Pity the poor city bus.
Long considered the bottom rung of mass transit, the bus suffers from a bit of an image problem, to say the least. In New York, the Straphangers Campaign awards the “Pokey” and the “Schleppie” prizes to the city’s worst lines. Streetsblog USA recently held a competition for the Sorriest Bus Stop in America. And these examples don’t even begin to broach the stereotypes surrounding the people who use the bus (“the ride of choice for the poor and very poor alike,” as Lisa Simpson said).
For years, this didn’t stop people from using the bus when they needed it—to the tune of 5.6 billion rides in 2008, or nineteen for every American.
But new data shows that the bus’s reality may finally have caught up to its reputation. Americans took 60 million fewer bus rides in 2014 than the year before, according to the American Public Transportation Association. The decline is becoming noticed at the local level, too—amNewYork declared this week that bus ridership in America’s most transit-savvy city was “plummeting.”
The news seems incongruous in light of the frequently repeated narrative that America has entered a new golden age of mass transit.
In reality, though, the decline in bus ridership has been one of the most significant and under-appreciated recent developments in the way Americans travel, spanning multiple years and implicating cities of all shapes and sizes.
The chart below shows the percentage growth in municipal bus ridership for the ten largest urban areas in the country, using the 2002 ridership statistics as the baseline. The data combines all bus operators in a given region, as defined by the Federal Transit Administration’s National Transit Database.
Percentage change in bus ridership by urban area, 2002-2014 (2002 baseline)
Source: Author’s calculations based on FTA National Transit Database Individual Agency Data.
The first six years showed modest-to-impressive growth in almost every region, with all except Dallas, Houston, and New York carrying more riders in 2008 than in 2002.
Once the recession began, though, ridership declined across the board—no agency posted a ridership gain between 2008 and 2009.
This makes sense—with fewer people working, the need to travel also diminished. Meanwhile, austerity in the public sector forced many transit agencies to reduce service and eliminate lines.
The worrisome trend, however, is that the strengthening economy has failed to translate back into an increase in bus ridership. Unemployment peaked at 10 percent in October 2009 and has since fallen by nearly half, yet the majority of large urban areas saw fewer bus passengers last year than they did at the height of the recession.
The problem is even greater considering the population growth that most of those regions have experienced during the same stretch of time. Returning to those same ten urban areas, every single one—even the cities that saw bus use growth overall—recorded fewer bus rides per capita in 2014 than in 2005. In the New York region, the change was particularly dramatic: the average Tri-State resident rode buses seventy-five times in 2005; in 2014, just fifty-five times.
Annual bus rides per capita, 2005-2013
Source: Author’s calculations based on FTA National Transit Database Individual Agency Data and American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates tables B01003 (Total Population).
Of course, ridership is not in and of itself an issue (unless you happen to run a transit agency). The problem is what the decline implies.
Trains tend to attract far more attention and admiration from transit wonks and the public alike. Yet the fact remains that outside of the densest parts of the country’s largest cities, where widespread demand for transit justifies investing in trains, buses are usually the most efficient way to provide public transportation. When done right—that is to say, with sufficiently frequent service and routes that align with demand—buses can link communities, reduce commute times, and provide access to jobs with far less hassle than building rail lines.
In a recent San Jose State University study on the determining factors behind bus demand, three urban planning scholars reached a similar conclusion.
Out of nineteen possible variables, far and away the most influential determinant of demand for buses was “transit supply.” In other words, providing adequate bus service is the single most important way transit agencies can improve bus ridership.
Simple in theory, but difficult in practice. As measured by “annual vehicle revenue miles,” very few cities offer anything close to the level of service they operated in the mid-2000s. Of the country’s twenty-five largest urban areas, nineteen reduced service mileage between 2006 and 2012, the latest year for which data is available. In thirteen of them, including Chicago, Houston, and Los Angeles, the decline was greater than 10 percent. Despite a thriving economy, our country’s bus systems are stuck with recession-era service.
While the trend is cause for concern, it also suggests a relatively easy fix: offer more bus service. With most transit agencies across the country struggling to make ends meet, however, urban areas will need federal assistance to do so.
Unfortunately, the U.S. Department of Transportation has for years hesitated—by law and by tradition—to fund cities’ transit operations, preferring instead to assist agencies with capital expenditures. The Bus and Bus Facilities Program, for example, provided $100 million in discretionary funding last year, but the funding notice prohibited money from going to “operating expenses.” Another program, Urbanized Area Formula Grants, allows funding for operations but specifically excludes large and midsize cities from eligibility.
Local transit agencies should not rely solely on the federal government’s dole, but the decline in bus service and bus ridership is perhaps the greatest overlooked crisis facing public transportation today. It represents jobs that people cannot access, commutes that take twice as long as they should, and neighborhoods disconnected from the hearts of their regions. And the solution is as obvious as the problem is profound.