Issue 568 to

Transit Ridership on the Decline Across the U.S.

Urbanist Article

Many transit agencies across California and the U.S. are in a downward spiral — decreasing ridership led to decreasing revenue, which has led to decreasing ridership — and the cycle continues. VTA’s ridership is down 10 percent and Samtrans’ is down 6 percent, for example. There are some brighter spots: BART, Muni, Caltrain and AC Transit routes saw more riders this year, particularly on routes running more frequently and efficiently on major streets and corridors.

We know what works for transit in cities: direct bus routes, high-frequency service, long hours of service, a smooth customer experience and getting the buses out of traffic. Big moves like Muni’s “red carpet” bus-only lanes and AC Transit’s network redesign are working for riders. But these things have been hard to implement and much more is needed. Bay Area transit use is still lower now than at its modern-era peak in 2001. Explanations for this abound: Buses are stuck in traffic; ride-hailing trips are replacing transit trips, as are scooters and bikes; people are working from home.

UCLA’s 2018 study1 of falling ridership in the Los Angeles region found that increased vehicle ownership was also huge factor in the decline. The region added 2.3 million people and 2.1 million household vehicles during this period; many people who once relied on transit opted out as cars became an option for more people.

A loss of riders reflects local land use and street policies as much as anything else. But the fact that Los Angeles’ massive efforts at transit expansion have not led to a corresponding growth in ridership is concerning. Further, efforts to shift direction and build transit-oriented development in some parts of the region are moving slowly and remain challenging.

What makes this moment ominous for some agencies is that it is happening during a booming economy. There are thousands more workers here now than in the peak of the dot-com era, so why aren’t more of them taking transit? There is also much worry about new technology such as apps or scooters that may shift transit riders to other options. New choices aren’t necessarily a bad thing, but they do raise the question of what becomes of public transit in this context. Envisioning the future is difficult when private mobility companies come and go (the shuttle service Chariot ceased operations in January, for example) and decision-makers hear dramatic prognostications about the future of cars and the end of transit. Well-funded national political groups like the Koch Brothers’ Americans for Prosperity are also fueling well-funded and organized opposition to local public transportation investment.

We ask much of public transit. We expect it to reduce greenhouse gases, address public health, enable all kinds of people to get around and make dense cities possible. Transit needs to succeed across the region, not just in a few places. With a climate crisis on our hands, reducing driving is essential to the future of California. State climate policies call for reducing driving by at least 1.6 miles per person per day — and for a doubling of transit use. As today’s transit carries about 3 percent of all trips and 12 percent of work trips in the region, that’s a big ask.

Further, transit agencies have more problems than just falling ridership: operator shortages, rising health care costs, crumbling infrastructure, and delays in completing new projects. Bay Area transit operators have racked up $166 billion of overdue state-of-good-repair needs. The provision of demand-responsive paratransit services for the most vulnerable people in our population (the elderly and disabled) is drastically increasing in both operating cost and demand as baby boomers age Looking to the future, providing transit to aging baby boomers in our car-centric system won’t work, and agencies are already struggling with rising paratransit demands and operating costs.

A statewide transit reform and innovation initiative is urgently needed to give cities and operators the flexibility and resources required to make sure that the transit offered — whether buses, trains, bikes or something else — is what people actually need and want. Transit, like private mobility, must evolve from a utility-focused model to a customer-focused one. Transportation regulations at all levels of government need to be rethought so that options other than the car have a shot at succeeding. This includes changes to how we organize, govern and fund public transit in California.

California voters rejected Prop. 6 this year, preserving billions of dollars allocated to public transit through 2017’s landmark SB 1 (and nearly $250 million a year in the Bay Area alone). But we can expect more political challenges like Prop. 6 ahead. As this year’s “yellow vest” protests against France’s gas tax showed, we have built a global economy and society on cheap fuel and a need to drive. Over the past few decades, a coalition of environmental, social justice and urbanist interests has boosted transit. It’s time to focus on what we know works and get allies on the bus together again.



1 See Michael Manville, Brian D. Taylor, Evelyn Blumenberg, “Falling Transit Ridership: California and Southern California,” January 2018, of-californias-falling-transit-ridership/

Ratna Amin is SPUR's transportation policy director.