Are transit ridership numbers more pomp than substance?

Samuel Staley's picture

The American Public Transit Association reports that transit ridership climbed to 10.3 billion trips during the first quarter of 2008, the "highest number of trips taken in fifty years." That represents a 3.3 percent increase overall over the previous year while vehicle miles traveled, a measure of demand for car travel, fell by 2.3 percent, they observe.

But what do these statistics mean for US travel more generally? Not much. At best, they reinforce transit's modern-day role as a niche transportation choice. At worst, they're a harbinger of transit's continued long-term decline. Here's why.

First, let's acknowledge that the increase in ridership is significant. If we convert ridership into passenger miles traveled-a distance-based rather than trip-based measure-a 3.3 percent increase translates into 1.6 billion passenger miles over the course of a year. That's a lot, particularly given the hurdles faced by transit in a high-end, services-based economy that demands more transportation flexibility and generates complex travel patterns. (This, btw, is the subject of my next book, Mobility First, due out this November.)

Yet, APTA's juxtaposition of the two numbers-transit ridership (trips) versus vehicle miles traveled (distance)-is misleading. Their reporting incorrectly implies that public transit is gaining on automobile travel. It isn't. In fact, it's losing ground. Transit's market share of all travel fell from 1.5% of all travel in 1980 to 1.0% in 2005 according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Even with the gains in ridership, transit would be lucky to maintain its current market share, let alone forestall its long-term decline.

Public transit's gains also pale in comparison to the reduction in road-based travel. US travelers eliminated 112 billion passenger miles from our roadways in 2007. Fewer than 2 percent of those trips might have shifted to public transit even if we assume all of those passenger miles migrated onto buses and trains.

Notably, APTA pointed out that light rail, commuter rail, and heavy rail experience significant increases. But light rail only accounts for 3.4% of transit passenger miles nationally. Commuter and heavy rail together account for almost half of public transit ridership, but their growth was just 5.7% and 4.4% respectfully. Gas prices, in contrast, have increased by about 50 cents (14%) over the last year.

So, anyway you slice the pie, public transit's gains are much more modest than APTA's press release suggests, and the impact on overall travel patterns is minor despite higher gas prices. The data show that the public is not exactly "embracing" transit as an alternative to higher gas prices. Rather, they are simply cutting down on travel. It's not time to re-plan our regions based on or around transit's resurgence.

Sam Staley is Associate Director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee.



Michael Lewyn's picture

Why 1980?

Mr. Staley says that transit's market share declined between 1980 and 2005. But why does he use 1980 as his baseline, rather than, say, 1990 or 2000? My suspicion is that even by his "all trips" test, transit's market share increased over the past five or ten years.

Staley's Shaky Statistics

Both his base year and his final year are misleading.

He says that transit's market share fell between 1980 and 2005. 1980 was the last time that gas prices peaked, and gas cost considerably less (after correcting for inflation) in 2005 than in 1980.

Yet he uses the 1980-2005 figures to talk about trends today, when gas prices have gone up dramatically since 2005 and are even higher than in 1980.

You might as well claim that SUVs are selling better than cars today, and prove it by quoting figures that show how much SUV sales increased between 1980 and 2005.

Charles Siegel

Using the same numbers, I would draw a different conclusion...

Mr. Staley writes that transit has increased 1.6 billion miles or 3.3 percent over the past year, while vehicle miles traveled have decreased 112 billion miles over the same year. Two points here:

1) It would seem that transit's market share over the past year is definitely INCREASING using these figures. But Mr. Staley goes back to using 1980-2005 figures to claim that transit's market share is still decreasing, when that is apparently no longer holding true in the era of $4 gasoline.

2) Mr. Staley seems disappointed that only perhaps 2% of auto trips have shifted to public transit, the rest having shifted to simply staying at home. I believe this merely reflects the reality that in most places in the US, you only have a few choices:
- drive
- stay home
- walk or bike (which are not generally a good option either)

Transit is simply not an option because most places do not offer it, or offer really shoddy forms of it like very infrequent bus service - but in places where good transit is an option, it is seeing increased usage of anywhere from 15% (light rail) to 6% (commuter rail). Does that mean we should be building less public transit in the future? Only if you think that "staying home" is a satisfactory answer to our future transportation needs. I for one think that is an awful, laughable solution, and I work in an industry that is well ahead of the curve in terms of telecommuting.

Really ... Um ... Really

Thanks for showing some of the faults in assumption as well as misrepresentation in numbers ... saved me a frustrating post.

“Conspicuous consumption of valuable goods is a means of reputability to the gentleman of leisure”

- Thorstein Veblen

The problem with statistics at this level of aggregation.

Good job revealing what I believe is a fundamental flaw in the way this whole discussion is being framed. The easiest way to make quantitative data say what ever you want them to say is to aggregate the data to the point where the findings are almost meaningless.

I have personally been very skeptical regarding the possibilities for transit in my area, for a variety of reasons, but I've watched (to my surprise) a massive increase in ridership of the conventional bus system associated with a relatively minimal investment in the improvement of headways and routes. This was before the recent jump in gas prices.

I'm now convinced that the proposed (and work-in-progress) transition to a BRT network will be clearly workable and worth the investment. I was skeptical in the past whether it could ever work in this car-dominated landscape of the Florida gulf coast. Also, the political possibility of a workable light rail system is heaving into view on the horizon, to my surprise. I think both the ideological preoccupations and the statistical tactics of the national anti-transit gurus will have decreasing relevance as a result of the practical obviousness of transit-oriented solutions to pressing mobility problems.

trips versus passenger miles

Mr. Staley is right to point out this misleading juxtaposition, but the use of different measurement systems for travel is a deep and complex question in transportation planning. These measurements also vary greatly from place to place. A great application called will show you that 5 miles can mean very different things depending on where you are.

One of the biggest problems I am finding in transportation planning is that the debates are completely distorted when speaking on a national scale. I think speaking about a national transportation dialogue actaully polarizes people. What does it mean to talk about national transit usage? Other posters will point out that it is misleading to talk about national mode split when the vast majority of the country doesn't have adequate transit. When you look at transit corridors you find a very different picture. I asked Genevieive Guiliano (sp?) what the mode split on the Blue Line corridor was after a recent talk, and she said it was 17%. That is a far cry different than 1%. Nonetheless what are the public policy implications if the entire county of Los Angeles has to pay for a benefit (ablbeit a very positive one) to a small portion of its citizens.

I am a recent grad student and I am still working these issues out, but I think the ideas of misleading measures goes both ways. In his own post Mr. Staley fails to define what he means by "market share of all travel fell". Mr. Staleys's work, which I've read, is concerned with mobility as an enabler of economic and social opportunity. The wider a footprint of potential mobility the more opportunities. But I can attest that I experienced a much richer existence in my 5 miles radius in central London than I currently do in a 25 mile radius in Orange County. In that case regardless of whether a person is traveling 15 miles or 5, wouldn't trips be the right measure to use?

Mobility Vs. Access

"I can attest that I experienced a much richer existence in my 5 miles radius in central London than I currently do in a 25 mile radius in Orange County. In that case regardless of whether a person is traveling 15 miles or 5, wouldn't trips be the right measure to use?"

I think the right thing to measure is access, which would be a function of both the distance a person travels and the density of destinations around that person.

Mobility alone obviously is not a good measure. Imagine two cities that are identical except that city A is four times as dense as city B. People in city B have twice as much mobility as people in city A, but they don't get to more places than the people in city A. (Of course, this is simlar to the contrast between Orange County and London or between American cities 50 years ago and American cities today. Anyone who says "Mobility First" is missing a key fact about the history of the American city: increased mobility is a function of increased sprawl, which makes people travel further and further to do the same things they used to do closer to home.)

Trips are not a good measure either, since they might be trips to inferior destinations. Eg, if you don't have any supermarkets that you can get to and you make a trip to the local liquor store to buy groceries, that is not as beneficial as someone else's trip to the supermarket.

We need some combination of miles travelled plus density of destinations. Eg, I have several supermarkets, dozens of restaurants, etc, within two miles of my house, person B has several supermarkets, dozens of restaurants, etc, within 5 miles of his house, so two miles travelled for me is as beneficial as 5 miles travelled for person B.

There is a walkability index somewhere on the web that does a similar calculation of density of destinations, so it is possible. This calculation would also have to factor in accessiblity of jobs.

Charles Siegel

Steven Polzin's picture

Transit market share

Tranit market share is best determined in terms of person miles by mode. Unfortunately we do not have a way to account for differential circuity by mode at this time but it is modest. In general terms transit mode share increases when the growth rate of transit person miles of travel (which emcompases both trip numbers and length) grows faster than VMT. That has generally been happening since the mid 1990's with a few exceptions around 2001.

However, this growth in share has to be kept in perspective. Obviously only some of the country has a transit option. Data from NHTS indicated that about 45-50% of household are located within a half mile of a bus route. If you factor in service at destinations and by time of day it is clear that transit is not even available for the vast majority of trips. Transit use is approximatley 1% on a person miles traveled basis compared to auto (about 1.6% based on a measure of trips). Thus, the modest differential growth in transit the past decade, while encouraging to the transit industry, is not at a relative growth pace or level where it is mathematically (say nothing of financially) able to significantly alter overall mode share. If transit use doubled in a decade, an unpresedented rate of growth,it would comprise about 2% of PMT.

Also, don't forget transit and stay at home aren't the only options, I would suspect a huge share of the 4.3% decline in VMT in March rode with someone else of made sharter trips.

We have a forthcoming TRB paper on Mode share trends.

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