Transit Spending Up, Ridership Down

Of course this is no surprise. People just prefer riding in their cars rather than the uncertainty and unsafe experience of public transit, and it is another example—like that noted yesterday—of how often government increases money to fix something and the something gets worse.

Story from New Geography.

An excerpt.

“Taxpayers spent nearly $3.75 billion more subsidizing transit in 2018 than the year before, yet transit carried 215 million fewer riders, according to the latest data released by the Federal Transit Administration. The increase in spending didn’t even translate to an increase in service, as transit agencies provided 44 million fewer vehicle miles of service in 2018.

“In percentage terms, subsidies rose by 7.4 percent while ridership fell by 2.1 percent and vehicles miles of service fell by 0.9 percent. These numbers are from the 2018 National Transit Database, a series of 30 spreadsheets summarizing the annual performance of all of the nation’s transit agencies that have received federal support (which is nearly all of them). Numbers in the database are based on each agency’s fiscal year, so may not exactly agree with calendar year numbers calculated from the monthly updates.

“Total transit ridership in 2018 was lower than any year since 2006. Bus ridership has plummeted to be lower than any year since 1940, when streetcars still carried almost half of all of the nation’s transit riders.

“The industry has not responded to declining ridership by reducing its costs. Instead, operating costs grew by $1.9 billion (4.0%), despite the decline in vehicle miles of service. Expenditures on capital improvements, that is, expansions of existing systems, grew by 7.9 percent or close to $500 million. The vast majority—84 percent—of these capital improvements were for some form of rail transit.….


“The latest data show that ridership is declining despite increased spending on transit. The reason for that is that transit is not capable of competing against other modes of travel. Rather than trying to figure out how to “save transit,” people who care about mobility, low-income people, and the environment should worry about making sure that what replaces transit does so economically, safely, and with environmental sensitivity.

“The 2018 National Transit Database includes more than 30 spreadsheets that are sometimes difficult to understand. I’ve collapsed the most useful data into a single spreadsheet showing ridership, passenger miles, service, fares, costs, and other data. The raw data for every transit agency and mode are in rows 1 through 4320 and columns A through Y.

“Columns Z and AA are my calculations of energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions that will be discussed in detail in next week’s policy brief. Columns AB through AQ are calculations of such indicators as miles per hour, average vehicle occupancies, fares per trips/passenger mile, and costs per trip, passenger mile, and vehicle revenue mile. Summaries by mode are in rows 4327 through 4368. Summaries by urban area are in rows 4380 through 4870.

“One item that is questionable is column Y, the miles of rail transit. The data in the spreadsheet providing this information was entered inconsistently, so check the numbers in this column before quoting them. Fortunately, these numbers aren’t used in any later calculations.”

Retrieved December 18, 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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