It’s now pretty clear that transit ridership is falling in many US cities. Why?
I don’t know. (Don’t trust any pundit who never says this.)
But journalists are asking me this and I need an answer. Laura Bliss’s recent piece in Citylab really captures the problem. It’s a smart read, but in short: Bliss interviewed a bunch of experts on this, including me, and she got lots of smart speculation, mostly grounded in anecdotes. (“Pick a Culprit” was her sub-headline).
Everyone seems to agree on the same long list of culprits.
- Ridehailing services like Lyft and Uber, especially to the extent that this industry may be undermining transit through unsustainable predatory pricing.
- Stagnating or declining transit service. Even transit agencies that are not shrinking are mostly declining in service/capita, as the population grows but they don’t have the resources to keep up.
- Cheap driving. Previous studies about the impact of cheap gas thought this relationship was mild, but those are less useful now, because gas is so cheap that we are off the scale of those studies’ analysis.
- Fares static or rising as other options get cheaper. To be clear: I’ve seen no cases where cutting fares triggered so much ridership that the agency broke even. Transit agencies have very little room to more financially here. But there may be correlations. (Always check transfer penalties, too; they often matter more than base fare.)
- Crisis situations in certain agencies. Lots of transit agencies are in financial trouble, which creates trouble of all other kinds. The travails of Washington DC’s subway get all the press, maybe because national journalists and policymakers experience it personally. But many transit agencies are facing crises — especially deferred maintenance in older transit agencies. And no, not all transit agencies are victims. I see a lot of obsolete management and planning habits, in some agencies, that hold transit down.
- Some shifts from transit to other non-single-occupant-car modes, which can be OK. These may include ridesharing, improved cycling infrastructure, greater urban density (which is putting more trips within walking distance) and better pedestrian amenities.
And I would add a couple of others to the list.
- Bad data. Do we even know how bad the problem is? A few weeks back TransitCenter published a table purporting to compare 2015 and 2016 ridership at many US metros, showing drops in many agencies. But most transit agencies I talked to said the table was wrong, and instead admitted to problems in their own reporting and analysis. Transit data is often a mess — as I’ll discuss in another post — though it’s improving fast. Still, almost every data element is prone to methodological problems.
- Noisy data. Transit ridership is so volatile that it takes time to see long trends. I’d conclude nothing from a one year drop; it’s only because we’re now seeing multi-year drops that I’m deciding this is real. That makes me very late to the party but it’s the only way I can know I’m not chasing phantoms. And it’s a huge pitfall for transportation journalists, whose deadlines require them to write stories before we can really know.
The problem is, we really don’t know the relative importance of these things, and neither does anyone else who’s speculating in the media.
Bottom line: We need research! Not the sort of formally peer reviewed research that will take a year to publish, but faster work by real transportation scholars that can report preliminary results in time to guide action. I am not a transportation researcher, but there are plenty of them out there, and this is our moment of need. Here are my research questions:
- Which global causes seem to matter? Straight regression analysis, once you get data you believe. Probably the study will need to start with a small dataset of transit agencies, so that there’s time to talk with each agency and understand their unique data issues.
- What’s happening to the quantity of transit? If ridership is falling because service is falling, this isn’t a surprise. If ridership is falling because service is getting slower — which means lower frequency and speed at the same cost — well, that wouldn’t be surprising either.
- How does the decline correlate to types of service? Is this fall happening in dense areas or just in car-based suburbs? Is it happening on routes that are designed for high ridership, or only on those that are designed for coverage purposes (services retained because three sympathetic people need them rather than because the bus will be full). Is it correlated to frequency or span changes? Heads up, local geeks! A lot could be done looking at data for your own transit agency — route by route and even (where available) stop by stop, to analyze where in your metro the fall is really occurring.
One more note: It’s easy to analyse this “bus vs rail,” because that’s how the National Transit Database is structured, but nobody knows if that’s the real distinction that matters. As Laura Bliss’s piece notes, rail ridership and bus ridership are not trending any particular way relative to each other — a good hint that this is just the wrong place to look for an explanation.
I don’t pretend this is easy, but it’s needed. Scholars! Come to our rescue!