Globally, more mass transit systems are being built than ever before, and demand is in step with this expansion. However, here in the U.S., the story is different. Mass transit is struggling, and this has been the case for the past couple of years.
- Across most of the U.S., public transit ridership has followed a path of steady decline.
- Some U.S. cities have bucked this trend by introducing systems that take a fresh and innovative approach to mass transit.
- There are broader lessons to be learned from their path to success.
A global look at mass transit
Mass transit systems have been growing worldwide, and this is a response to the rapid urbanization of our global population. According to a report published by the International Association of Public Transport, mass transit carried 53 billion passengers worldwide in 2017. This represents an increase of roughly 9 billion passengers since 2012. Most of the growth has taken place in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.
Tokyo holds the distinction of being the world’s busiest transit city. (Photo: Dongpung/Pixabay)
The list of the world’s 10 busiest transit cities is led by Tokyo, which has an annual ridership of 3.46 billion. Right behind are Moscow, Shanghai, Beijing and Seoul. Notably, there’s only one U.S. town on this list: New York City. With an annual ridership of 1.81 billion, the Big Apple holds the number six spot on the list.
U.S. transit ridership is in decline
The numbers show that U.S. residents are turning to options other than mass transit. Statistics compiled by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) indicate that 2018’s nationwide public transit ridership fell to a low not seen since 2006.
Numbers have been declining steadily since 2015, and all of the nation’s largest transit systems have been affected. New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area and Washington, D.C. all suffered a dip in ridership during 2018.
What’s causing the falloff in transit ridership?
Ridesharing has dramatically changed our public transportation systems. Because of this, it’s not illogical to assume that ridesharing has played a major part in mass transit’s current woes. But the statistics don’t seem to support this assumption.
The real threat to transit ridership appears to be a lot more tried-and-true than ridesharing. According to a report published by research organization TransitCenter, for many, good old-fashioned private car trips are taking the place of transit trips.
Private car trips are the biggest threat to transit ridership. (Photo: Pexels/Pixabay)
TransitCenter’s report surveyed roughly 1,700 riders in New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Denver and New Orleans. It asked them a host of questions, including how their use of mass transit had changed during the last two years. The study found that in all seven cities surveyed, respondents had reduced their transit use on average. And, on average, the riders who were cutting back in this way were replacing transit trips with those taken in a private car. The report also determined that total per-capita mileage driven on U.S roads hit an all-time high in 2018.
Relatively low interest rates have led to affordable car loans, and this has encouraged private car ownership and usage. Also, gas prices have been relatively low over the past few years, and this has played a part in encouraging people to spend more time in their cars.
A word about buses
Buses are the backbone of the public transportation system in most cities. Among transit systems, buses have seen the steepest decline in ridership. APTA statistics show that bus ridership has fallen 14.3 percent nationwide since 2013.
Buses are at the heart of many transit systems, and they’ve seen steep declines in ridership. Photo by Edwin José Vega Ramos/Pexels
The quality of the bus service has played a role influencing ridership, and this includes factors such as frequency, on-time arrivals and overall experience.
Bucking the trend
Not all cities have experienced declining transit ridership. How have these outliers accomplished this feat? We may be able to learn a thing or two by taking a closer look.
Solution #1: Modernize existing systems
Seattle, Houston and Austin have all seen slight increases in transit ridership. All these cities have also observed an uptick in bus use. The one thing these cities have in common is that they’ve recently revamped their bus systems to reflect shifting demographics.
For an example of what can happen when modernization is ignored, look no further than Los Angeles. Los Angeles Metro is one of the largest transit systems in the nation, and it saw ridership decline in 2018. In Los Angeles, bus ridership makes up 20 percent of all transit trips, and it was down 3.1 percent for 2018. L.A. Metro hasn’t had a major overhaul in more than 25 years. The city has undoubtedly changed a lot during this time. The transit system needs to reflect these changes if it’s to thrive and prosper, and the powers that be recognize this: L.A. Metro is currently in the middle of a NextGen Bus Study that aims to generate ideas for improvement.
Solution #2: Invest in light rail
Light rail has been a hit in many cities. Seattle opened two new light rail stations in 2016, and that caused an upturn in ridership that continues today. Seattle’s light rail ridership was up a whopping 19 percent in 2018.
There are reasons why light rail is appealing to riders. These systems offer good service speed, and they’re able to function in challenging weather conditions. The trains are modern, and they offer a smooth ride. Light rail is also environmentally friendly, producing zero emissions and using about seven times less energy per passenger than cars.
Solution #3: Consider alternative pricing and funding strategies
Some cities have had great success by offering free public transit. In Ohio, the city of Columbus has seen ridership grow thanks to its C-Pass system, which offers free bus passes to downtown workers. The program has doubled its ridership in its first year of operation.
C-Pass has been funded in an innovative way. It’s paid for by downtown property owners who are part of a special improvement district, and it’s only available to the employees of companies who have bought into the program.
Public transit has the power to solve a host of problems. It could reduce traffic congestion in gridlocked cities like Los Angeles, and it could help curb air pollution by reducing the number of cars on the road. But to make public transit work for us, we need to take this system into the future. Looking at things like modernization, light rail expansion and innovative pricing and funding strategies may provide the key in helping us exploit public transit’s full potential.