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.

5 thoughts on “Chart of the Day: US Transit Ridership Growth, 2002-2018

  1. David MarkleDavid Markle

    Green Line probably would have added more, if had been a fast line along the freeway, or else a street car line on University Avenue.

  2. Bob Roscoe

    I think the Green Line is close to ideal in so many ways. Pre-pay before getting on aids the process. It gives easy access to getting on and off, has comfortable seating and glides along rather than buses that groan along. At the stops, several opening doors allow quick exchange of on and off riders. Green line moves along its route more smoothly than buses.

    Along its Saint Paul route from Raymond to Capitol/Rice, many passengers seem to not have cars, and use it as transit for shopping for their daily needs,

    I easily get my bike onto the train at the Prospect Park Station and keep it alongside me, and quickly off in downtown Saint Paul.

    One more thing – riding it is fun.

    1. David MarkleDavid Markle

      Everything you cite would be true of, or better with, a streetcar line, better especially re shopping on University for persons without cars.

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