To Regain Transit Ridership, Policymakers Must Address Land Use and Housing

More buses and trains alone won't bring back riders; other incentives are needed to boost ridership and encourage new users.

Read Time: 2 minutes

August 20, 2021, 6:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


Vermont BRT

Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority / Vermont BRT Proposed Concept 1

"[N]ew federal spending on transit could mean faster, cleaner, more reliable and more numerous buses and trains," but this may not be enough to bring back riders. Thomas Day argues that state and local governments must also address other issues: "ensuring that lower-income residents can afford to live in central cities, removing parking from many urban streets, and reducing or eliminating transit fares." 

"To make the federal spending on transit work, [policymakers] will need to make decisions around land use and affordable housing that will be far less popular" than those around transit, Day writes. "In 2020, suburbs of the 55 U.S. cities with metropolitan populations above 1 million grew at five times the pace of urban centers, according to data analyzed by the Brookings Institution’s William Frey," putting more dependent transit riders farther away from central cities. "If there indeed is a direct relationship between lower-income residents moving away from urban centers and the decline in transit ridership, local officials will need to work harder to ensure sufficient affordable housing near public transit."

Some relatively accessible tools for improving service and getting riders back on transit do exist: "Designating lanes to allow bus rapid transit service to race by other traffic, for example, has the benefits of lower capital costs, little if any public opposition and the ability to quickly respond to demographic movements." Day also suggests eliminating fares, which, while it may not attract more commuters, benefits low-income dependent riders. If "urban leaders are willing to move forward with policies that have a real chance of luring riders back to transit, the new infrastructure spending package could transform American cities and dramatically reduce carbon emissions. "

Thursday, August 12, 2021 in Governing

Chicago Commute

The Right to Mobility

As we consider how to decarbonize transportation, preserving mobility, especially for lower- and middle-income people, must be a priority.

January 26, 2023 - Angie Schmitt

Sharrow bike markings on black asphalt two-lane road with snowy trees

Early Sharrow Booster: ‘I Was Wrong’

The lane marking was meant to raise awareness and instill shared respect among drivers and cyclists. But their inefficiency has led supporters to denounce sharrows, pushing instead for more robust bike infrastructure that truly protects riders.

January 26, 2023 - Streetsblog USA

View of stone-paved street with pedestrians and "Farmers Market" neon sign on left and old buildings on right in Seattle, Washington

Push and Pull: The Link Between Walkability and Affordability

The increased demand for walkable urban spaces could make them more and more exclusionary if cities don’t pursue policies to limit displacement and boost affordability.

January 27, 2023 - Smart Cities Dive

A tent covered in blue and black tarps sits on a downtown Los Angeles sidewalk with the white ziggurat-topped L.A. City Hall looming in the background

L.A. County Towns Clash Over Homelessness Policies

Local governments often come to different conclusions about how to address homelessness within their respective borders, but varying approaches only exacerbate the problem.

4 hours ago - Shelterforce Magazine

Rendering of mixed-use development with parks and stormwater retention on former Houston landfill site

A Mixed-Use Vision for Houston Landfill Site

A local nonprofit is urging the city to consider adding mixed-use development to the site, which city officials plan to turn into a stormwater detention facility.

5 hours ago - Urban Edge

Aerial view of downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin at sunset

Milwaukee County Makes Substantial Progress on Homelessness

In 2022, the county’s point-in-time count of unhoused people reflected just 18 individuals, the lowest in the country.

6 hours ago - Urban Milwaukee