photo: NYC subway
After years of ridership decline, New York City's subway posted gains in 2019. David 'Dee' Delgado/Bloomberg

Public transportation systems in the United States gained passengers over the second and third quarters of 2019. But the boost came from two large cities.

For the subways, buses, and light rail lines of America, the last five years have been nothing but bad news. Since 2014, low gas prices, aging infrastructure, and the rise of Uber and Lyft have led to spiraling ridership on public transit systems from coast to coast.

But the latest statistics from the National Transit Database suggest that a turnaround may be afoot—thanks to service improvements in two major cities. Ridership across U.S. public transit agencies rose 2.2 percent compared to the same time period in 2018, the American Public Transportation Association reported last month. This was the second consecutive quarter to mark an increase, and the first consecutive quarter to post an increase since the end of 2014, when ridership hit a 50-year peak. The uptick in ridership between Q3 2019 and Q3 2018 amounted to about 54 million more trips.

This growth was driven almost entirely by an influx of subway, commuter rail, and bus trips in the New York City region, as well as subway trips on Washington, D.C.’s Metro. Both cities, which have the nation’s first- and third-highest shares of transit commuters, have weathered major reliability and maintenance crises in recent years and hemorrhaged riders as a result.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s nadir came in 2016, when the agency shut down all rail service following a cable fire, enraging District commuters. One year earlier, an electrical smoke incident had claimed the life of a rider in L’Enfant Plaza. In summer 2017, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a “state of emergency” for New York City’s subway system, where on-time performance had dropped to just 65 percent on weekdays.

But both have since made substantial improvements, including a year of 24/7 track maintenance in D.C. and nearly $800 million of signal upgrades, drain clearing, and employee overtime payouts in New York. Upticks in ridership are a sign of success, said Yonah Freemark, a consultant and MIT researcher (and occasional CityLab contributor) whose blog, The Transport Politic, tracks transit usage in the U.S. and beyond. “The progress in New York and Washington is undoubtedly a product of those region's considerable efforts to improve service over the past few years.”

Still, neither system has reached its prior ridership peaks. And their 2019 gains are an outlier: The rest of the country’s transit systems still lost ridership last year. That includes major cities such as L.A., Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia.

Some factors in the ongoing decline are local. In L.A., a recent rehabilitation to the light rail line connecting downtown and Long Beach (now recently rebranded as the “A line”) likely shifted passengers away over the past year. And since it reopened as the A Line—part of L.A. Metro’s new name scheme—“reliability hasn’t been good and ridership hasn’t come close to fully rebounding,” said Ben Fried, the communications director of TransitCenter, a public transportation think tank. In Boston, the derailment of a Red Line train in June 2019 may still be deflecting passengers, while in Chicago, population decline, ongoing construction, and the popularity of ride-hailing services seem to be pushing riders away.

Longer-term ridership trends vary depending on the mode. Rail passenger numbers have grown over the last 30 years, and only began to dip in 2015. But bus ridership has been fading steadily every year since 2012. In 2018, it was just 80 percent of where it was in 1965, when the federal government began tracking transit data. It is now scraping new lows, said Simon Berrebi, a post-doctoral researcher at Georgia Tech studying the causes of transit’s decline. “2019 is on target to be the lowest bus-ridership year in recorded history for the third consecutive year,” he said. “It’s happening despite improvements in employment and population gains, which are all usually major contributors to ridership.”

Many factors explain the dwindling popularity of the bus, according to transit experts, including low gas prices; cheap auto loans; the rise of Uber and Lyft; rising telecommuting; and unreliable, slow service aboard the rubber-tired workhorses of America’s transit fleet. A few cities, including Seattle and Austin, have been able to reverse these trends by creating bus-priority lanes and bumping up frequent service.

Not only does low ridership result in lower farebox revenues for transit agencies, it also creates a vicious cycle. It frequently forces agencies to cut routes and defer maintenance projects, which in turn results in even fewer passengers. Declining transit use means more cars on the road, transit experts say, leading to vehicle congestion, air pollution, and traffic fatalities. Meanwhile, Freemark said, the U.S. continues to invest far more heavily in infrastructure for driving than for buses and trains: Between 2010 and 2019, the U.S. built some 28,500 miles of arterial roads, and just 1,200 miles of transit service.

“It’s definitely a good sign that transit ridership finally appears to be on the upswing,” Freemark said. “[But] most transit systems in the U.S. are still struggling.”

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