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Moving Through the Recession, Part 1: Trends in Transit Ridership

Public transit ridership reached its highest levels in over 50 years in 2008. How can we sustain that increased ridership? Photo: mikek, flickr.

Welcome to the first installment of TheCityFix’s series, “Moving through the Recession.” We’ll be exploring how the worldwide economic slowdown has impacted transportation systems and users locally, nationally and internationally. We hope to spotlight some revealing stories, uncover some themes, and capture the most important lessons we’ve learned about how to cushion our transportation systems and riders from future economic shocks. Be sure to check back often for updates to this twice-weekly series.

In 2008, the American Public Transportation Association reported that public transit ridership in the United States had risen to its highest level in 52 years. (We wrote about this before.) Transit advocates were thrilled; they touted this statistic as evidence of growing support for public transportation, which they hoped to leverage to push for increased federal funding for transit.

However, transit ridership hasn’t been so prominent in the news since then. Instead, it has been quietly slipping back down, as illustrated in the chart below.

Transit ridership is slipping from the high it reached in 2008.  Data source: APTA

Transit ridership is slipping from the high it reached in 2008. Data source: APTA

APTA’s quarterly Public Transportation Ridership Reports show that unlinked passenger trips in the United States in the first quarter of 2009 were down 1.17% from the same period in 2008. Likewise, they decreased 2.58% in the second quarter and 3.82% in the third quarter, compared to the same time periods the year before.


What does this mean for the future of public transit? On one hand, gas prices were at a high in 2008, peaking at more than $4.00 per gallon. Since then, they’ve dropped dramatically and hovered around $2.50 for much of 2009 (see chart below). Expensive gas was a strong incentive for commuters to get out of their cars and use transit. On the other hand, cheaper gas and job losses tend to drive transit ridership down (almost 60% of transit riders are commuting to work). These facts could explain the ridership highs of ’08 and the drops we’re now seeing. In fact, gas prices seem to track closely with the transit ridership of the same period, as you can see in our charts, below.  Some argue that even with fewer riders going to work, more people may still take transit and leave their cars in the garage to save money. However, without the incentive of high gas prices, that trend may diminish. And if the economy is indeed recovering, commuters who do not have access to high-quality transit systems may prefer to pay a little extra for gas and auto wear-and-tear if it means greater convenience.

Like transit ridership, gas prices reached a high in 2008 and are now falling.  Data source: EIA

Like transit ridership, gas prices reached a high in 2008 and are now falling. Data source: EIA


The lessons of the 2008 ridership spike are yet to be clarified when the economy settles and analysts examine the numbers. However, current trends indicate that a recession and the potential money-saving benefits of transit are not enough to increase ridership. Gas prices are a crucial ingredient, too. This is further evidence that policymakers looking to get people out of their cars and into more sustainable transport modes should consider adjusting the price of driving to reflect its environmental and social impacts.

More urgently, we need to stop the hemorrhaging of transit riders. How can we keep the new riders who shifted to public transport in 2008? Whether through marketing, better real-time information, or addressing the more difficult issue of preventing service cuts (an issue we’ll explore later in our series), transit officials and decision makers need to come up with ways of retaining these riders who were willing and able to take transit.

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