Causes of the Pre-COVID Decline in Bus Ridership

Even before the effects fo the coronavirus pandemic drastically reduced ridership, transit riders were declining in cities across the country. The reasons for the downward trend were varied.

April 8, 2020, 11:00 AM PDT

By Camille Fink

Metro Rapid Bus

By Tupungato / Shutterstock

Bus ridership started to drop in 2013 in many U.S. cities of all sizes and with different kinds of transit systems. "By late 2019, through nearly seven straight years of decline, national bus ridership in America was at its lowest level since the mid-1970s, a trend that has left service already weakened as transit agencies brace for a public health crisis," write Emily Badger and Quoctrung Bui.

This trend is the result of a variety of factors, say Badger and Bui, including the rise of alternative transportation modes, demographic shifts, and changes in work and commute patterns.

Some factors are under the control of transit agencies—service and infrastructure expansions or cuts, for example. But other factors are related to broader social and economic trends that affect bus ridership over the long term, such as suburbanization, online commerce, and immigration.

"Agencies [also] don’t control all the infrastructure and subsidies that help transit’s biggest competitor, the car. Past research has suggested that transit riders are even more sensitive to changes in gas prices than they are to changes in transit fares. Recently gas has been cheap, and interest rates on auto loans low," note Badger and Bui.

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