Public Transportation Use Continues its Decline

As this article from New Geography reports.

An excerpt.

The Bureau of Transportation Statistics recently released preliminary data summarizing public transportation ridership in the United States for the calendar year 2015. The preliminary data from the National Transit Data program showed transit ridership in 2015 of 10.4 billion annual riders approximately 2.5% below the 2014 count and also smaller than the 2013 count. The American Public Transit Association using a slightly different methodology released data showing 10.6 billion annual riders versus 10.7 billion in calendar year 2014, a 1.26% year-over-year decline. Such differences between sources are common, resulting from differences in methodology and definitions, and unsurprising, given that data is preliminary and national data is dependent upon reporting from hundreds of different agencies.

It is important to recognize that it’s extraordinarily difficult to consistently grow transit ridership. We have had growing population, a rebounding economy, growing total employment, and an aggressively argued hypothesis that the millennial generation is meaningfully different than their forefathers—with urban centric aspirations and indifference toward auto ownership and use. Yet, transit ridership has remained stubbornly modest.

The rebound in national vehicle miles traveled totals in 2015 (+3.5%) grabbed attention, as many had anticipated continued moderation. Couple that with modest declines in transit and Amtrak use and strong airline traffic growth, and one could argue the new normal for travel trends is looking more like the old normal.

When I entered full-time employment with a transit agency in 1980, industry leaders were touting the growth opportunities for public transit in light of the energy shortages in the late ’70s. Throughout the intervening time, there have been myriad seemingly logical events that led to expectations of strong transit growth. Growing congestion, a growing appreciation of the role of transportation in influencing land-use, growing federal support, increasing gasoline prices, expansion of rail systems, sensitivity to the safety benefits of transit travel, potential economic benefits for passengers who reduce auto ownership and use costs, air quality concerns and, subsequently, climate impact concerns, and, more have collectively created almost perpetual expectations of a more promising future for public transportation. Indeed, transit ridership has grown some since its low point in the early ’70s and subsequent dip in the mid-’90s, but the often-expected, sustained, or robust growth has never materialized.

More recently, demographic conditions, such as growing urbanization, declining driver’s-license-holding and auto-ownership rates for young people, and evidence that the love affair with the automobile has waned, have renewed expectations. Sprinkle in technology enhancements that enable real-time information, robust trip planning, automated and more convenient fare collection, and integrated first-mile last-mile opportunities; add a dash of heightened concerns about climate change; and there remains a credible argument that transit has a bright future.

An often-cited constraint on the growth of public transit has been the assertion of resource constraints for providing the quality of service that would be attractive to more travelers who have other options. While transit supply remains well below the aspirational levels of many transit users and transit advocates, the data in the graph below indicates that supply has grown far more rapidly than demand for the past several decades. This is a report card on productivity that mom and dad would hardly be proud of. And a larger share of the ridership has moved to more capital intensive (and larger vehicle capacity) rail systems.

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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