Public transit ridership in the U.S. overall declined by 2.9 percent in 2017 compared to 2016, according to a report compiled by the American Public Transportation Association – a decrease largely due to a 4.9 percent drop in bus ridership, though commuter and light rail ridership levels remained relatively steady year-over-year.
In total, Americans took 10.1 billion trips on public transportation in 2017, the group said.
Nationally, commuter rail ridership increased in 18 out of 29 transit systems last year while overall ridership decreased by 0.2 percent, APTA noted.
Light rail ridership – comprised of "modern" streetcars, trolleys, and "heritage" trolleys – also witnessed an increase in 11 out of 29 transit systems last year, though overall ridership decreased by 0.8 percent when compared to 2016, according to APTA's numbers.
Heavy rail ridership – comprised of subways and elevated trains – decreased nationally by 2.1 percent last year versus 2016, though "demand response" or paratransit ridership increased by 0.4 percent year-over-year, per the group's report.
The change in ridership is occurring at a time when vehicle miles traveled is increasing in the United States. According to Federal Highway Administration data, cumulative travel for 2017 increased by 1.2 percent or 39.3 billion vehicle miles when compared to 2016.
"While we are in a time of great change, in part due to technological innovations, public transit remains a critical part of any community's transportation network," noted Paul Skoutelas, APTA's president and CEO, in a statement.
He added that public transportation organizations are "revamping their services and experimenting with pilot projects" to be more competitive in terms of cost and time of travel, as well as more "customer focused" as the U.S. population grows and the needs of riders change – trends outlined in a separate APTA report entitled Understanding Recent Ridership Changes: Trends and Adaptations.
That second report highlighted four "categories" of factors impacting public transit ridership: erosion of time competitiveness, erosion of cost competitiveness, reduced customer affinity and loyalty, and external factors beyond the control of a public transportation system.
For example, APTA highlighted the development of "first mile and last mile transportation to public transit stations" as one way transit agencies are "revamping" their services to meet new needs. For instance, in Tampa, Fla., the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit developed a program called HyperLINK; a partnership between HART and a local transportation company to provide rides to local bus stations within a three-mile radius.
In another case, agencies such as the Capital District Transportation Authority in Albany, NY, are keeping ridership levels stable with new programs. In CDTA's case, its Universal Access or "UA" program, which it established with 20 partners from the education, health, and service industries, now accounts for more than 4 million trips annually, representing approximately 25 percent of CDTA's annual ridership. In the past two years, UA ridership has increased by 50 percent, CDTA noted.
Sacramento Regional Transit witnessed a similar uptick via a cost-reduction effort. APTA said in its report that SRT reduced its K-12 student monthly pass price from $55 to $20, which generated a 400 percent increase in K-12 pass sales.
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