After we reported the largely meaningless Link ridership numbers last week, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) just released numbers from Q3 of 2009 (pdf), revealing a continuing trend in dropping transit ridership this year. This comes a year after surging oil prices resulted in record ridership in 2008. The primary contributing factor is the unemployment rate and the economic downturn, as nearly 60% of transit rides are commute trips. According to Warren Millar, President of APTA, both public transit and unemployment rate correlate as lagging economic indicators.
Funnily enough, it should be no surprise that Seattle had an infinite increase in light rail ridership over last year (marked as a >100 percent change). Here is the APTA’s breakdown of the numbers:
Paratransit (demand response) and trolleybus were the only two modes that saw increases in ridership. Paratransit ridership increased by 3.7 percent and trolleybus ridership increased by 0.7 percent from January through September 2009.
Light rail (streetcars, trolleys) had a slight decrease less than one percent (-0.7). Light rail systems in seven cities reported an increase in the first nine months. They are as follows: Philadelphia, PA (17.5%); Oceanside, CA (17.3%); Baltimore, MD (13.9%); Memphis, TN (11.6%); Tampa, FL (7.0 %); San Francisco, CA (1.1%). A new line on the light rail system in Seattle, WA has led to more than 100% growth in the first nine months of 2009.
Heavy rail (subways) declined by 3.0 percent. Los Angeles Metro heavy rail continued its trend of increased ridership with an increase of 6.0 percent for the first nine months. Ridership on the Washington Metropolitan Transportation Authority (WMATA) increased by 0.6 percent for the same time period.
Commuter rail ridership decreased by 5.1 percent. Commuter rail ridership increases were recorded in the following cities: Boston, MA (2.4%); New Haven, CT (1.4%); and Alexandria, VA (1.3%). A major extension of commuter rail in New Mexico from Albuquerque to Santa Fe led to more than a 100 percent increase from January through September 2009.
Bus ridership declined by 5.0 percent in the first nine months of 2009. In the largest bus ridership report, bus trips increased in San Francisco, CA by 1.1 percent. Bus travel in the smallest population area (below 100,000) decreased by only 1.0 percent — the smallest percent decrease of all population groups.
Even with the recent dip, transit ridership is still historically higher than it was in the mid 2000s (when unemployment rate was at its lowest), indicating that the slumping labor markets have still been unable to offset the trips gained in 2008.
With an actual net gain in ridership since Q1 of 2007, the numbers aren’t as bad as news media like USA Today are making them sound. It’s likely that falling oil prices may have had as much to do with diminishing transit use as unemployment did.