This past May, I discussed factors that may be contributing to a disturbing trend in recent years — declining bus patronage — and ways to combat it. We know that it is not confined to bus operations, as some rail lines have also struggled. A few cities have bucked the trend, however, and we looked at how they might be transferred to others. Since then, a range of additional ideas have emerged, which also have shown some promise.
Reasons are more complicated than thought earlier
As was pointed out last spring, lack of funding accounts for the patronage drops in some cities (Chicago and Washington, for example). But in many, new studies suggest that transportation network companies such as Uber and Lyft are beginning to take a toll. Changing socioeconomic factors has also played a large role in many cities. For the first time in many decades, ridership trends have not tracked improvements in employment; in fact, in some cities, ridership has actually dropped as job growth improved.
The bus restructuring implementations have had mixed results as more data have come in. Put simply, some such projects have been found to cost considerably more than projected, while others have not worked as well as projected. More study obviously is needed, ones that are tailored to local situations.
Since the last column on the subject, a new idea has emerged called “microtransit.” It involves dynamic ride-sharing like Uber and Lyft, but with public transportation directly operating it with transit-qualified drivers and vehicles. A growing number of transit agencies are taking these pages from the ride-sharing playbook, particularly for first/last mile connections to rapid transit. Other agencies have been partnering with the more famous services in this sector. The most ambitious of the microtransit projects is Los Angeles County Metro’s tender for a feasibility study, which, if determined to be a good idea, will roll out in a pilot program at six rapid transit stations in the next few years. Whatever its outcome, however, it’s a development that bears watching.
Deal with the challenges — before hostile forces do it for us
As was stated before — and is worth repeating —the industry cannot abide fatalism. There are many ways to deal with the ridership challenge, old and new, and those hostile to any government support for transit succeed in ending it, because we did not rise to the new challenge.