Public Transit Use Drops Again

Not surprising considering all of the elements making it dangerous and unreliable.

Story from New Geography, with a mention of Sacramento in the last paragraph of the post.

An excerpt.

“June 2019 transit ridership was 2.9 percent lower than in June 2018, according to the Federal Transit Administration’s most recent data release. Ridership dropped in all major modes, including bus, commuter rail, heavy rail, and light rail. Ridership also dropped in 41 of the nation’s 50 largest urban areas, declining even in Seattle, which had previously appeared immune to the decline that is afflicting most of the nation’s transit industry.

“June had 20 workdays in 2019 compared with 21 in 2018. The National Household Transportation Survey estimates that about 40 percent of transit ridership is work-related, so one fewer day accounts for about 1.9 percent of the decline in ridership. So at least a third of the decline must be due to other factors.

SEPTA Is Sinking

“Philadelphia suffered the largest decline both numerically and on a percentage basis. Transit systems there carried 6.2 million fewer June riders in 2019 than in 2018, a 21.1 percent drop. Part of this decline may have been due to maintenance-related disruptions to the city’s trolley system, which lost 0.5 million riders (21.0 percent). But Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) buses lost 4.6 million riders (31.1 percent), while SEPTA heavy rail lost 1.2 million riders (15.5 percent). More disruptions have taken place since June or are planned so expect further declines in July, August, and future months.

“SEPTA ridership dropped 18 percent since 2013 despite a 6 percent increase in vehicle-revenue miles of service.

“While a 21.1 percent drop is pretty drastic, this is just a continuation of declines since at least 2016. Moreover, SEPTA ridership is falling despite a modest increase in transit service. Since 2013, SEPTA’s vehicle-revenue miles of service have increased by nearly 6 percent, yet ridership has dropped by nearly 18 percent.

“At 5.5 million people, the Philadelphia urban area is much larger than Washington (5.0 million), Boston (4.4 million), or San Francisco-Oakland (3.6 million), yet Philadelphia has lower transit ridership. This is mainly because Washington, Boston, and San Francisco have more downtown jobs than Philadelphia, though in Boston’s case the edge is slight.

“Philadelphia continues to decentralize, as the city is relatively unhampered by rural growth restrictions. This also makes housing in Philadelphia more affordable: according to Zillow, median home prices in the Philadelphia area were 3.2 times median family incomes as of the first quarter of 2019, compared with 3.9 in Washington, 5.2 in Boston, and 8.8 in San Francisco-Oakland. Decentralization may weaken the transit system, but given the trade-off — affordable housing vs. somewhat higher transit ridership — I’d live with a weaker transit system.

“Double-Digit Declines

“Philadelphia is not the only urban area to see double-digit declines in transit ridership last June. Ridership fell by 11 to 15 percent in Cleveland, Kansas City, Louisville, Memphis, San Antonio, and Virginia Beach.

“While not double digits, the 2.4 percent ridership drop in Seattle is almost as shocking given that Seattle was the one place where transit ridership has been consistently growing. As I’ve previously noted, Seattle’s ridership growth was primarily due to a rapid increase in the number of downtown jobs. The recent decline is probably due to a slowdown in downtown job growth, as Seattle’s city council has proven itself hostile to downtown employers such as Amazon and Microsoft.

“Ridership fell by 4.2 percent in Houston, another place where transit was doing relatively well due to improvements in the bus system made four years ago with the help of Jarrett Walker. While I endorse Walker’s concept as an inexpensive way to boost ridership, I’ve suspected that it would lead to a short-term improvement in ridership but not prevent long-run decline. Houston’s recent drop seems to affirm that.

“Richmond, which implemented Walker’s ideas last year, saw a 16.6 percent increase in ridership for the year to date, but only a 1.9 percent increase for June. Perhaps following Houston’s pattern, the growth is flattening out and may turn into a decline in another year or three.

“While a few urban areas saw small increases in ridership — 3.2 percent in Austin, 2.0 percent in Denver, 1.2 percent in Tampa-St. Petersburg — the only large increase was 10.4 percent in Dallas-Ft. Worth. This is a surprise for, as far as I know, Dallas hasn’t overhauled its bus system the way Houston has (and in fact has been locally criticized for not doing so). It hasn’t even increased service; the FTA data file shows that June 2019 bus service was 11 percent less than in June 2018.

“Comparing the first six months of 2019 with the same months in 2018, overall transit ridership declined by 1.2 percent and ridership fell in 36 of the nation’s 50 largest urban areas. The largest losses were in Louisville (-11.6%), San Antonio (-9.8%), Philadelphia (-8.9%), Milwaukee (-8.6%), and Phoenix (-6.9%).

“The most devastating results come from comparing the last full year — July 2018 through June 2019—with the same time period five years before — July 2013 through June 2014. Over that five-year period, a dozen of the nation’s 50 major urban areas lost 20 percent of their riders or more; 30 lost 10 percent or more; and only 7 saw ridership grow. Thanks to New York’s dominance — it now hosts 44 percent of the nation’s transit trips — and the fact that it lost only 3.3 percent of its riders in that period, the nationwide decline was 8.1 percent. But that still translates to a loss of 845 million rides per year.

“Over that five-year period, the biggest losers include Rust Belt regions such as Cleveland, Milwaukee, and St. Louis; Sun Belt regions such as Charlotte and San Antonio; dense California regions including Los Angeles, Sacramento, and San Jose; sprawling regions such as Atlanta and Phoenix; and older regions with dense downtowns such as Providence and Philadelphia. Charlotte, Los Angeles, Sacramento, and St. Louis have all spent heavily on rail transit. Milwaukee and San Antonio both focused on bus transit. In other words, no type of urban area and no mode of transit appears to be immune from the decline.”

Retrieved August 23, 2019 from


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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