The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) released a report this week highlighting that transit ridership in the first quarter of the year is up five percent over last year. Here is the press release. This is good news for transit, and I guess we should be happy. However, I argue that we should not get overly excited about any increase in transit ridership because we have been spending billions and billions of dollars over the past couple of decades with the intent of increasing ridership. We should consider first whether transit ridership increased as much as it should have. Between 1990 and 2011 overall transit ridership increase about 20 percent (from just under nine billion to about 10.5 billion, data available as an Excel file through the APTA site linked above) while the US population increased over 23 percent. Cities like Los Angeles, after 25 years of massive investment in rail, have achieved the same ridership levels in absolute terms that they had in the mid-1980s. Meanwhile, bus ridership, which represents well over half of all transit ridership and most ridership outside of a few cities, has declined over the past twenty years by almost eight percent.
While is is certainly good that transit ridership has increased, it is important to also consider if ridership has increased as much as it should have considering the investment made. Planners rarely, if ever, go back to review how their plans work out. In the case of transit investment, some reflection on how successful it has been is worthwhile and should be encouraged. Perhaps the ridership gains are worthy of the amount spent, but that's not immediately obvious. It seems we should be asking if ridership is up enough before getting excited about the gains reported this week.