Between 1999 and 2015, Americans were engaged in a love affair with public transportation. During this time period, ridership blossomed from 7.8 billion to 10.6 billion. But after an extended honeymoon, the relationship began to fall apart, with slight declines in 2015 followed by steeper fall-offs from 2016 to 2018.
A recent survey by TransitCenter, a transportation research and advocacy organization, revealed that city residents continue to be more dissatisfied with public transportation than they were two years ago.
In its census of more than 1,700 transit riders in the New York, Chicago, Denver, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and Seattle metro areas, it was clear that utilizing public transportation is not as popular as it was early in the millennium. Roughly 25 percent of riders are using public services less often, with about 15 percent of those going from using transit “all the time” to being “occasional” riders, and nine percent having completely walked away from public transportation.
It is hard to pinpoint the exact reasons for the decline, but there are a few likely possibilities. One explanation is that people in many cities have increasing access to alternative means of travel—for example, Uber, Lyft, private vehicles, and various forms of ride-sharing. In addition, from an economic standpoint, with more stable-gas prices and an improving economy, the affordability factor of public transportation is less tempting than previously to certain groups.
The TransitCenter research supports the notion that cars are more affordable in general, with more survey respondents reporting regular access to cars today than they did two years ago (54 percent versus 43 percent).
However, the research also found that the Uber effect is not as pervasive as people believe and only has a large impact in a few dense, urban places. In fact, one theory, posited by the U.S. News and World Report is that “the ride sharing firms are most likely augmenting transit service by providing important first mile/last mile connections from where rail and bus lines end, to the places people ultimately want to go.”
Regardless of why, these numbers can spell disaster for cities. These changes reduce space-efficiency, for one thing. The trend also lends non-equity to residents as well. The new focus on transforming the car infrastructure penalizes lower-income people. And of course, the green issue is paramount: climate goals require that cities find solutions to the transportation crisis, and soon.
But what are the most realistic, intelligent solutions? Many cities are running buses on routes that were designed decades ago. Since many current routes in cities are based on outdated street and congestion configurations, updates are needed to streamline the public transit experience. Technology and new routing tools can be put in place to optimize the bus system as well. Another suggestion is to partner with new transit and technology companies and experiment with programs such as using private vehicles to supplement public transit for poor and marginalized citizens. An attitude shift is key, and cities need to see this decline as an opportunity to be creative and to redesign the outdated systems that no longer help the communities they were created to serve.
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