Public Transit Ridership Growth Exceeds Population Growth

Americans took 9.9 billion trips on public transportation in 2018, according to a report released today by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). Compared to public transit ridership in 2017, there was a 2.0 percent decrease in ridership. Compared to 2017, commuter rail ridership in 2018 increased by 0.4 percent and demand response ridership increased by 2.1 percent.

From 1995-2018, public transit ridership grew by 27 percent, surpassing the U.S. population, which grew at 23 percent. Additionally, passenger miles traveled on public transportation grew by 39 percent. This is more than the growth of vehicle miles traveled on the roads, which grew by 33 percent.

“Public transportation continues to offer great value to a community and its residents as it provides access to jobs, health care, schools, and local businesses,” said APTA President and CEO Paul P. Skoutelas. “As people have more transportation options than ever before, public transportation systems around the country are experimenting with new programs and services to attract new riders.”

Ridership increases on public transportation happened in small and large communities nationwide. For example, Metro Transit (Minneapolis, MN) also saw ridership records in 2018 on its light rail lines and the Bus Rapid Transit line. Reasons for these record ridership increases include the attractiveness of fast, frequent and reliable service; the result of continued transit oriented development along these transitways; several large events, including the Super Bowl; and significant road construction on one of the region’s busiest highways which has led some travelers to take light rail service.

The Greater Portland Transit District (Portland, ME) attained record ridership of 2 million trips in 2018, which represents an increase of 5 percent over the 2017 ridership. Metro attributes this record ridership in part to expanded service and a transit pass providing free access for the students, staff, and faculty of the University of Southern Maine.

MTA Long Island Rail Road (New York, NY) carried more riders in 2018 than in any year in nearly seven decades; its ridership is the highest since 1949. New York’s improving economy and changing demographic trends contributed to this growth. In addition, increases in reverse-peak commutes and non-work trips, such as shopping or going to entertainment venues, helped to bolster this modern record breaking figure.

The Central Ohio Transit Authority (Columbus, OH) saw a 3 percent increase in ridership in 2018, providing nearly 19 million trips. One of the reasons for this increase was the launch of COTA’s first Bus Rapid Transit line CMAX, which puts customers closer to 200,000 jobs, two hospitals and three post-secondary campuses. CMAX had a 17.5 percent increase over fixed-route ridership covering the same area in the year prior. COTA also launched C-pass, an employer-funded pass program that provides transit to downtown Columbus workers at no cost to them.

BRT also plays a role in the 4.7 percent ridership increase seen in the Utah Transit Authority’s (Salt Lake City, UT) commuter rail system (FrontRunner). This large increase is due in large part to the inception of a new high-frequency BRT route called UVX that takes riders to two FrontRunner stations. Launched in August, UVX was rapidly adopted by riders and by the end of 2018 average weekday ridership on UVX was almost five times the ridership on the previous routes that served the alignment.

The Foothill Transit Class Pass Program at Foothill Transit (West Covina, CA) has boosted ridership on all bus lines serving four local college campuses. The Class Pass is free or low cost (funded by semester-based student fees) for students and faculty at participating campuses, allowing for unlimited rides on board Foothill Transit local and Silver Streak service.

To see the complete APTA ridership report go to:

2018 Ridership Breakdown
Nationally, commuter rail ridership increased in 18 out of 31 transit systems while overall ridership increased by 0.41 percent. With a new rail line that opened in August 2017, commuter rail in San Rafael, CA, saw an increase of 146.5 percent. The following two commuter rail systems saw double digit increases in 2018: Orlando, FL (30.9%) and Stockton, CA (11.9%). Ridership in the following cities also saw increases in 2018: Denver, CO (7.1%); New Haven, CT (5.9%); Oakland, CA (5.6%); Salt Lake City, UT (4.7%); Seattle, WA – Sound Transit (4.5%); Nashville, TN (3.8%); Anchorage, AK (3.8%); New York, NY-MTA Long Island Rail Road (3.0%); Pompano Beach, FL (3.0%); Harrisburg-Philadelphia, PA (1.6%); Newark, NJ (1.5%); Oceanside, CA (0.6%); Los Angeles, CA (0.6%); San Carlos, CA (0.2%); and New York, NY – MTA Metro-North Railroad (0.03%).

Light rail (modern streetcars, trolleys, and heritage trolleys) ridership increased in nine out of 28 transit systems while overall ridership decreased by 3.0 percent. Systems that showed double digit increases in 2018 were in the following cities: Tampa, FL (50%); Charlotte, NC (41.1%); and Seattle, WA – King County DOT (19.0%). Light rail ridership in the following cities also saw increases in 2018: Seattle, WA – Sound Transit (5.5%); Hampton, VA (5.0%); Minneapolis, MN (4.8%); Denver, CO (3.2%); Newark, NJ (2.8%); and Philadelphia, PA (2.6%).

Heavy rail (subways and elevated trains) ridership decreased nationally by 2.6 percent. However, heavy rail in the following cities showed ridership increases for 2018: San Juan, PR (7.4%) and Philadelphia, PA (1.9%).

Bus ridership decreased nationally by 1.8 percent. The following cities showed the highest ridership increases at the nation’s large bus agencies: Pittsburgh, PA (3.3%); Columbus, OH (2.8%); Las Vegas, NV (2.0%); Phoenix, AZ (1.8%); Oakland, CA (1.8%); Boston, MA (1.5%); Houston, TX (1.3%) and New York, NY – MTA New York City Transit (0.6%).

Demand response (paratransit) ridership increased in 2018 by 2.1 percent.

An APTA report, Understanding Recent Ridership Changes: Trends and Adaptations​, has analyzed the changing transportation ecosystem and its impact on public transportation. It has identified four categories of factors: erosion of time competitiveness, erosion of cost competitiveness, reduced customer affinity and loyalty, and external factors beyond the control of a public transportation system.

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The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) is a nonprofit international association of 1,500 public and private sector organization which represent a $71 billion industry that directly employs 430,000 people and supports millions of private sector jobs. APTA members are engaged in the areas of bus, paratransit, light rail, commuter rail, subways, waterborne services, and intercity and high-speed passenger rail. This includes: transit systems; planning, design, construction, and finance firms; product and service providers; academic institutions; transit associations and state departments of transportation. APTA is the only association in North America that represents all modes of public transportation. APTA members serve the public interest by providing safe, efficient and economical transit services and products.​​​
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