Is The Media Actually Waking Up to How Rail is Sinking Public Transit?

Readers will know that this is one of my favorite topics on this blog, how huge investments in showy rail projects that amp up the prestige of government officials tend to cannibalize lower cost bus service and, at the end of the day, actually reduce total transit ridership.  The LA Times almost sortof recognizes this, and Randal O'Toole is on the case:

“Billions spent, but fewer people are using public transportation,” declares the Los Angeles Times. The headline might have been more accurate if it read, “Billions spent, so thereforefewer are using public transit,” as the billions were spent on the wrong things.

The L.A. Times article focuses on Los Angeles’ Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro), though the same story could be written for many other cities. In Los Angeles, ridership peaked in 1985, fell to 1995, then grew again, and now is falling again. Unmentioned in the story, 1985 is just before Los Angeles transit shifted emphasis from providing low-cost bus service to building expensive rail lines, while 1995 is just before an NAACP lawsuit led to a court order to restore bus service lost since 1985 for ten years.


Transit ridership is very sensitive to transit vehicle revenue miles. Metro’s predecessor, the Southern California Rapid Transit District, ran buses for 92.6 million revenue miles in 1985. By 1995, to help pay for rail cost overruns, this had fallen to 78.9 million. Thanks to the court order in the NAACP case, this climbed back up to 92.9 million in 2006. But after the court order lapsed, it declined to 75.7 million in 2014. The riders gained on the multi-billion-dollar rail lines don’t come close to making up for this loss in bus service.


Los Angeles ridership trends are not unusual: transit agencies building expensive rail infrastructure often can’t afford to keep running the buses that carry the bulk of their riders, so ridership declines.

  • Ridership in Houston peaked at 102.5 million trips in 2006, falling to 85.9 million in 2014 thanks to cuts in bus service necessitated by the high cost of light rail;
  • Despite huge job growth, Washington ridership peaked at 494.2 million in 2009 and has since fallen to 470.4 million due at least in part to Metro’s inability to maintain the rail lines;
  • Atlanta ridership peaked at 170.0 million trips in 2000 and has since fallen nearly 20 percent to 137.5 million and per capita ridership has fallen by two thirds since 1985;
  • San Francisco Bay Area ridership reached 490.9 million in 1982, but was only 457.0 million in 2014 as BART expansions forced cutbacks in bus service, a one-third decline in per capita ridership;
  • Pittsburgh transit regularly carried more than 85 million riders per year in the 1980s but is now down to some 65 million;
  • Austin transit carried 38 million riders in 2000, but after opening a rail line in 2010, ridership is now down to 34 million.

I will add that total transit ridership has been totally flat in Phoenix after construction of a major light rail project.  The project's total cost is approaching $2 billion as they slowly add on short extensions, but this amount did nothing but cannibalize bus ridership.  In fact, the situation is worse than this, since before light rail was built, Phoenix transit ridership was growing rapidly every single year, so in fact light rail actually likely reduced ridership by about 14 million.  The whole story is here.  (I will have an update in a moment but they have updated the chart from that article and ridership fell yet again in 2015).


  1. xtmar:

    Hypothesis: Public transit advocates aren't interested in improving ridership, so much as they're interested in creating yuppie playgrounds, and to the extent that it drives the poor away, it's beneficial.

  2. Peabody:

    Lower income folks taking the bus to work is not sexy.

  3. irandom419:

    They put in bus rail transit in my town and it is so rapid, it shows-up early which is the worst thing. So I have to budget even more time to wasted at the bus stop. If my health wasn't failing, I'd bike to avoid it.

  4. donald:

    first off, I wonder how much light rail is siphoned off by Uber and Lyft. In Austin, I waited for 15 minutes for the cab the concierge called for us. Then I hit my newly installed Lyft app (installed while I was waiting in the lobby), and the dude was there in two minutes. Took me and my three friends to our destination, boom, 7 bucks. Light rail if it even went where I wanted would have cost the four of us that much probably, and then we would probably have waited. The dynamic of transportation needs and methods is the killer of big light rail. It's so static. I imagine the crowd that loved light rail in 2013 and swore it was for them, now loves Uber. Uber is better than light rail. It's a personal driver at your beckon. Just tap the app and off you go, like a player for hip young professionals with no kids and the condo in the city.

    Secondly, While on your side about light rail. Don't get burned playing the "hey the city of phoenix is disingenuous using bad graphics" game (next blog) and also cite a city decline in bus ridership that also has had big declines in population. Since the 80's Pittsburgh has not just dropped ridership (85 to 65M). They dropped the entire population from 425k to 305k. it is likely that this accounts for much of the drop and not any big mass transit project. Although as an aside, without knowing, I suspect that the top more mobile income earners are some of the early ones out when a place starts to fade. So you should be left with the more immobile lower income earners that would rely on mass transit. presuming the decline is partially economic. that would point to why the population drop is greater than the ridership drop. The top earners that are mobile and can flee, didn't ride the bus anyway.

    So who knows, but it's perhaps as disingenuous as phoenix's light rail graph to throw in a city with huge population declines as an example of an unsuccessful program.

  5. MJ:

    To your first point, I'm not convinced that ridesharing services like Uber or Lyft are necessarily substitutes for light rail. I think they are largely different markets. There is very little data publicly available about them, but from casual observation most of their customers seem to be concentrated in central city locations, particularly around downtowns. Their services seem to be more of a substitute for traditional demand-responsive transportation services, like taxis. I doubt that most of their customers consider fixed-route transit services a serious option for most trips. Usually the only advantage transit offers is that it is cheap (and only then because it is deeply subsidized). Uber customers, on the other hand, don't seem overly concerned about price.

    Secondly, your comment regarding Pittsburgh seems to focus only on the central city of Pittsburgh. The main transit provider there, Port Authority of Allegheny County, serves the larger metropolitan area with nearly 8 times the population. The larger MSA has experienced some population loss as well, but it has been much more limited that the central city. The Pittsburgh MSA has lost about 11 percent of its population since 1980 (as opposed to nearly 30 for the central city), and most of that loss was concentrated between 1980 and 1990. Recent estimates indicate that both the central city and MSA are stabilizing and possibly have added residents since 2010. Plus, even if high-income residents left the central city, many of them could still take transit to work fairly if they worked in an employment center like downtown Pittsburgh or one of the nearby universities.

    The bottom line is that ridership declines are too dramatic to be explained by population loss, and that is even more stark in Phoenix where there is no evidence of such a trend occurring. Most of the other urban areas listed are also growing, several of them quite rapidly.

  6. Tom Lindmark:

    Probably true. I would add that one of the main drivers of expanded light rail and other high capital investment systems is the engineering and construction industries and their attendant subcontractors. It would arguably be much wiser to divert all the money earmarked for these systems into development of automated vehicles.

  7. David in Michigan:

    Self driving cars...... no steering wheel, no shifters, just passengers..... owned by the city (or state)...... able to be called to your location by your phone .... with delivery to your actual destination..... will end ridership on both buses and light rail in the urban environment. I give it 20 - 50 years. It's not Sci Fi it's AI.

  8. tommy ex thom w ex tomw:

    HAL, open the pod bay doors HAL....

    Or the Tom Cruise self-driving cars .... that responded to police control and ...
    or the cars in the Halle Berry TV series that stopped on the rail tracks ... with an unwilling occupant who couldn't open the doors....

    All trite SciFi, true. But I am not there yet with AI. Maybe someday.

    Self driving cars can only seriously work in a situation where there are no people driven cars because *they* are too unpredictable. How does AI account for Minerva putting eyeliner on and swerving slightly as she does... or Melvin trying to shave and adjust his tie ... etc. Not there yet, I think.

    Public transit 'improvements' do not seem to be calibrated to help those who depend on public transit as much as to fill pockets of developers and those who were 'in the know' as to the prospective routes and used that knowledge to buy up the needed roadway and sell high to the transit corp. What's new? See also: H. Reid and D. Hastert.

  9. David in Michigan:

    You for got to say "please" ...... Dave: "Open the pod doors please Hal." HAL: "I can't do that Dave." Hey, that's one of my favorite lines too...... I'm DAVE.

    Just wanted to say that although human driven cars will still exist in my future scenario, they would be required to also be able to be "self driven" and, in the urban environment, the ability to be human driven would be locked out. Consequently Minerva and Melvin can both shave and put on makeup without the need to account for their inattention.

    Self driving cars are the future of public transport. For the near term, I agree with those who say it is largely about money.

  10. Brennan Schweitzer:

    I'd like to share a perspective or two on this concept.

    First, " able to be called to your location by your phone .... with delivery to your actual destination..." already exist in the form of people who operate their own vehicles under the umbrella of a ride-sharing program such as Uber or Lyft. While I don't disagree with the eventuality of autonomous automobiles, important lessons can be learned about how to implement a future system by studying one already in place.

    Which brings me to my second point: " steering wheel, no shifters, just passengers...owned by the city (or state)..." My question is why must they owned by a city or state or any government entity? And being government owned and operated, I shudder to think of what the interiors of these people movers will look like after a few months. Better to let private entities compete for business across the board of all transportation possibilities and let obsolete public transportation boondoggles die on the vine.

  11. Brennan Schweitzer:

    tl;dr: Brennan makes a few minor but slightly entertaining and valid points about economics.

    I'd like to share a perspective or few about ride-sharing, having provided the service in Austin for the last 4 months. Although my experiences are anecdotal, they are relevant.

    First, I also don't think ride-sharing substitutes for Austin's light rail. But let's face it, Austin's light rail is anemic. I saw data from 2015 that showed 2,800 riders per day in a city of over 2 million residents--that works out to--well, you do the math, but the result simply makes Warren's point that light rail is not a solution for moving mass quantities of people.

    Second, Donald's salient point about ride-sharing is that it is beating traditional taxi service where it matters--at the customer level. Cleaner cars, quicker response, lack of surliness, and probably the biggest selling point--no cash required. Drunk downtown and out of money? The safety of home is but a few taps away on your phone and a wait of 5 minutes or less. And I'll even tell you a joke or sing along to a song you like on the radio (I've done this! The two dudes were feeling quite mellow and Garth Brooks' "I've Got Friends In Low Places" came on. I know the chorus, so I'd jump in and it was a great ride for all of us!).

    Next, I think I've made the point, MJ, that ride-sharing is not "a substitute for traditional demand-responsive transportation services, like taxis." Instead, based upon conversations with my customers, ride-sharing is superior and, dare I say (Dare! Dare!), a replacement for traditional taxis. And part of the reason is that ride-sharing customers do care about price. Ride-sharing is providing what customers consider to be a better service at a better price. Fait accompli.

    Which leads me to my final point, in which I must inevitably bring up buggy whips. But let me take the long way around the barn (SWIDT?).

    As I see the current conflict regarding ride-sharing in Austin, the city has not yet found a way to wet its beak in the money flow. They've got some grease in the traditional taxi economy through additional licensing and registration (I won't address possible kickbacks), but haven't yet found a way to grab a percentage of the money passed between private individuals through the use of a third-party technology. Their only option is to restrict that money flow. But the people of Austin want ride-sharing. Continued ride-sharing will harm the ability of traditional services to buy off politicians. Although there was never a buggy-whip lobby opposing internal-combustion engines, the fact remains there are supporters of obsolete technologies doing their best to prevent progress.

  12. David in Michigan:

    Valid points Brennan. I only suggested government owned because it is after all public transportation and I thought that implementation would be needed on a large scale to make it effective, something I thought only government could do..... especially if you are going to have a system to restrict (i.e., disable) human driven vehicles.

  13. mesocyclone:

    Sadly, Phoenix voters approved another $30 Billion mostly for light rail this year. The pols cleverly put the election in August, when nobody votes. The result is that 8% of the registered voters approved that $30 Billion. The Republican dominated state legislature tried to force the city to hold the election at normal election dates, but a court ruled that the ill-conceived home rule provision in the AZ constitution gave the state no power.