Chart of the Day: US Transit Ridership Growth, 2002-2018

There’s a great chart-laden essay on Yonah Freemark’s “Transport Politic” blog that seeks to explain the reasons for the decline in transit (especially bus) ridership across the country.

Here’s one of the charts that features the Minneapolis-Saint Paul metro:


Minneapolis is the red line, the second from the top. As you can see, transit usage in the Twin Cities has been steadily growing since 2003, with some ups and downs. What the chart doesn’t show, however, is how big a role the light rail system has played within those numbers. During the “decline” phase, the Green Line was adding a lot of riders into the system. So the numbers are a big misleading; if you looked only at bus ridership, the Twin Cities would track far more closely with the rest of the pack.

Here’s what Freemark says about the key reasons for the decline:

On the other hand, discretionary transit ridership seems to have been hit heavily by recent trends. New York City’s Subway system, for example, saw a roughly 2.3 percent decline in ridership on weekdays between February 2016 and February 2018. But its weekend ridership fell by 4.7 percent over the same period, almost twice as large a decline.

It seems reasonable to conclude that a combination of poor off-peak service and the availability of cheap ride-hailing options has encouraged people to stop using transit during these periods.

While many advocates have suggested that one potential solution to declining transit ridership is increasing service—pointing to Seattle, notably, as evidence for this case—the UCLA researchers aren’t convinced. I’m of mixed minds.

While it is true that the LA region offers significantly less bus service than it did in 2004—almost 15 percent less according to recent data—it’s the worst among all regions. The Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington regions all offer substantially more bus service than then (all have increased service more than Seattle), but each has seen its ridership decline substantially over the same period.

It is true that Seattle increased bus service by 7 percent between 2015 and 2018 and saw a 1 percent increase in bus ridership. But Baltimore increased its service by 8 percent and saw a decline in ridership of 13 percent. There isn’t a direct correspondence here.


Check out the entire article on his blog. It’s full of useful information and food for thought about transit trends. Freemark remains generally optimistic, but is worried about a self-fulfilling prophecy if funders and officials begin to cut transit programs.

Bill Lindeke

About Bill Lindeke

Pronouns: he/him

Bill Lindeke has writing blogging about sidewalks and cities since 2005, ever since he read Jane Jacobs. He is a lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota Geography Department, the Cityscape columnist at Minnpost, and has written multiple books on local urban history. He was born in Minneapolis, but has spent most of his time in St Paul. Check out Twitter @BillLindeke or on Facebook.