Friday, March 21, 2014

There Isn't a Surge in Transit Ridership

Mike Smart, Mike Manville and I wrote an op-ed in today's Washington Post.  The recent APTA ridership report claims that transit ridership is surging, and we argue that this is simply not true:
But the association’s numbers are deceptive, and this interpretation is wrong. We are strong supporters of public transportation, but misguided optimism about transit’s resurgence helps neither transit users nor the larger traveling public. Transit trips did rise between 2008 and 2013. But so did the U.S. population, from 304 million to 316 million, as did the total number of trips made. Simple division suggests that, if anything, transit use fell between 2008 and 2013, from about 35 trips per person annually to 34. Many numbers look impressive without denominators, but anyone who examines transit use as a rate — whether as trips per person or share of total travel — will find that transit is a small and stagnant part of the transportation system.
We argue:
So there is no national transit boom. Why does this matter? The U.S. transportation system is deeply troubled. The country has difficulty financing improvements to its aging infrastructure, and heavy reliance on driving creates congestion, increases carbon missions, pollutes our communities, and is a leading cause of injury and death. No one should pretend these problems are spontaneously solving themselves because Americans have decided en masse to ride transit instead of driving. 
Nor should we misdiagnose problems caused by too much driving as problems caused by too little transit. Building transit systems is not the same as having people ride them, and people riding transit more is not the same as people driving less (plenty of transit riders are people who used to walk). Additionally, transit is not the only viable alternative to using a car. The environment is helped when drivers switch to buses but also when drivers switch to bikes.
Do read the whole thing for a more complete argument. I actually find the recent transit ridership statistics deeply troubling and suggestive that transit might be losing core riders at the expense of system expansions. This, of course, needs additional research, but we should not think that our current approach to transit is working well. We should be outraged at how little actual effect the billions and billions and billions of dollars of investment have produced. We can and should do better with our public transit investment.
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