City bus ridership declines despite economic recovery

Ridership on city buses around the country has been falling steadily since the start of the Great Recession, despite an improved economy and a low unemployment rate.

The U.S. Transportation Department said bus ridership was down 13 percent in the second quarter of 2017 compared with the same period in 2007, when the recession hit.

The decline has left transit agencies scrambling to make up for lost fare revenue and contemplating additional service cuts on top of ones they have already made during the economic downturn, when they slashed routes and frequency to save money.

That drove riders away and starved bus agencies of cash needed to recover lost services. Fares account for about a third of transit agency operating budgets, with the rest coming from state, local and federal sources. The agencies responded by cutting service even more.

“I call it the transit death spiral,” said Darrell Johnson, chief executive officer at California’s Orange County Transportation Authority. “It’s a never-ending pattern, and pretty soon you’re at a bare-bones service.”

Bus service in America’s cities and towns was about 10 percent lower in the second quarter of this year than it was a decade ago as measured by miles of transit service provided.

Research from San Jose State University’s Mineta Transportation Institute found that bus ridership is sensitive to service levels. When service is cut, ridership drops as people look for alternatives, according to the study.

The decline is unusual because ridership usually recovers as unemployment rates drop and the economy expands. Contributing to the decline are the growth of Uber and Lyft, cheap gas enabling more people to drive and the growing number of Millennials living in city centers within walking or biking distance of work.

Ken Presley, vice president of industry relations and COO at the United Motorcoach Association, said public transit agencies have been cannibalizing bus ridership with trains for about two decades.

“Public transits would like for you to believe they have been increasing ridership with the addition of trains,” Presley said. “However, studies reveal that to be a myth.”

He added that the decline in city bus ridership could pose a private-sector opportunity.

“Transits could contract with private operators to run peak hours only (commuters) with demand-response technology instead of paying transit employees to meander over hit-or-miss routes 18 hours a day, seven days a week,” Presley said.

“When not operating under contract, we could charter our buses.”

That is happening in Orange County, Calif., which is contracting out for more service. It has eliminated routes with less traffic and increased frequency on the busiest ones while also helping some local towns finance a seasonal service to ferry summer beachgoers around coastal areas.

“Not every community in your service area needs 40-foot buses every 10 minutes,” a county transit official said. “Some do, but not all of them.”

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