About those "Rising Transit Use" Numbers

From Randal O'Tooole

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) argues that a 0.7 percent increase in annual transit ridership in 2013 is proof that Americans want more “investments” in transit–by which the group means more federal funding. However, a close look at the actual data reveals something entirely different.

It turns out that all of the increase in transit ridership took place in New York City. New York City subway and bus ridership grew by 120 million trips in 2013; nationally, transit ridership grew by just 115 million trips. Add in New York commuter trains (Long Island Railroad and Metro North) and New York City transit ridership grew by 123 million trips, which means transit in the rest of the nation declined by 8 million trips. As the New York Timesobserves, the growth in New York City transit ridership resulted from “falling unemployment,” not major capital improvements.

Meanwhile, light-rail and bus ridership both declined in Portland, which is often considered the model for new transit investments. Light-rail ridership grew in Dallas by about 300,000 trips, but bus ridership declined by 1.7 million trips. Charlotte light rail gained 27,000 new rides in 2013, but Charlotte buses lost 476,000 rides. Declines in bus ridership offset part or all of the gains in rail ridership in Chicago, Denver, Salt Lake City, and other cities. Rail ridership declined in Albuquerque, Baltimore, Minneapolis, Sacramento, and on the San Francisco BART system, among other places.

It looks like Chris Christie was doing his part to increase transit ridership in New York.

By the way, the phenomenon of small increases in light rail use offset by large drops in bus ridership is extremely common, almost ubiquitous.  Cities build flashy prestige rail projects that cost orders of magnitude more to build and operate than bus service, and are much less flexible when the economy and commuting patterns change.  Over time, bus service has to be cut to pay the bills for light rail.  But since a given amount of money spent on buses tends to carry more than 10x the passenger miles than the same amount spent on light rail, total ridership drops even while spending rises.  That is what is going on here.

Light rail is all about politician prestige, civic pride, and crony favoritism for a few developers with land along the route.  It is not about transit sanity.


  1. slocum:

    "Light rail is all about politician prestige, civic pride, and crony favoritism for a few developers with land along the route. It is not about transit sanity."

    It's also about trying to 'nudge' people into adopting preferred living patterns (e.g. in dense areas near light-rail tracks). From this perspective, the lack of flexibility and even potentially the high costs are positives. The inflexibility is good because people's living patterns will have to adapt to the transport system rather than the other way around. And the high cost of light rail could be considered a positive because it draws money away from road construction, and if people are stuck in bad traffic on inadequate roads, then they will be motivated to give up their cars and subdivisions and switch to a transit-oriented lifestyle. That's the idea, anyway.

  2. marque2:

    California for one has mandated high density housing located near trains and will sue counties not implementing the vision fast enough.

  3. rst1317:

    Another problem with those LRT #s is the opportunity costs. Beside sucking up resources from other routes, LRT lines are commonly a direct replacement for a bus route. We have no way of knowing how much of the increase in ridership was caused by converting to LRT versus the existing travel pattern growing and it just happens they've put an LRT line there.

    For example, Metro Transit serves much of Twin Cities. They replaced their bus route with the highest ridership - an express bus between downtown MPLS and the Mall of America in Bloomington - with their first LRT line. We have no way of knowing if ridership growth - and more recently decline - on that route is because more people were traveling between the two or if people started using it but otherwise wouldn't have traveled that route if it wasn't for LRT.

  4. obloodyhell:

    }}} As the New York Timesobserves, the growth in New York City transit ridership resulted from “falling unemployment,” not major capital improvements.

    LOL, and I'll bet any growth elsewhere is probably from the extended-unemployed losing a functional car, and being FORCED to use the bus... :-P

  5. obloodyhell:

    }}} people's living patterns will have to adapt to the transport system rather than the other way around.

    EXACTLY. Mass Transit outside of European-level high density population areas is a TREMENDOUS waste of human resources.

    Where I am (a very small city, ca. 100k city, 250k metro area), there is a fairly extensive university-supported bus system. Despite this, it is pretty much a two-hour round trip to ANYWHERE further than walking distance. If you're off one of the half-dozen main routes, there is no evening service after 8pm. And the traffic density & distance is such that a trip one-way across town at any time of day EXCEPT rush hour is 15-20 mins, tops, and it's only a HALF HOUR even during rush hour itself... so less than half the travel time for any given trip, the convenience of stopping as many places as you need to to get all things done on the way to and from, and you can come and go whenever you want to. Boy, I can see how someone would prefer the bus to THAT...


    "Civilization advances by increasing the number of important things you can do without thinking about them."

    If you consider that, you'll realize just how PROFOUNDLY simply it covers whether something is a desirable thing or not.

    We might NEED to do 'x', but whether we SHOULD do 'x' absent a true NEED is succinctly defined by that statement and its implications.

    Mass Transit fails in most places and on almost every level by that metric.

  6. joshv:

    I don't know about elsewhere, but light rail, buses and the 'L' allow the city of Chicago to maintain its status as a business hub. If those transit options did not exist, commuting to downtown for suburbanites would be next to impossible. As a result Chicago would evolve into something more like Atlanta - with an atrophied downtown and a few gentrifying neighborhood satellites, with everything else important out in the burbs somewhere. It's a massive net benefit to the city of Chicago.

    Which makes you wonder why anybody else should have to pay for it... All of the transit systems are subsidized by federal and state tax dollars. They are not profitable on fares alone. I don't necessarily reject the idea of a subsidy, but I do wonder by somebody in Iowa or Peoria should have to subsidize something that benefits only those who live in or around Chicago. I do know that the full capital costs of the system are massive. Every few years a new billion dollar project is announced to fix up aging 'L' infrastructure. Good luck getting Chicago and the burbs to divvy up those costs.

  7. Broccoli:

    But what makes megacity like Chicago inherently better than a more suburb centric megaregion like Atlanta? I am not attacking specifically you just the assumption we all hear from city planners that a strong central city is superior. They need to prove that stuff like a strong downtown is better than a more dispersed business model.

  8. joshv:

    Well, I guess I am implicitly acknowledging that in saying that those who like and benefit from it, should pay for it. We shouldn't make Houstonians pay for Chicago light rail capital improvement projects. I like downtown Chicago, or Midtown Manhattan a heck of a lot more than I like Houston or Atlanta, but that's my preference.

    That being said, density *is* efficient, in both in terms of energy and economics. I think the economic benefits are lessening as proximity becomes less of an issue due to the Internet. But even there the cities have an edge as they can support faster/denser network interconnects, so if really high speed internet matters to you, the megacities are good places to get it, and you'll find plenty of local service provides and clients who can take advantage of those speeds.

  9. slocum:

    "That being said, density *is* efficient, in both in terms of energy and economics."

    Perhaps -- but it's clearly not time efficient. New Yorkers suffer the longest commuting times in the country: