for the whole area, or some arbitrary ruling out of SamTrans, Caltrain, Golden Gate Transit/Ferries?
    The Bay Area is split into two metro areas for federal government statistics purposes – San Jose and the rest of Santa Clara county is a separate metro area.
    I’ve heard rumors this was done for political reasons to exclude the Bay Area from the top 10 metro areas, does anyone know more about this?

  19. Danny July 21, 2010 at 6:55 am #

    The airline industry was deregulated by Jimmy Carter…not Ronald Reagan.