Why Transit Ridership Is Falling (Hint: It’s Not Just Uber)

A new study, done in Los Angeles, suggests that higher car ownership is actually most to blame.
by | February 2, 2018
People walking across the street while a bus waits.
(David Kidd)

In Los Angeles, the number of bus and rail trips taken last year was the lowest in more than a decade. Over just the last five years, transit ridership has declined 15 percent.

What's behind the huge drops?

Cars. More specifically, the fact that a lot more people who might otherwise ride the bus or train now own cars.

That factor played a bigger role in recent ridership declines than did the advent of ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft, lower gas prices, the quality of transit service or higher fares, according to a new study from transportation researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA).

Although the research was limited to Southern California, it could have big implications if similar patterns are found elsewhere. Transit agencies around the country -- in Chicago, Cleveland, New York, Phoenix and Washington, D.C., to name a few -- are struggling to keep riders.

“The growth of household vehicles in the last 15 years has been astonishing,” wrote the researchers from UCLA’s Institute of Transportation Studies.

Southern California added 2.3 million people and 2.1 million vehicles from 2000 to 2015, or an average of 0.95 vehicles per new resident. That’s a big change from 1990 to 2000, when the region added 1.8 million people but only 456,000 vehicles, or 0.25 vehicles per new resident.

That's important because while income, age, location and many other factors influence whether someone takes transit, according to the study, not having access to a car is the “defining attribute” of regular transit riders in the region.

Census data show that the rise in vehicle ownership is especially high in L.A. among low-income and immigrant residents who are otherwise among the most likely groups to rely on transit.

It's unclear what was driving the higher vehicle ownership rates, especially because wages were stagnant. But there are many indications that low-income consumers are taking on more vehicle-related debt. Between 2000 and 2015, inflation-adjusted per capita vehicle debt in California rose 91 percent, according to the study.

Evelyn Blumenberg, a UCLA professor who co-authored the report, says vehicles could be more of a necessity among low-income residents because jobs and housing continue to spread into suburban areas.

The data could force agencies to rethink their strategies for increasing ridership.

For years, Brian Taylor, another UCLA professor who worked on the study, says he urged officials to concentrate their resources on high-density, high-ridership areas. But the researchers found that the neighborhoods best served by transit could also be responsible for some of the transit drops.

“The biggest declines have been on the best lines in the whole state,” Taylor wrote. This evidence is consonant with these “neighborhoods becoming more affluent, with that affluence being associated with less transit use and with people left out of that affluence remaining on transit."

In Southern California, like many regions, very few people take transit, and even fewer take it regularly. That means that seemingly minor changes within small geographic areas or demographic groups can have a disproportionately large effect on transit ridership. Eighty percent of transit commuters in the area live on less than 5 percent of the land area.

While it's popular to blame ride-sharing, higher fares and lower gas prices for transit's declining popularity, the study breaks down why that's not true -- or at least not telling the full story:

 

Uber and Lyft

Transit ridership started its decline in 2007, but the ride-hailing apps weren’t even introduced until 2009 and weren’t widely adopted until 2012.

“While the [ride-hailing services] may affect transit use, they cannot by themselves explain transit’s recent patronage decline,” the researchers concluded.

On top of that, there is still conflicting evidence over whether the services actually siphon off trips from transit. (The companies do not provide much public information about who rides them and where.)

But the app users tend to be well-off and college-educated. Users often take them on Friday and Saturday nights, when transit availability is scarce, or to get to and from an airport.

“What little evidence we do have suggests that most [ride-hailing] trips do not replace transit trips,” the researchers wrote.

 

Higher fares

For the most part, the researchers found only a small effect of higher fares on transit ridership. Fares in Southern California have generally been lower than the state and national averages. They have also held steady over the years after adjusting for inflation.

But Orange County seems to be an exception.

Since 2002, the county’s transit authority raised fares by 50 percent. It also had the biggest ridership drop in the region of 35 percent since 2007. But even there, that doesn’t appear to be the only factor.

According to industry rule of thumb, the researchers note, a 10 percent fare increase should lead to a 3 percent ridership decrease. If that were true, Orange County should have only seen a decline of 17 percent.

 

Gas prices

The researchers concluded that fuel prices were a “real but probably minor driver in falling transit use.”

“People who drive less when gas prices are high often walk, carpool, stay home or drive to nearer destinations (e.g. a restaurant that is two miles away instead of 10). Similarly, for many regular transit riders, changes in the price of gasoline are immaterial because many transit users do not have access to private vehicles,” the researchers explained.

“Much of the adjustment to fluctuating fuel gas prices that occurs in the U.S. has no bearing on transit use, and the relationship between fuel prices and transit ridership tends to be weaker than the relationship between fuel prices and driving.”

“’Weaker,’ however, is not ‘nonexistent,’” they cautioned. “Transit use does rise and fall with fuel prices, with a small lag.”

 

New rail

Los Angeles is in the middle of a transit building boom, especially for rail. But ridership has been decreasing on both bus and rail routes.

LA Metro’s blue, red and green routes all lost ridership between 2012 and 2016, even as the new gold and Expo lines added them.

The researchers also did not find that bus service cuts drove the declines.

“Instead, service expansion has been accompanied by less ridership,” they wrote. While buses got slower in traffic, Metro improved the on-time performance of its buses. Rail ridership fell, even though Metro’s train’s “maintained a near-perfect on-time record,” they noted.