Why Are Transit Systems Losing Riders?

Transit in general, and buses in particular, are losing riders, especially during off peak hours. Car pooling is down sharply as well.

2 minute read

June 4, 2018, 11:00 AM PDT

By Casey Brazeal @northandclark


NYC Subway Riders

MTAPhotos / Flickr

From 1996 to 2014 public transit ridership in the United States increased more or less steadily, with much of that growth coming from gains in New York subway ridership. Now that trend is over, and transit ridership is on the decline. This decline has taken place even as the country's population has increased, meaning that the per capita declines are even more pronounced.

"What I argue here is that what we’re seeing now is unquestionably a decline in transit ridership—almost universal among large cities. Yet there are reasons to believe it isn’t a permanent shift, given that its causes don’t appear to be primarily related to technological change," Yonah Freemark writes.

Looking at commuting, Freemark finds the dominance of driving alone isn't new but a trend that can be tracked back to at least the seventies. In past decades, carpooling accounted for more than 20 percent of all trips to and from work, now carpooling, transit, walking, and biking put together don't add up to even 25 percent of trips. "The significant decline over the past few years is reinforcing what has been happening for ages, probably not reflecting the availability of new transportation modes likes ride-hailing or a sudden change of interest of the public away from transit," Freemark argues.

But talk of a transit collapse may end up a self-fulfilling prophecy. If officials, convinced by grim arguments about transit, decide to forgo investment in favor of more car-focused infrastructure and to let private services like Uber handle mobility, then a few years of falling ridership could turn into a death spiral.

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