Public transit systems play an important role in transporting people within our major cities. Buses, trains, streetcars, and ferry boats transport more than 27 million people each day in the United States. But U.S. public transit ridership has been declining for the last five years, and the coronavirus pandemic is accelerating the decline.
Public transit ridership is measured by “unlinked passenger trips,” with a trip defined as whenever a person boards a transit vehicle, including transfers. Since 1970, the number of unlinked passenger trips is up by about 37% to almost 10 billion trips in 2019. Transit miles were also up by more than 15% between 2000 and 2018, keeping pace with total U.S. vehicle miles traveled.
Public transit ridership consists of primarily bus (48%) and train (47%) transportation. The New York Metropolitan Area served 40% of U.S. public transit riders, with Chicago and Los Angeles distant second and third locations, with just under 6% of U.S. ridership each.
Progressive leaders have long proposed the use of public transportation instead of private vehicles to save the environment. Sen. Bernie Sanders, for example, has stated, “For every $1 billion we invest in public transportation, we create 30,000 jobs, save thousands of dollars a year for each commuter, and dramatically cut greenhouse gas emissions.”Recommended For YouUnder Trump, foster youth are no longer forgotten
But lately, U.S. residents don’t appear to agree. Since 2014, U.S. public transit ridership has been declining. From 2014 to 2019, unlinked passenger trips fell about 7.5%, with transit mileage falling more than 9%. Public transit mileage dropped from about 2% to 1.7% of total vehicle miles traveled. Falling ridership is attributed to increased automobile ownership, lower gasoline prices, and flexible teleworking schedules.
This year, the coronavirus pandemic plunged public transit ridership to its lowest level in more than a century. From January to April, unlinked passenger trips dropped 85%. Total vehicle miles also dropped, but by only about 42%.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines calling for employers to support employee efforts to use “forms of transportation that minimize close contact with others,” including “driving or riding by car either alone or with household members.” If commuters have a choice, many appear to be avoiding public transportation.
Even before the pandemic, transit ridership was falling in key markets. Public ridership dropped 17% in the Los Angeles area from 2013 to 2018, despite billions spent to expand the L.A. public transit system. This year, because of the virus, California ridership declined an additional 65% to 90%, depending upon the metropolitan area. On June 29, the California Transit Association requested that Gov. Gavin Newsom provide $3.1 billion in funding relief to avoid permanent service reductions.
We’re now in the middle of a public transit crisis. Ridership in the New York Metropolitan Area, the nation’s largest public transit market, recovered from April lows, but by July still remained down more than 50% from 2019. The New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority projects losses from the pandemic of up to $8.5 billion. And absent billions in federal aid, New York City may be looking at the elimination of a large portion of subway lines.
The jury is still out on whether the coronavirus will cause permanent damage to U.S. public transit systems. But for now, it’s clear that many people value personal health and their cars more than the supposed environmental benefits of public transportation.