Jarrett Walker recently posed an interesting question, that he was after some more in depth research on than the usual ‘reckons’, “why is public transport ridership in the US falling so much?”
This builds on a tweet from Kirk Hovenkotter, showing that ridership had fallen in most large US cities over the past year, which was reported on CityLab:
— Kirk Hovenkotter (@khoven) February 23, 2017
A number of “culprits” are suggested. The obvious one being that oil prices have fallen significantly over the past few years, alongside an ongoing process where immigrants – or poorer Americans in general – are being priced out of transit rich inner cities and into more car dependent suburban areas:
Some of the factors behind these declines are national, as the transportation scholar David Levinson points out via email. The economy is expanding, and oil prices are plunging. People are buying more cars and driving them more often, both to work and to weekend activities that are better served by vehicles. American cities continue to suburbanize, and as they do, taking transit often becomes a less attractive option. Immigrants, long a strong base of ridership for agencies, are increasingly moving out of urban centers… and buying and driving their own vehicles.
Other suggestions are that people are shifting to using ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft – but the evidence is pretty thin on the ground when it comes to that:
This argument probably holds truest for weekend boardings. But the best research out there (and there isn’t much yet) suggests most workers don’t rely on Uber and Lyft for regular daily commutes. Ride-hailing may even be more supportive of transit than competitive, at least in the biggest cities (smaller cities might be another question). At the very least, it doesn’t seem to be siphoning a significant number of riders away. When Uber and Lyft left Austin, mass transit saw a very modest one percent bump in ridership, according to the transportation consultant Jarrett Walker.
Of course, meanwhile in Auckland public transport ridership continues to grow strongly, as I noted yesterday February ridership was up 8.6% on February 2016, with both the rail network and the Northern Busway again registering double-digit increases.
Even across Canadian cities that we usually enviously compare ourselves, ridership growth is much slower than Auckland – although they start from a higher base. This leads to an interesting question of why Auckland is bucking the trends seen elsewhere so strongly. I think there are a few possible suggestions:
- Auckland’s recent rapid growth and the growing congestion it has created, means that PT offers a pretty competitive travel choice for many people – especially when using the rail network or the Northern Busway.
- We’re still seeing the benefits of recent investment in rail electification and integrated ticketing, as well as the improved “value for money” offering that came with zone-based fares last year.
- Service network improvements, mainly in the south so far, have also helped increase ridership – some of that is a result of us shifting to a system that encourages greater transfers although indications are that overall journeys have increased too.
- The NZ/US dollar exchange rate usually offsets fluctuations in oil prices so we don’t see as rapid increases/decreases in fuel prices at the pump as is the case in the US. Also a higher proportion of what we pay is tax when compared to the US.
All up we are doing well to buck the international trends and it should give us ongoing confidence in investing in public transport – that people will continue to flock to where improvements are made even when fuel prices are relatively low. We’ve still got a long way to go but perhaps one day soon we can be envied as a city used in case studies of what to do to make public transport better rather than our history of the opposite.