With high unemployment, significant decreases in gasoline prices, and less state and local revenue available for public transportation operations, public transit ridership declined by 3.8 percent in the first nine months of 2009 compared to record levels in the same period last year. Trips on all of the major modes of public transportation – bus, light rail, heavy rail, and commuter rail – were down; paratransit (demand response) and trolleybus were the only two modes that saw increases in ridership.
“This downturn in public transportation ridership is a reflection of our economic times,” said American Public Transportation Association (APTA) President William Millar. “Nearly 60 percent of riders take public transportation to commute to and from work, so it is to be expected that public transit ridership would be lower when unemployment is high.”
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment accelerated monthly from January through September 2009, reaching 9.8 percent in September. This is 58 percent higher than the unemployment rate for September 2008.
Drops in local and state funding have seriously impacted public transit system budgets and in many cases, this has led to reduced service and/or higher fares.
Last June, APTA released a national survey that showed that more than 80 percent of public transit systems had seen flat or decreased funding from state, local, and regional revenues. Among transit systems facing this decreased funding, nine out of ten (89 percent) transit systems were forced to raise fares or cut service. Additionally, among those transit systems facing revenue declines, almost half of them (47 percent) reported both raising fares and cutting service to address funding shortfalls.
“Just like the unemployment rate, public transit use is a lagging economic indicator,” said Millar. “We would expect that when employment rebounds, so will transit ridership.”
2009 First Nine Months Ridership Breakdown
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.
To see the complete APTA ridership report, visit this page.