Report of Public Transit's "Record" Ridership is Questionable

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Report of Public Transit's "Record" Ridership is Questionable

June 2, 2000 4 min read Download Report
Wendell Cox
Visiting Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy

In May 2000, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) received widespread media coverage for its report on increased public transportation usage. APTA, the Washington-based lobby for the nation's government-subsidized transit systems, reported that 1999 marked a new peak in transit ridership, with an estimated 9 billion individual rides occurring that year.

Unnoted in the release was the fact that automobile usage and airplane boardings also reached record highs, as would be expected during a period of economic expansion and population growth. And while the report noted that transit ridership rose faster than auto use for the first time in 40 years, it did not mention that more than 90 percent of America's work trips occur by auto and less than 4 percent are by transit. Consequently, relatively small changes in the actual number of transit users led to the appearance of large percentage gains in transit usage.

Nonetheless, transit advocates did not hesitate to suggest that harried drivers are giving up their cars for public transit. The evidence on the use of public transportation, however, suggests no such thing. While there is no doubt that, in absolute numbers, transit ridership has risen over the past four years--offsetting nearly identical losses in the early 1990s--APTA's report is both questionable and of little significance. A comparison of APTA's findings with data from the federal government's National Transit Database (NTD) shows that transit usage has decreased over time and lost market share to other forms of transportation.

Transit Use Is Still Down.
According to 1998 data from the latest available National Transit Database, transit "boardings" (unlinked trips) remained 700 million below the number in 1984, transit's peak year since governments began escalating transit subsidies in 1970. Moreover, transit use in 1998 was lower than in 1989 among the five primary modes of public transit (buses, subways, light rail, commuter rail, and trolley buses). Furthermore, even if the NTD shows an increase in ridership for 1999 similar to APTA's, boardings would still be at least 300 million below the 1984 peak.

Measurement Methodology Inflates Figures.
APTA's methodology for counting public transit rides tends to make later figures look more favorable than earlier ones. Because transit systems count boardings rather than "trips" or "passenger journeys," patrons are counted each time they enter a transit vehicle, even if the transfer is part of one continuous trip. For example, if a commuter rides a bus and then transfers to a train or another bus, it would count as two boardings. Moreover, over the past 20 years, a number of new rail systems have opened. Existing bus routes are shortened to redirect riders to rail stations, and this forces bus riders to transfer to rail lines, artificially increasing the number of boardings without actually increasing passenger journeys.

The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority is one of the few transit agencies that counts both passenger journeys and boardings. Since its rail system opened in 1979, journeys have increased approximately 25 percent, while boardings have increased 125 percent. The extent to which transfers have inflated boarding numbers at the national level is not known, but the Atlanta evidence suggests that this surely has occurred. Simply accounting for Atlanta's artificially high number of boardings in the APTA data would produce 1999 ridership numbers nationally below those from 1989. Notwithstanding Atlanta's increase in both trips and boardings between 1980 and 1998, per capita transit use in the Atlanta metropolitan area fell by 25 percent.

New York's Ridership Skews National Data.
Because the New York City area constitutes more than 35 percent of U.S. transit ridership, transit trends there can distort national ridership patterns. Recent changes in the New York City transit system have inflated ridership figures without necessarily increasing the number of transit users. Since the New York City Transit Authority recently instituted free transfer privileges between buses and trains, the number of boardings has increased substantially. These increased boardings, however, do not represent new passenger journeys; instead, they count commuters who now are more likely to make transit transfers than to walk for part of their trips. As in the case of Atlanta, correcting the APTA data to account for this policy change would lower the APTA-produced 1999 national ridership figure below that for 1989.

Transit's Market Share Is Decreasing.
More important than short-term transit ridership trends, however, is the waning importance of public transit nationally. Over the past 40 years, transit has experienced no growth in the number of riders even though America's population has grown by nearly 100 million. While transit ridership has hovered between 7 billion and 9 billion boardings per year over the past 40 years, the overall urban travel market in which transit operates has grown substantially. Within this market, transit's market share has plunged.

This is evident in the fact that annual boardings per capita have fallen since 1980 in all seven metropolitan areas that have the highest transit ridership--by 15 percent in New York, 36 percent in Chicago, 31 percent in Philadelphia, 32 percent in San Francisco, and 7 percent in Boston. Together, Washington and Los Angeles have invested more than $15 billion in costly rail additions, yet their per capita boardings have dropped 16 percent and 11 percent, respectively. The seven areas, which together account for more than 70 percent of the nation's transit boardings, are typical of hundreds of other transit systems. Nationally, transit's share of urban travel was approximately 7.1 percent in 1960; by 1998, it had fallen to approximately 1.8 percent, a drop of 75 percent.

For nearly three decades, transit has been propped up by federal, state, and local taxpayers, and these subsidies now total nearly $20 billion annually. Yet, since 1980, transit's share of urban travel has fallen more than 35 percent. The sad truth is that transit ridership has fallen so far that even if its market share were to double (which at the APTA-reported rate of growth would take more than 35 years), transit would still not have a meaningful impact on traffic congestion or commuting patterns.

Wendell Cox is principal of the Wendell Cox Consultancy in St. Louis, Missouri, and a former Visiting Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.


Wendell Cox

Visiting Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy