• Ravi Puvan

Ridership Trends in Transit Bus Fleets


Bus ridership trends are on the decline, but there is still some cause for optimism

According to the National Transit Database (NTD), the 2018 figures submitted by the American transit agencies showed that in the vast majority of American cities, fewer people rode buses than the year before. This decline in ridership was particularly large in major cities such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. In Los Angeles, bus ridership has fallen about 30 percent over the course of the last decade.


In its totality, transit ridership is at its lowest since 2017, and bus ridership alone has fallen by at least a dramatic 5 percent.


As one can imagine, as transit fleet bus ridership decreases, this creates further issues on the road such as traffic congestion. From 2010 to 2016, traffic congestion rose in some of the world’s major cities, particularly in New York (30 percent), London (14 percent), Beijing and Paris (9 percent respectively).


However, the statistics do not necessarily spell gloom and doom for bus ridership. There are some indications that some regions are reversing their ridership loss and slowly getting more people back on transit. Ridership has risen in seven of the 35 regions with the highest transit usage, being Seattle, Pittsburgh, Houston, Austin, San Antonio, Detroit, and Las Vegas.


According to the Washington Post, Houston, in particular, was able to transform its bus system overnight from a traditional hub-and-spoke design focussed on downtown to a grid that apportioned equal service to other parts of the city. It also has restructured its service to provide more frequency, as has Seattle and Austin. Not long after doing so, the system saw significant weekend ridership gains and put an end to significant losses which had seen it lose over a fifth of its ridership in just over a decade.


Furthermore, in Seattle, bus ridership has grown from 92 million trips to 119 million trips over the course of 16 years. Detroit has also famously expanded frequent service by adding 500 trips a week and running them right around the clock.


In terms of transit agencies themselves, only a handful of agencies have experienced increased bus ridership since 2012. Most notable among them is King Country metro and Houston Metro, likely due to the changes made with service patterns and network designs. Transit speeds have also slowed down due to growing congestion.


It is also worth noting that in major parts of the country we are witnessing population growth while at the same time seeing a major decline in bus ridership, indicating that there’s a larger systemic failure that requires addressing. To that end, a 2019 TransitCenter study, found that reorienting bus networks to meet demand is clearly linked with increasing ridership based on findings from 2018 ridership data gathered


The desire to increase public transport can also be mired between the competing types of public transport vying for competition. For example, Denver has spent billions on its FasTracks light rail network which has seen modest gains, yet due to little interest to increase bus ridership by public officials, bus ridership continues to suffer major losses. This has been the case in much of the country, including Chicago which has seen its bus ridership heavily plummet in recent years while experiencing rail ridership growth at the same time.


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