Quantifying Transit Ridership, Some Lessons from UCLA’s Transit Conference

Transit ridership flat xxx
U.S. Transit usage has been largely flat in the U.S. since 2000. Source: Blumenberg presentation

Earlier this week, SBLA attended UCLA’s The Future of Public Transit conference. The one-day event was hosted by UCLA’s Lewis Center and Institute of Transportation Studies. Numerous speakers spoke on the evolving landscape for public transit and broader mobility – from Houston to New York to Los Angeles. This article recaps two of the more informative and more academic presentations on trends impacting transit ridership. There are no major surprises gleaned for folks who read Streetsblog and who ride transit in Los Angeles, but it is interesting to see data quantified to back up trends observed.

Manville on Driving vs. Transit Ridership

Michael Manville, Assistant Professor of City and Regional Planning at Cornell University, spoke on how recent driving trends have impacted transit ridership. In 2005, driving in the U.S. leveled off. It subsequently declined through 2014. Though there has been a recent uptick, per-person driving is still below 2004 levels.

xxx - via @yfreemark Twitter
In the U.S., miles driven per person declined from 2005 through 2014. Driving recently rebounded to 2002 levels. Source: FHWA via @yfreemark Twitter (AADT is Annual Average Daily Traffic)

Does less driving mean more transit ridership? Manville’s prognosis is “probably not.” 

Manville postulates that the decline in driving is less about changing attitudes (such as millennials’ preference for urban living) and more due to economic factors (such as the cost of driving set against meager incomes). This means that, as the economy recovers, driving is likely to rise.

Manville pointed out that, despite overall U.S. transit service nearly tripling between 1970 and 2013, overall ridership has remained flat. In 1970, Americans took 0.68 trips per person per week. That number remains level over the following decades: 1980/0.72; 1990/0.68; 2000/0.64; 2004/0.64; and in 2013/0.65.

Transit ridership in the U.S. Source: Manville presentation
Transit ridership in the U.S. Source: Manville presentation

Per Manville, from 2004 through 2013, 77 urban areas experienced a decline in vehicle miles traveled (VMT). In those areas, only 36 saw a rise in transit usage. Further decoupling transit increases from driving declines, transit use rose by a greater amount in 13 other urban areas where driving did not decline. Manville cautions that overall transit ridership is very concentrated in a small number of areas. Greater New York City accounts for a third of U.S. transit ridership. Sixty percent of transit ridership is concentrated in just five urban areas: NYC, L.A., Chicago, Washington D.C., and S.F.

Manville went on to explore the transit ridership effects of voter-approved transportation funding measures, like Metro’s Measure R and probable follow-up this year. The impact on transit ridership is not much. Though voters are increasingly willing to vote for transit funding, much like an ironic Onion headline, they do not see the new transit as something they would personally ride. Winning one-time support for funding transit is much easier than ongoing efforts aimed at behavioral change. To some extent, driving voters feel they have “done their part” just by voting in favor of transit.

If funding transit is not effective for growing ridership, what is? Manville says one effective solution is making driving more expensive, such as increasing the gas tax or tolling for road use.

Blumenberg on Transit Ridership Trends for Immigrants and Youth

Evelyn Blumenberg, Professor and Chair, Department of Urban Planning, UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, spoke on transit ridership trends among youth and immigrants. Blumenberg clarified that data presented was based on commuting as reported in the U.S. Census American Community Survey, which can under-represent low income residents.

Overall, for the U.S., 5.2 percent of commuters get to work via public transit.

U.S. transit usage is low, but trending upward somewhat since 2000. Source: Blumenberg presentation

The following groups commute via transit more than the general population: recent immigrants, African Americans, foreign born, the poor, Latinos, and young adults.

Who commutes via public transit. Source: Blumenberg presentation
U.S. transit commuting compared to Southern California. Source: Blumenberg presentation
U.S. transit commuting compared to Southern California. Source: Blumenberg presentation

National trends hold true for Southern California, though, for most categories, transit usage is slightly less than the overall U.S. usage. Even with comparatively low transit usage, the five-county Southern California area is so populous that it represents five percent of U.S. transit commuting.

Percentage commute for large metropolitan areas in the U.S. Source: Blumenberg presentation

Transit works best in dense areas where home and work are fairly close together. Transit agencies have a difficult time serving the needs of residents of suburban areas. Two groups that have shown high levels of transit ridership – immigrants and the poor – are living more in the suburbs, leading to decreased transit use.

Over time immigrants migrate to suburban areas. Source: Blumenberg presentation
The percentage of the poor living in suburbs has increased over time. Source: Blumenberg presentation

The transit renewal story that urbanists like to tell is that the millenial generation is moving back into the city. According to Blumenberg, the data shows that there has been a small increase in the percentage of youth (and the percentage of older working age adults) moving from suburbs to central cities. Unfortunately, with limited exceptions, the increase is dwarfed by the growth in residents living in suburban neighborhoods.

Somewhat more youth (and older working-age folks) move into central cities today (red line) than they did in the early 1990s (blue line). Source: Blumenberg presentation

With these trends, despite substantial transit investment, overall transit commuting has remained fairly constant. Blumenberg suggests that substantial transit investments may have stemmed further declines in transit use. (I would add, echoing Yonah Freemark, that the substantial public investment in transit infrastructure was made at the same time by even greater public and private investment in car infrastructure in the form of highways, roads, parking, etc.)

Overall, Blumenberg paints a somewhat challenging future for public transit. Transit agencies find it more and more difficult (and expensive) to serve dispersed populations traveling to increasingly dispersed workplaces. Blumenberg recommends major changes in land use, such as greater density in areas well-served by transit.

Older urban neighborhoods have higher transit usage than other types of U.S. neighborhoods. Source: Blumenberg presentation

Thank you to Evelyn Blumenberg and Michael Manville for their informative presentations. Apologies if I have missed key points in trying to edit down your work. 

  • Transit works best in dense areas where home and work are fairly close together. Transit agencies have a difficult time serving the needs of residents of suburban areas.

    No, transit works best where it is fast and efficient. For the vast majority of transit services in America, even in cities, but especially in suburbs, that is not an accurate statement at all. One look at the street environment makes it clear why: transit is an afterthought that is tolerated, not a service that is truly usable. Arguments that the areas “aren’t dense enough” for transit are just excuses to give places a pass on the abysmal state of transit in their area.

  • If you look at New York City, the transit capitol of America, the transit isn’t actually very fast in terms of miles per hour. A lot of the subways are slow because they make frequent stops. Since NYC has a very dense core in which parking is difficult or expensive, transit works very well. Even though it’s slow, there’s so much stuff everywhere and driving is such a pain in the ass that transit and walking are the dominant transportation system.

  • neroden

    Look at the share of commutes done by *walking*. Also bicycling. I don’t think you can make an analysis without looking at that.

  • Dennis_Hindman

    Where has the tripling of transit service come from? The additional transit rail capacity in LA County has not kept up with the growth in the number of workers, but added motor vehicle parking has. Until recently most of the LA County transit rail has been installed where there is a high percentage of poorer people. The Foothill Gold Line extension, Expo Line phase II and the Purple Line extension are all mainly going where there are higher household incomes. That will increase the average household income for rail transit riders in the County.

    A LA County Metro manager told me at one of the meetings about the potential upcoming transit ballot measure that they expect the Expo Line to hit its 2030 predicted 62,000 boarding’s per weekday within months of the Phase II opening to the city of Santa Monica. Those additional 32,000 boarding’s will mainly be higher household incomes compared to the first Phase. Even if each of those boarding’s were different people and the entire track was only in the city of Los Angeles, it still wouldn’t be enough to keep up with the growth in the number of workers from the Phase II opening until the next rail project opens.

    The rail lines in NYC, San Francisco, Washington D.C. and Chicago are running near or at full capacity during peak hours. That’s another reason why transit use per population has not increased. NYC hasn’t had an additional subway transit line since the 1960’s. BART in the Bay area has more boarding’s per day than the system was designed for. Since NYC, San Francisco, Washington D.C., Chicago and Los Angeles account for 60% of transit boarding’s in the U.S. and haven’t increased capacity nearly enough to keep up with population growth, then where is that overall tripling of transit service coming from?

    What I don’t see from Manville’s 2004 through 2013 VMT and transit usage is the fact that there was a major recession that started in 2008 which the country had not fully recovered from in 2013. Less people commuting due to that recession could be a major reason why VMT did not increase and transit use did not increase substantially.

    There has only been two Measure R transit lines that have opened. The Orange Line BRT extension and the Gold Line light-rail Foothill extension. That’s not enough to make a significant dent in the number of transit users.

    Two ways to create additional transit users in LA County is by increasing the miles of transit only corridors and also by increasing the capacity of the articulated buses which are used on the busiest bus routes. LA County Metro seems to have the idea that getting a seat on the bus is more important to passengers than actually being able to get on the bus. The 60-foot articulated buses that Metro uses has 57 seats. Van Hool is a private transit bus manufacturer headquartered in Belgium. Their Exquicity buses, which are designed specifically for BRT use, have a typical floor layout of 29, 35 or 44 seats on the 60-foot model. That arrangement can hold significantly more passengers compared to 57 seats. The Orange Line BRT could get 80-foot long buses. Metro has mentioned that this length could hold 80 seats with a capacity for 112 passengers. A typical 80-foot Exquicity bus has 50-seats and holds 145 passengers. That’s 30 percent more than what Metro is aiming for. Van Hool has a diagram of a 80-foot Exquicity bus with a floor layout of 28, 42 or 61 seats. Any of those would enable more passengers to be loaded onto a 80-foot bus compared to having 80 seats. Having less seats on these articulated buses could increase the revenue per service hour. More passengers per bus without significantly increasing the operating cost per service hour.

  • effron

    “A LA County Metro manager told me at one of the meetings about the potential upcoming transit ballot measure that they expect the Expo Line to hit its 2030 predicted 62,000 boarding’s per weekday within months of the Phase II opening to the city of Santa Monica.”

    Running two-car trains every 12 minutes? That’s confidence.

  • Dennis_Hindman

    That same manager also stated that Metro has calculated that the Expo Line could handle as much as 6,000 boarding’s per hour in one direction running 2-car trains every 12 minutes. The Expo Line will be 15 miles long when Phase II opens. It’s very likely that the Expo Line will be busy in both directions for a great deal of the day.

  • effron

    Those are heady proclamations. For all that to be true within the next 120 days is, well, optimistic.

  • effron

    Chewie, you’ve well rebutted the “fast” side of the equation but that doesn’t address the equally –if perhaps more so– “efficient” component. What NYC’s service may lack in speed –using the terms you describe– it makes up for in efficiency. Los Angeles’s transit network is grossly inefficient by comparison. Let’s face it, you need both serve the ridership.

  • Dennis_Hindman

    Opening day boarding’s for Expo Line Phase II will give a good picture of whether its possible to reach those predictions.

  • effron

    Hmmmm, I’m more than a little skeptical of “opening day” attendance figures being a predictor of anything. I’m more of a “word of mouth” let’s-see-what-happens over subsequent weeks type once the thrill of commuting in a sardine can wears a little thin. That’s when you know your core constituency.

  • Dennis_Hindman

    Metro is receiving one light-rail train car a week from Kinkisharyo. The initial 2-car trains on opening day for the Expo Line Phase II will start to have 3-car trains as additional train cars are received. Figure there will be 2 additional train cars a month for the Expo Line. That means the capacity of the Expo Line will increase every month until the amount needed to run 3-car trains is filled. The initial 78 train order from Kinkisharyo is to be completed by January of 2017.

  • effron

    Sure, that’s the sequence of events but unless that sequence comes with specifics, i.e. when exactly all you’re describing is going to happen, its meaningless. Metro has been mighty opaque about when they’ll be running 3-car trains at peak hours, let alone how many. Cars won’t be immediately “added” they’ll be traded out because there are also stock shortages effecting other lines. Until they’ve caught up 60k ridership “within months” sounds, well, I’ve already said it.

  • calwatch

    6,000 boardings an hour seems very high – an average boarding count of 1,200. There will be more bidirectional demand, as currently Expo is primarily useful for the forward commute direction (toward downtown in the AM) and less useful otherwise since Culver City is not a job center and the transfer facilities at Washington/National are not ideal. But a doubling of ridership? Remember that there is background ridership loss of ~ 5% due to maintenance and unreliability on the rail system.

  • I think the land use piece is absolutely crucial. Population and employment density, and walkable areas near stations are really important to making transit work well. They allow for more frequent service and they make the service more feasible to use because when you get to a station, there’s actually something there.

    The thing that’s tricky about LA is there’s no real consensus here about whether we want to be a walkable city or a car-oriented suburb. We build rail lines, thinking that they will somehow solve traffic in built environments that are still designed for cars.

    There are places in LA where transit works really really well and places where it sucks. The key variable is land use.

  • Vooch

    subsidies for driving will always out-compete transit

    as long as driving is lavishly subsidized, transit will be a step child

  • p_chazz
  • Joe Linton

    Yah – both public subsidies (road costs) and private ones (parking costs) and a bunch more (environmental clean-up, water, health, other costs)

  • cygp2p

    lol, a reason link

  • p_chazz

    But can you refute the data that Reason cited?

  • Slexie

    We have already had the greatest transit experiment and no one seems to know that it happened. That being Uber and Lyft. The millennials have spoken. They would rather grab an Uber on demand than wait for a bus or a train. Period. And with more people moving to urban cores, of course transit ridership will stay flat. Duh. Do we need a study to show that? Last night, I went to a nightclub downtown. We closed the place and left at 2:15am. Am I going to wait for the bus that late? I’ve done it before and sometimes they never show up. Lyft doesn’t have surge pricing and it was $6 to get home.

    What bothers me are these grand schemes to make driving more expensive and inconvenient. They’re not going to force people to take public transit by making drivers miserable. Drivers will continue to do their dance, because transit in LA is simply not a reasonable alternative. Uber and Lyft will continue to allow transit to stay stagnant.

  • cygp2p

    Oh I’m not clicking on link to goddamn Reason, I’m not a 16 year old internet libertarian, I’ve wasted enough of my time reading their hilariously garbage material. Like their projections for 2020 Expo line ridership that got surpassed in the first 6 months the thing was even open, or their unironic discussion of spending hundreds of billions to create a network of road tunnels under LA so that every precious snowflake could continue to drive their personal automobile forever, screw the cost.

    I’m guessing this is yet another post where they tried to argue that transit isn’t worth investing in because ridership dipped with gas prices (no shit), and then pointed to VMT without even talking about VMT per capita or the hundreds of billions in road subsidies we pump out at the state, national, and local level.

    They are a marketing firm funded by this nations richest assholes to stir up the easily impressionable so they can make more money. If you buy it, that’s your own fault.

  • p_chazz

    Oh, so you can’t refute the data, then. Gotcha.

  • cygp2p

    I addressed their data in my post. Please read harder. If you buy their bullshit analysis, again, that’s your own fault.

  • p_chazz

    The data that you can’t or won’t refute isn’t from Reason. It’s from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics National Transit Data program. It shows that in 2015, transit ridership was down 2.5 percent nationally from the prior year.Meanwhile, J.D. Power and Bankrate are reporting that car buying by Millennials is surging.

    The information I linked to generally supports the findings in this article–that despite a sizeable increasse in public transit investment, ridership has not increased to an appreciable degree. If anything, it has fallen slightly. Sorry that you have such a hard time dealing with facts when they don’t support your hypothesis.

  • cygp2p

    Again, please read harder. I said their analysis is bullshit. Also lol ‘surging’ millennial car buying after hundreds of billions of government subsidies that’s still lower than any other post war generation, and VMT per capita still down from 07 despite comically cheap gas. There’s that Grade A statistical analysis Reason is known for.


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