US Transit's Ridership Increase: A New York Story

  National Transit Ridership Post 1975 Low Point (1993) 1999    
New York 2,422,115 3,133,505 711,390 29.4%
Outside New York 4,863,815 5,158,370 294,554 6.1%
Total 7,285,930 8,291,875 1,005,945 13.8%
In thousands of annual unlinked trips
Calculated from National Transit Database
Vehicle Miles Traveled in Urban Areas over 1,000,000 Excluding New York 13.3%

Transit in the United States has long been driven by trends in the New York city area. Nearly 40 percent of the nationís transit travel is the New York metropolitan area, more than the combined totals of the next 10 largest metropolitan markets. On average, local residents board transit vehicles more than 150 times annually, compared to barely 25 in other metropolitan areas (Average boardings is a somewhat misleading indicator, because people who ride transit ride it much more than average and most people ride rarely, if ever).

From the federally reported low point in 1993 to 1999 (the detailed 2000 data is not yet available), more than 70 percent of the national increase in transit ridership has been in the New York City area, and most of it in the city of New York. There are good reasons for this. First, the city of New York has become a much safer place. Even best transit systems cannot retain their ridership if people are concerned about personal security. With respect to crime, the Guiliani years have not only been good for New York, but they have been good for transit. Second; the New York city economy has recovered remarkably in the late 1990s. The nationís largest downtowns are the only places to which large numbers of people with automobiles use transit instead, and New Yorkís Manhattan business district, by far the largest, has prospered mightily. Third; New York instituted a much more liberal transfer policy so that many trips that required payment of a bus fare and a rail fare can now be made with a single fare payment. The result has been that approximately one-third of New York's ridership increase is people who formerly walked, but now finish their trips with a transfer from rail to bus or vice verse). It may seems strange, but transit counts a passenger each time a vehicle is entered, so that if a customer starts a trip on a bus, transfers to rail and then finishes the trip on a bus, three trips are counted, when in fact only one trip has actually been taken.

Outside New York, however, it is a different story. Transit ridership has increased, but not enough to be noticed. Since transitís 1993 nadir, less than one percent of new urban travel has been on transit. During the same period, street and highway vehicle miles traveled has increased at more than double the transit rate outside New York. As a result, transitís market share has dropped slightly.

One of transitís most successful cities tells the story. Portland, Oregon has undertaken a number of strategies to attract people from autos to transit. Transit ridership is up nearly 40 percent from 1993. But this does not mean people are giving up cars for transit --- average travel by car per person has increased already 15 percent over the period. And, Portland roads have become much more congested, with the freeway adjacent to the new light rail line adding the most traffic.

(c) 2001 --- Wendell Cox Consultancy --- Permission granted to use with attribution.
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