Why U.S. Public Transit Ridership Is Finally Growing - CityLab

For the subways, buses, and light rail lines of America, the last five years have been nothing but bad news. Since 2014, low gas prices, aging infrastructure, and the rise of Uber and Lyft have led to spiraling ridership on public transit systems from coast to coast.

But the latest statistics from the National Transit Database suggests that a turnaround may be afoot—thanks to service improvements in two major cities. Ridership across U.S. public transit agencies rose 2.2 percent compared to the same time period in 2018, the American Public Transportation Association reported last month. This was the second consecutive quarter to mark an increase, and the first consecutive quarter to post an increase since the end of 2014, when ridership hit a 50-year peak. The uptick in ridership between Q3 2019 and Q3 2018 amounted to about 54 million more trips.

This growth was driven almost entirely by an influx of subway, commuter rail, and bus trips in the New York City region, as well as subway trips on Washington, D.C.’s Metro. Both cities, which have the nation’s first- and third-highest shares of transit commuters, have weathered major reliability and maintenance crises in recent years and hemorrhaged riders as a result.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s nadir came in 2016, when the agency shut down all rail service following a cable fire, enraging District commuters. One year earlier, an electrical smoke incident had claimed the life of a rider in L’Enfant Plaza. In summer 2017, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a “state of emergency” for New York City’s subway system, where on-time performance had dropped to just 65 percent on weekdays.

But both have since made substantial improvements, including a year of 24/7 track maintenance in D.C. and nearly $800 million of signal upgrades, drain clearing, and employee overtime payouts in New York. Upticks in ridership are a sign of success, said Yonah Freemark, a consultant and MIT researcher (and occasional CityLab contributor) whose blog, The Transport Politic, tracks transit usage in the U.S. and beyond. “The progress in New York and Washington is undoubtedly a product of those region's considerable efforts to improve service over the past few years.”

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