Many operators large and small have been staring at a disturbing trend in recent years — declining patronage. Fortunately, a few cities have bucked the trend, with ideas which will and must be shared as widely and as soon as possible.
Reasons for the drops vary
The causes for these declines vary. In some cities, such as Chicago and Washington, D.C., the causes include underfunding the services, while in other regions, such as Los Angeles, lack of funding is not really an issue. In many places, more commutes by car have had a role, as recent increases in auto usage have reversed a half-decade decline. Chicago, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and Los Angeles have all seen bus ridership drop but rail patronage continues to climb. New York, however, has seen both services drop.
Changing socioeconomic factors has also played a large role in many cities. These sorts of changes were what was behind bus service restructuring in Seattle and Houston. Put simply, their buses were not serving where people live and work as well as they used to, so both transit agencies restructured their networks to provide more frequent service where their data showed people actually needed it.
Another idea gaining popularity is one borrowed from rapid transit: all-door boarding at stops. Like rail and bus rapid transit, this can be made feasible on traditional bus service as well by using smart cards and lower-cost readers mounted at rear doors. Another idea is giving regular route buses the same sort of signal priority in congested intersections that is given to rapid transit.
Although some may point to competition from ride-haling services like Uber and Lyft as culprits, the data do not really bear that out, at least for most transit trips, which are weekday work-related commutes. Rather, the culprits appear to be growing traffic congestion and declining transit convenience in places people need and want to go.
The need for dealing with an inconvenient trend now
At a time of rapid change in our society and politics, what the industry cannot abide is complacency or fatalism. There are ways to deal with the ridership challenge, and we need to do so, before those who wish to cut our budgets use it as an excuse.