Public Policy Forum Blog

Transit ridership is declining nationally. How are some cities bucking the trend?

Our latest edition of Focus shows four of Wisconsin’s five largest transit systems lost riders between 2014 and 2017, despite all five increasing total bus service during that period. We also found transit ridership has declined nationally since peaking in 2014.

In fact, 31 of the 35 largest transit systems in the U.S. lost riders between 2016 and 2017. Ridership on the Milwaukee County Transit System declined the fastest among them (-13.6%). Meanwhile, Seattle (+3.0%), Phoenix (+2.7%), Houston (+0.7%), and New Orleans (0.0%) were the only metro areas to maintain or increase transit ridership that year. As a result, those and a few other communities are receiving national attention aimed at understanding their recipes for success.

In addition to investing more financial resources into transit, Seattle and Phoenix have increased bus service substantially. While that may have factored into increased ridership in those communities, we know increased service alone hasn’t led to additional riders in many Wisconsin cities.

Some communities have found it beneficial to rethink their entire systems. Houston and Columbus, OH (where ridership declined by less than 1% last year) have redesigned their bus systems to provide more frequent service on busy corridors where demand is highest and reduced or eliminated services in areas with lower demand. Similarly, San Francisco, which added bus riders last year while losing rail transit riders, implemented a new plan for its bus system in 2016 designed to provide more frequent and reliable service on core routes.

The quality of bus services also may be an important factor. FTA data show ridership has increased on “rapid bus services” nationally, including in the Nashville and New York City metro areas. Rapid bus services involve features designed to shorten travel times, such as longer distances between stops, dedicated bus-only lanes, off-board fare collection systems, and technological enhancements that allow buses to extend green lights and shorten red lights at busy intersections. We explored these strategies in our 2015 report, Picking up the Pace.

In response to declining ridership, the Milwaukee County Transit System recently launched a new effort called MCTS Next, which follows the lead of places like Houston and Columbus. MCTS Next aims to increase service frequency to every 15 minutes or less on as many busy transit corridors as possible. Doing so likely will require consolidating some bus routes, as no additional funding is attached to the project.

While redesigning MCTS’s bus system could help to stabilize or even increase ridership, it may also mean less access to lower-density suburban areas where demand is relatively low. Our past research has highlighted the fundamental challenge of providing increased service frequency on core transit routes vs. expanding the geographic reach of the system to farther flung destinations.

In the coming years, the outcomes of both Milwaukee’s MCTS Next project and parallel strategies used by transit systems across the U.S. may provide valuable insight for Wisconsin communities responding to transit ridership declines.

Joe Peterangelo