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What's Happening to Transit Bus Ridership?

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Daniel Kay Hertz of the University of Chicago had a thought-provoking piece about declining transit bus ridership on January 5th (picked up from CityObservatory).

Hertz noted that since the Great Recession there has been a decline in both transit bus ridership and transit bus service (vehicle revenue miles), and set out to assess what is going on. He found a study by the Mineta Institute at San Jose State University that concluded that after taking account of an array of possible causal factors, bus service levels are the best predictor of bus ridership. He also found evidence that it is not reductions in ridership that lead to cuts in service, but rather the opposite.

Probing deeper, Hertz found evidence that the decline in bus service is directly related to the opening of new rail service, mostly new light rail lines. Bus routes are typically revamped to provide feeder service to rail lines, which disrupts their ability to operate as a grid that enables transit riders to get from a point A to a point B, often via a transfer. In addition, Hertz finds that “since the recession, transit agencies have cut bus service year after year, while returning service to rail rather quickly.”

Why this preference for rail over bus by transit planners? Here is the key point, in his words:

“Even though far more people take buses than trains in nearly every metropolitan area in the country, train riders, on average, tend to be wealthier and whiter. Not only that, many civic and business leaders who don’t use transit at all are heavily invested in rail service as an economic development tool for central city neighborhoods. In other words, rail tends to have a more politically powerful constituency behind it than buses.”

Hertz also points out another key distinction between bus and rail in real-world America. Nearly all rail lines are radial services from suburbs to the traditional downtown. Yet since “downtown” represents a small and declining fraction of metro area jobs, getting from one suburb or neighborhood to another without a personal vehicle requires a grid-type bus system. As Hertz notes toward the end of his piece,

“Because of the spread-out nature of even relatively dense American cities, it will be a very, very long time before rail transit can connect truly large numbers of people to large numbers of jobs and amenities. When Minneapolis opened the 12-mile Blue Line light rail in 2004, for example it was a major step forward for Twin Cities transit—but still, only 2% of the region’s population lived close enough to walk to one of the stations. For everyone else, transit still meant taking the bus.”

Back in June 2014, I wrote about a planned revamp of Houston’s bus system. The “frequent network” plan proposed by Jarrett Walker aimed to refocus bus routes and frequencies toward corridors and areas with high potential ridership and away from places with low potential ridership. The overall goal was to increase the fraction of potential riders with access to frequent service from 49% on weekdays to 73% seven days a week. After much debate, a version of the plan was implemented in August 2015.

A November 9th report in the Houston Chronicle revealed a mixed bag of changes thus far. Total transit ridership (bus and light rail) in September was 4% above the previous year, but September’s fare revenue was 6.4% less than in the previous year. These are early days, and Houston Metro is continuing to tweak and fine-tune the changes. I plan to report further on this worthwhile effort once it has been in place more than a year.

(This article first ran in Surface Transportation Innovation newsletter in its February 2016 edition)

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