Bus ridership has been on the decline through most of the United States, which is a shame for many reasons – not least of which bus (along with rail) should be forming the core of our transportation systems from neighborhood to neighborhood and city to city.
There are a lot of reasons for ridership decline, such as the lack of investment in public transportation by governments scared off by last decade’s recession, as well as the low price of gas for cars. Noah Smith of Bloomberg adds:
There seems to be every reason to expect the decline in bus ridership to continue. Improved hydraulic fracturing technology and price competition from batteries will keep the price of fuel cheap.
And even if Uber and Lyft remain niche services, the advent of self-driving electric cars will make personal transport even more attractive relative to buses.
That doesn’t mean cities shouldn’t invest in bus lines — the relatively low overhead of bus fleets means that if a particular city thinks local bus demand is going to grow, it can plan for that demand without taking too much risk.
Bus ridership rose for several decades, dipped in the early 1990s, and then rose again until its latest downward drop. Between 2008 and 2017, according to Zac Accuardi of TransitCenter, in CityLab, notes:
The Chicago Transit Authority alone lost more bus riders than all U.S. agencies with growing ridership gained. Seattle’s King County Metro (an 8 percent increase in bus riders) and San Francisco Muni (a 19 percent increase) are the two bright spots among major cities during those nine years.
Amid the gloomy trends, examples of success abound. Seattle, San Francisco, Phoenix, and New Orleans are high-ridership areas where bus ridership increased in 2017. In Houston, METRO realized that even as it added more transit service, ridership did not respond—leading the agency to redesign its entire bus network. Since the redesign, Houston METRO is outperforming its peer agencies in terms of ridership, even with a bus-ridership decline of 0.01 percent in 2017 (bus ridership at lead transit agencies in San Antonio and Dallas is down 4.5 percent; in Austin, down 1.3 percent).
Ridership on every one of New York City’s “Select Bus Service” routes has outperformed ridership trends in those routes’ respective boroughs. Nashville’s bus rapid transit-esque routes have also bucked the region’s downward ridership trend. In fact, nationally, “Rapid Bus” service in the National Transit Database has seen consistent yearly ridership gains since it was introduced as a new category in 2012, even as bus ridership overall has declined (though at least some of this increase is due to new “Rapid” lines opening, rather than ridership growth on existing routes).
The beginnings of a good cheat sheet for city officials and planners to use when it comes to assessing ways to make their bus systems viable again could start here.
- Use data to discover, improve, and better communicate the levels of reliability and “on time” service
- Determine if routes are taking people where they want to go today, or whether they were taking people where they wanted to go 10 years ago. Perhaps autonomous bus-like systems like Drive.ai are worth introducing far sooner than many are anticipating.
- Find out what the current customer satisfaction levels are.
- Assess how the quality of bus stops (shelters, benches, shade, etc.) and ease of use of riding buses in general.
- Research not just local but also regional trip patterns.
- Explore optimal fare structures and technologies.
- Assess real-time arrival information and marketing efforts. (How about scaling back all the “see something say something” signs and sprinkling in some creativity and inspiration?)
- Assess how much and where telework is affecting ridership.
- Assess whether bus ridership is related to any rail-ridership trends.
- Find out if app-based ride-hailing is affecting ridership. (Although the data for Uber and Lyft is still mostly the big mystery in being able to fill in the full puzzle of how we move around, some assumptions may be made about losses during the evenings and weekends and around major hubs such as airports. Much more research is needed in this area.)
- Research trends in real-estate development. Maybe added housing around rail stations is driving some declines in bus numbers.
- Assess how federal transit-benefit reductions could be hurting ridership.
- Explore the potential impacts of income, gentrification, and employment and job trends.
That should keep those running our bus systems busy for a while. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take so long that all the rest of their riders have abandoned other, potentially less sustainable ways to travel.
See many more of our articles on bus-ridership declines and what cities are doing about them.