Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Why is transit ridership dropping across North American cities? Blame declining bus service.
Noticing a smaller huddle at the bus stop recently? You’re not crazy. Transit ridership dropped by 2.5 percent from 2016 to 2017, with a downturn in bus passengers leading the hemorrhaging. These declines have been in progress virtually across the board in North America since 2014.
What’s less clear is exactly why we’re all getting off the bus. The price of gas has gone down in recent years, which may be leading more Americans to choose to drive. The economy has improved, which could mean more of us can afford to buy and drive cars. There’s also the rise of ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft; some studies have shown they’re pulling more-affluent riders off transit at certain times of day.
But the strongest determinant of ridership’s rise and fall may not be the lure of another mode—it’s service cuts on bus and train systems. According to a new study by researchers at McGill University’s department of urban planning, transit agencies are repelling riders by shrinking routes and schedules on buses in particular. “The more service a transit authority provides (measured as the number of kilometers driven annually by public transit vehicles—VRK), the more transit trips it will attract,” the authors wrote in an article summarizing their research, which was presented at the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board in Washington, D.C., last January.
The researchers gathered data on transit ridership, fares, and operations, between 2002 to 2015 for 25 large transit agencies in the United States and Canada, from the National Transit Database and the Canadian Urban Transit Association. Operations were measured in terms of vehicle revenue kilometers—which is the distance traveled by vehicles available to the public with an expectation of carrying passengers, according to the American Public Transportation Association—for buses, trains, and the two modes combined. The researchers performed an analysis to find the strongest relationships between these and more than a dozen additional factors related to the 25 service areas, including gasoline prices, GDP per capita, geographic and population sizes, the portion of households without a car, and the presence of Uber and bikesharing.
Gas prices did have some statistical bearing on ridership, the analysis shows, but it was fairly weak. Much stronger were the factors that transit agencies and cities themselves control. Transit service drove ridership more than any other factor: A 10 percent increase in VRK was associated with a roughly 8 percent increase in ridership, with all other variables constant, they found.
And buses, the backbone of mass transit for the vast majority of North American cities, were the primary driver. New light-rail and streetcar segments have popped up in several North American cities over the past 15 years. The researchers found that a strong uptick in rail service between 2002 and 2007, during which time bus service remained stable, had a positive relationship with overall ridership. But between 2011 and 2015, transit agencies saw a decline in ridership as they slashed bus service by about 14 percent, even as they continued to build out rail as steadily as before.
Fares also mattered: a 10 percent rise in ticket prices were associated with a 2 percent drop in ridership. Not significant: the presence of Uber or bikesharing.
Like all studies, this paper has its limitations—namely that the factors the researchers studied were constrained by the data that was available for all 25 agencies. And there may be local factors at play that complicate the one-to-one relationship between ridership and service hours that the study implies. “I think the issue is nuanced,” Yonah Freemark, a transit consultant and Ph.D. student in urban planning at MIT, said in an email. “Just expanding the number of bus hours, but in the wrong corridor, may not bring many people on board.” And the lack of counterfactuals in these types of analyses is always tricky. Some cities that have increased bus service, such as Baltimore, have still seen declines in ridership.
Still, this study suggests that transit agencies struggling to keep passengers on board needn’t look too far for explanations. What seems to determine whether people ride transit is how well it compares to other options, in terms of cost, frequency, reliability, and connectivity. Uber is not killing off the bus in every city in North America, at least not by itself. Cash-strapped transit agencies have been sabotaging themselves.
How to stop? The pithy title of the McGill study might say it all: “Invest in the ride.”