According to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), US transit ridership changed very little last year. Total transit ridership topped out in 2014 at 10.7 billion annual trip Since then ridership has drifted down. The decline is even more pronounced on a per capita basis.
The flagging ridership comes at the same time the country is spending record amounts on transit. In 2018 (the most recent figures available), the U.S. spent over $71 billion on transit – about $50 billion on operating expenses and $21 billion on capital items. That is about $5 per trip in operating expenses and just over $7 per trip when you add capital expenditures.
But light rail ridership was even worse than the overall numbers, falling by nearly 5% last year. It was the worst performer among the various modes. Light rail ridership now stands at its lowest level since 2011.
Light rail’s ridership was not the only disappointing metric for that mode. Remember when we were told how much we would save by switching from buses to light rail because it would be so much more efficient? Well not so much. The operating expenses per trip for light rail only came in slightly lower than city bus service ($4.42 vs. $4.75). The capital expenditures per trip for light rail was five times that of buses ($4.75 vs. $1.16).
The good news is that light rail investment has been falling in recent years. In 2018, US transit agencies spent just over $3 billion on new light rail improvements. That is down from the all-time high in 2014 by about a billion dollars.
Perhaps the public is gradually coming to the realization that, as Mayor Bob pointed out years ago, building at-grade rail through existing cityscapes is not such a great transportation investment.
1 APTA counts “unlinked trips.” For example, if someone takes a bus to a light rail station and then takes the train to work, that counts as two trips. This results in an overcount of the actual trips from a user’s perspective.