Link Departing Mt. Baker Station, by DWHonan
Link Departing Mt. Baker Station, by DWHonan

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.

Nationwide transit ridership from 1999 to 2009 (click to enlarge)
Nationwide transit ridership from 1999 to 2009 (click to enlarge)

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.

26 Replies to “APTA: Transit Ridership Down Nationwide”

  1. I wonder how much of an increase in Link usage there will be as people try to get to the airport for the holidays. I think there were anecdotal reports here of trains full of people with luggage.

    1. I’ve seen some, but I bet it’s a handful – a thousand, maybe two. The end of the year is still dead, there’s no traffic anywhere because everyone’s on vacation.

      I look forward to March ridership numbers. That’s when you’ll see the 194 riders on Link instead.

      1. Ben’s right. The extra holiday travelers won’t come close to making up for the large numbers of people on vacation. Boeing closes down between Christmas and New Year and UW is on winter break. Add to that there’s virtual no traffic congestion and of course people are going to opt to drive more.

        March is after the next reroute, yes? That should really be the first indicator of what to expect for 2010 numbers. Dec – Feb are still interesting data but mostly as a base line to compare to next year. Hopefully with the train going all the way the airport the busiest flying day of the year won’t see the lowest ridership of the year on the airport line. I’m concerned about the “no UW” service when they are on break. What’s the impact going to be like if the flyer station is lost? Even emptier trains because the Montlake station connections go on holiday with the university?

    2. Or FROM the airport! I rode Link this morning from the ID to Westlake, and there was standing room only–train was full of people, most of them with luggage.

  2. If you take that national transit ridership graph and eye-ball a linear best fit line from Q3 2003 through today, then it looks like a really good fit, assuming that the 2008 numbers are outliers. It might suggest roughly steady growth over the last six years, with an anomalous year thrown in there. OTOH, this might be completely meaningless observation :-)

    1. It’s a good point that I noticed as well. Roughly between 2001 and mid-2003, the unemployment rate dipped slightly as a result of the mild recession we had back during 9/11. That might account for the lagging ridership in that period. But following that, where we are now seems to fit accordingly with the ridership growth from Q3 2003 to around 2007, when things started to get wacky.

    2. Taken over the last decade there’s a some what smaller growth in transit than there is in the US population (population growth ~10% per decade for the last 30 years). Rather surprising since our population has been shifting west and southwest which has seen a resurgence in transit (Portland, Phoenix, Los Angeles and now Seattle, even Las Vegas to some extent). Also surprising since our population growth is immigrant driven and it’s been shown that immigrants tend to be other modes before shifting to private car ownership as their economic status rises.

      1. There’s still too many places which simply don’t have any transit options, or where the transit options are dreadful.

        Transit hasn’t been able to keep up with population growth because of lack of funding. I can give long lists of cities where transit use would be much, much higher except there isn’t really much transit to use, and these same cities are usually too broke to fund it on their own.

      2. A decent portion of immigrant growth lands in agricultural counties where driving is the only option.

  3. I think you are underestimating the impact of gas prices on transit ridership. Gas prices in 2008 were above $4, for 2009 they have been between $2.00 and $2.50. Think that doesn’t make a difference?

    According to a study published by the Victoria Transportation Institute*, the elasticity of public transit demand with respect to the price of fuel is 0.13, meaning that a 10% increase in the price of gas will increase transit ridership by about 1.3%, conversely, a 10% decrease in the price of gas would result in a 1.3% decrease in transit ridership.

    The fall from $4.00 per gallon to $2.50 represents a 37.5% decrease in the price of gas. Theory would predict about a 5% drop in transit ridership as a result, which is almost exactly what we have seen.

    A weak economy actually cuts both ways. As fewer people are working, there are fewer commute trips. However, as the economy gets tight, people try to conserve resources by taking transit rather than driving. The impact of the macroeconomy on transit ridership is ambiguous. The price effect of gasoline is not.

    *Litman, T. 2007. “Transportation Elasticities: How Prices and Other Factors Affect Travel Behavior”. Victoria Transport Policy Institute,

    1. “I think you are underestimating the impact of gas prices on transit ridership. Gas prices in 2008 were above $4, for 2009 they have been between $2.00 and $2.50. Think that doesn’t make a difference?”

      Try reading the post again, Tony. Maybe finish reading it this time.

    2. Where are you finding $2-$2.50 gas? It was $2.89 in the city a couple of months ago, and now it’s more like $2.69.

    3. “This comes a year after surging oil prices resulted in record ridership in 2008.”

      From the post.

      I’m starting to see a pattern, here…

  4. Why do you consider Link ridership numbers “largely meaningless”?

    Are they any less meaningful than the national transit ridership numbers given in the chart on this page?

    1. At present, ridership figures are not showing the full effects of the opening of the new line because they do not reflect the completion of any of the new residential development surrounding the Columbia City and Othello stations. At present, these developments are at the lowest levels of construction, but once completed, we will better be able to see the full benefits of Link.

      Likewise, the completion of the line north and south of Seattle and the airport will cause the numbers to improve. Once East Link opens, then folks will be able to connect fully.

      At present, I would say that the trains I have been on are comfortably but not oppressively full. I believe that the folks who use the trains enjoy using them, and I saw lots of passengers with bags on Monday at SeaTac Airport. These are all good signs for the future. Just because writers and readers knew about Link opening to the airport last Saturday, doesn’t neceesarily mean that the wider community will have picked up on the news as quickly. It takes a long while to change minds so that they become used to new options they might have.

      Sound Transit produces ridership projections as if they have a crystal ball in Union Station. Just because it is a little cracked and distorted doesn’t mean that it is broken.

      All of these arguments apply also to the maligned South Lake Union Streetcar – it won’t fulfill its potential until development close to that line is completed in the next few years.

  5. I would just love to read a headline somewhere that said “Car use down,” or even better: “Are drivers abandoning their cars?”

    Traffic congestion is way down, as anyone can easily notice for themselves — for much the same reason. People who are out of work aren’t commuting back and forth to work. It’s one of the obvious reasons why gas tax revenues are so far off.

    Stupid media. Wait until gas prices start climbing again…

    Another interesting data point is how transit use spikes in Western cities during bad winter weather because so many folks are afraid to drive in snow and ice.

    1. How about As gas goes up, driving goes down. Gas tax revenues have been falling much longer than that though. The total gallons of gasoline purchased has been flat or declining for decades. Of course that’s due in part to more efficient vehicles (although we’ve barely scratched the surface on that front). But how about March driving down for 1st time since 1979: government. What happens when people feel the pinch at the pump is they start eliminating discretionary trips, combine errands and find alternate ways to travel (car pool, telecommute, transit, bike, etc.) When the price goes back up they realize that most of these changes weren’t a sacrifice but, like in the case of combined errands actually are more time efficient. That combined with longer term changes like people buying more fuel efficient cars means the drop in demand happens much quicker than the increase when prices fall. The Saudis know this and it’s one of the reasons they try to buffer the shock of oil price spikes. People discover they aren’t quite as dependent on the stuff as they though they were.

    1. Yes, but the APTA’s largest integer is 100, so statistically, the greatest percent change they can show is >100.

  6. This may make me cold-hearted, but in light of these numbers, put me down for much higher gas taxes. Sounds to me like a phased-in $5/gal tax (whose proceeds would be restricted to capital improvements to transit infrastructure) would surface the hidden externalities of SOV commuting and finally necessitate the mass shift to transit. Things need prices; congestion, pollution, ‘lost time’, and land-use blight must be priced so that their impacts are fully seen. Maybe then we could get transit share to decent levels.

    A side note: Even if ridership has been declining, let’s remember that we’re fighting for something extremely important. While we rightly long for HSR-type megaprojects, in absolute numbers urban transit carries far more than intercity transit (rail and air) and its importance can’t be overstated. When ULink opens and ridership jumps to 115,000/day, Link alone will carry in 6 days what Amtrak Cascades currently does in a full year, and will surpass SeaTac Airport’s daily passenger numbers. For impacting people’s daily lives, the most important piece of the transit pie will always be local and commuter service.

    1. Just to add to that comment, public transportation networks do have a network effect. How many people are going to consider taking Link to Sounder or vice versa? How many people will take Link to connect to Amtrak Cascades? It’s well-documented that the highest use of intercity rail is from and to cities with strong *local* rail, particularly if they’re connected. Expect Link to improve the popularity of Cascades (even if you *do* have to negotiate an annoying street crossing to get between the two — fixing that is a project worth doing –)

  7. as a matter of only personal observation, When I’m waiting for my bus ride home at the International tunnel station, I see that LINK has a “lot” of riders in it. More than a single packed bus worth, but not packed to the point of standing room only. I know that per sq ft, there are less seats than buses, but it would seem like LINK is gradually attracting more riders than when it first opened.

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