Coronavirus accelerates the trend of declining US transit ridership

by Steve Goreham  | August 06, 2020 12:00 AM

Originally posted at the Washington Examiner

Public transit systems play an important role in transporting people within our major cities. Buses, trains, streetcars, and ferry boats transport more than 27 million people each day in the United States. But U.S. public transit ridership has been declining for the last five years, and the coronavirus pandemic is accelerating the decline.

Inside school bus: line of seats. Back to school concept. Educational time

Public transit ridership is measured by “unlinked passenger trips,” with a trip defined as whenever a person boards a transit vehicle, including transfers. Since 1970, the number of unlinked passenger trips is up by about 37% to almost 10 billion trips in 2019. Transit miles were also up by more than 15% between 2000 and 2018, keeping pace with total U.S. vehicle miles traveled.

Public transit ridership consists of primarily bus (48%) and train (47%) transportation. The New York Metropolitan Area served 40% of U.S. public transit riders, with Chicago and Los Angeles distant second and third locations, with just under 6% of U.S. ridership each.

Progressive leaders have long proposed the use of public transportation instead of private vehicles to save the environment. Sen. Bernie Sanders, for example, has stated, “For every $1 billion we invest in public transportation, we create 30,000 jobs, save thousands of dollars a year for each commuter, and dramatically cut greenhouse gas emissions.”Recommended For YouUnder Trump, foster youth are no longer forgotten

But lately, U.S. residents don’t appear to agree. Since 2014, U.S. public transit ridership has been declining. From 2014 to 2019, unlinked passenger trips fell about 7.5%, with transit mileage falling more than 9%. Public transit mileage dropped from about 2% to 1.7% of total vehicle miles traveled. Falling ridership is attributed to increased automobile ownership, lower gasoline prices, and flexible teleworking schedules.

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This year, the coronavirus pandemic plunged public transit ridership to its lowest level in more than a century. From January to April, unlinked passenger trips dropped 85%. Total vehicle miles also dropped, but by only about 42%.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines calling for employers to support employee efforts to use “forms of transportation that minimize close contact with others,” including “driving or riding by car either alone or with household members.” If commuters have a choice, many appear to be avoiding public transportation.

Even before the pandemic, transit ridership was falling in key markets. Public ridership dropped 17% in the Los Angeles area from 2013 to 2018, despite billions spent to expand the L.A. public transit system. This year, because of the virus, California ridership declined an additional 65% to 90%, depending upon the metropolitan area. On June 29, the California Transit Association requested that Gov. Gavin Newsom provide $3.1 billion in funding relief to avoid permanent service reductions.

We’re now in the middle of a public transit crisis. Ridership in the New York Metropolitan Area, the nation’s largest public transit market, recovered from April lows, but by July still remained down more than 50% from 2019. The New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority projects losses from the pandemic of up to $8.5 billion. And absent billions in federal aid, New York City may be looking at the elimination of a large portion of subway lines.

The jury is still out on whether the coronavirus will cause permanent damage to U.S. public transit systems. But for now, it’s clear that many people value personal health and their cars more than the supposed environmental benefits of public transportation.

Steve Goreham is a speaker on the environment, business, and public policy and author of Outside the Green Box: Rethinking Sustainable Development.

37 thoughts on “Coronavirus accelerates the trend of declining US transit ridership

  1. I hated taking public transport. It was hot and crowded. Often mentally ill people would ride and scream. Once some crazy lady elbowed me hard in the ribs for no reason. Often the subway stinks from homeless people uses it as a bathroom. So happy I no longer use it.

    • When I rode, I found that my trip usually took at least twice as long. As for reading or studying, you can, but you couldn’t get too into it because you also had to monitor your surroundings. Besides I could read or study at home.

      • I’ve also worked for several companies where I wasn’t allowed to review company data except in a secure environment.

  2. Mass transit, much like electric cars, only exist because they are massively subsidized. Eliminate the subsidies and they all but disappear.

  3. First Uber, now Covid. Who is going to go back to an inconvenient, disease tube to get to where they are going?

  4. Since March I haven’t taken the bus or subway here in LA. But before that I have spent many hours on public transport. I hate driving here. I especially hate parking here. I can read on the bus/subway/rails so I rarely feel like it’s a waste of time. The system usually has lots of riders — packed as a matter of fact — so I’m wondering how they gather their statistics.

    • Another senior citizen and I took the light rail from southeastern Los Angeles county to a football game at the Rose Bowl. It only cost $1.10 each for the rides, plus $4.00 for the parking lot where we started.

      The game lasted three hours. Including transfers, we spent four hours getting there and coming back.

      • Driving anywhere in LA takes time. You can save some time doing it but four hours of reading doesn’t sound so bad to me. Three hours of sitting behind a driver’s wheel in traffic does.

      • That’s what it cost you. What it really cost is another matter. Likely you’d need to add a zero to the two $1.10 charges.

  5. So why is there a photo of the inside of a school bus, when the story is about public transit? School isn’t mentioned once in the article except for the image caption.

  6. I was an IT consultant for a time in the early 2000s. On a project for the City of San Francisco, they wouldn’t re-imburse us for taxi service (no Uber or Lyft back then), so I had to either walk the 10 blocks from the hotel to the city offices, or take the bus. Either choice was pretty stinky. I chose to walk most of the time. I could at least grab breakfast on the way.

  7. I have mixed feelings about public transport.

    With WuFlu my lord and paymaster actively instructed us happy workers to avoid public transport like the nearly literal plague and also to be very careful even before sharing a car with others.

    Slightly a moot point however because in my humble little city at least public transport is only useful if you are able to travel the spokes in and out of the CBD central hub. What to travel around the rim? Good luck.

    Other considerations are that the costs of running a vehicle are not significantly different from paying bus prices. Yes you have to purchase a car, but if you already own a car the fuel savings were not worth the while and it only became cheaper if you were forced to consider parking expenses. For these reasons I have used buses when I actually worked in the CBD. The moment I changed jobs I went back to using my car.

    Safety is also an issue. It will be desperate times before I catch a train after dark. There is a free loop bus partly funded by the local council (my rates at work I guess) that I often use to travel in and out of the CBD for shopping and social reasons. However while the top half of the loop is reasonably family friendly (the route also goes past our zoo) the bottom half goes through some of the squares where the homeless drunks hang out and they often get on the bus for a single stop just for something to do. Most are harmless. Most.

    And let’s be honest here, how many of us have had someone else get off at the same stop as us late at night and been forced to wonder if it was harmless coincidence or not. Got to admit, can’t ever remember having someone follow me from my carport to my front door at 11pm.

    My other big concern about public transport is that is can be just another part of big government slowly regulating and controlling the public for their own good.

    Own a car? You may go wherever the roads and road rules allow you. Away for the weekend. To a friends place for a boardgame night that finishes at 2am. To your girlfriends place for… a different boardgame night that finishes at 2am. Need to take shopping? No problem. Off to play social sport with your massive bag of gear? No problem.

    Don’t own a car? You go where the bus and train routes go WHEN the bus and train routes go.

    Yes I also appreciate that if you have no car and no public transport then you had better enjoy walking, but in many ways public transport controls the population, not frees it.

  8. I had a professor in Transportation Geometrics who was also a manager at the NYDOT. He asserted that public support for mass transit was based on the expectation that it would get other people off the roads.

  9. In Edmonton, Canada, where I live, the mass transit clientele is overwhelmingly poor people. No one who could afford to operate and park a motor vehicle would dream of taking the bus. Lines running to the university carry nice young students, and lines running from the outer areas to the city centre carry stable working people at the beginning and close of the day. During the day you’re going to be riding with sad, shabby, desperate-looking people, and most middle class people would find this profoundly depressing.

    In the first two months of the pandemic, the city made riding on the buses free, with half the seats carrying don’t-sit-here signs to ensure spacing. Bus schedules were cut in half. Now we are experimenting with a gradual re-opening the economy, and the buses rarely carry more than ten passengers at a time. The mayor has floated the idea of cancelling most of the bus service, because the City can’t afford to run it at such a great loss, and most of the people who will be harmed by cutting bus service don’t vote.

    • Edmonton, that’s cold! in the winter. Standing outside, waiting for a bus, that’s bad. Time better spent elsewhere. And the bus is probably late.

  10. For any personal transport system to be viable it must be as convenient as a personal auto. Less costly would be nice but “time is money” and spending it on transit is not productive. I’ve tried reading, working on a laptop but the only pastime that works for me is listening to music. I can do that in my car.

    Parking costs are a huge part of why most people use transit instead of driving. Where I live I can ride the transit (bus and/or train) for $100 a month. Most downtown parking is $20 a day. $300 a month extra to park.

    Ideally what is needed is an automated car pulling up at my home at a pre-arranged time and sending me a message that it was ready. I go where I’m going and relinquish the car. Do that for $5 a trip ($10 a day) and you have my attention.

    • True. If they spent as much money on parking buildings as they spend on propping up public transport…

    • The problem with the automated car is that they would all be shut down the first time a homeless drug vagrant gets hit by one. And if they’re a homeless drug vagrant of color… fuhgeddaboudit.

      • Other countries have very low levels of homeless drug vagrants. Perhaps the Us should look into that?

        • Yes, putting them in prisons does work for those other countries, using them for slave labor, too. Once again you show us what you are.

  11. Public transport is a good thing, but so is private transport. Taking away the choice, is taking away rationality and freedom.

    “We’re here and we’re loud, because we are being robbed of our freedom,”
    August the first 2020 Berlin was invaded by over a million(1) demonstrators from all over Germany.
    https://www.foxnews.com/world/thousands-protest-coronavirus-berlin-safety-measures

    (1)According to Naomi Seibt there appeared to be around a million, whereas the German press claim some thousands – you know the demonstrators were anti Green, thus it had to be played down.

    • “Taking away the choice, is taking away rationality and freedom.”
      Why should the government provide a choice? Cars are cheaper, faster, more convenient and generally use less energy per passenger-mile.

  12. Only public transit I used was in DC to get to Mall. After all this fake security kabuki theater crap got put in I quit riding Metro and pay for a full day parking one block away from the Mall. Can easily walk to all of Smithsonian and national monuments, going to Arlington is easy, great parking across the river.

  13. Interesting story. I live in Tokyo, where the public transportation system in the greater metro area sees some 80 million commutes on a typical weekday. Public transport works remarkably well in Japan, but then it has to.

    What many people outside Japan don’t realize is that most of Japan’s public transportation system is privatized, and is intended to return a profit to its owners. Japan Railways, the largest railroad system was privatized after years of heavy losses when it was owned by the state. There are some city bus and subway lines, but they are well run, and government workers in Japan are not unionized like the are in America or elsewhere.

    In Japan public transport is cheap, reliable, and efficient. Trains and stations are clean, there is no graffiti, no trash (though there are rats in the subway tunnels). Building new train and subway lines is easy, as rules and regulations are minimal, and legal costs are low. If a train line is to be built next to your house or business, you have no legal recourse, and cannot be compensated for loss of value to your property. If your property is on the proposed line, you will be paid market value for your land and any structure, and sent on your way. You can complain, but you cannot sue, no lawyer would ever accept such a case.

    The same thing applies to private housing construction, which is virtually unregulated, and zoning is almost nonexistent. You can build what you like, where you like, and if your 20 floor building is built 20cm away from a neighboring building and obscures its windows, too bad for them.. This kills the property value of older buildings and structures, but this creates affordable housing options in places like Tokyo. Despite being one of the world’s most expensive cities, one can find an affordable room or apartment in any district.

    Public transportation would work better in America if it were not public.

    • There is a lot of mass transit which isn’t publicly owned around the world. Often the best is run by not for profit companies’

      German and Austrian public transport is exceptionally good. London Transport has its faults, but is far the best way to travel around London – and very safe.

  14. once we have fully automated taxis (or uber or lyft or whatever), a massive amount of parking will be surplus

    what to do about that is something people are already working on

    • Possible, but I’ll wait and see whether people are actually willing to give up the convenience of a personal car, before committing to eliminating parking lots.

  15. Coronavirus accelerates the trend of declining US transit ridership

    That’s just the kind of contradictions that are always present in the application of the marxist’s playbook.

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