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Decoding the transit ridership numbers

You may have noticed recent press coverage of the latest Met Council transit ridership numbers. They report that light rail and arterial BRT have increased, but not enough to offset the continuing decline of regular bus ridership. The staff report to the Council includes much finer grained detail and analysis that hasn’t made it into the general media reports and that’s what I want to examine in this post, especially the bus service details. A slide presentation of the report is available here.

Rider Graph991

Graphic courtesy Metropolitan Council.

It’s useful to know that the report separates bus service into these categories.

Core local: These are the downtown-oriented routes that serve primarily Minneapolis and St. Paul, although portions may extend into the suburbs. To a large degree this is the old streetcar system.

Supporting local: These are the urban crosstown routes that don’t go downtown.

Suburban local: Suburb-to-suburb local buses, generally feeding transit centers.

Commuter and express: Mostly peak period express and limited stop buses serving downtown and U of M commuters.

Arterial BRT: The A Line and the C Line.

Highway BRT: The Red Line

Transit Link/General public dial-a-ride: Demand responsive service open to anyone

Metro Mobility/ADA dial-a-ride: Demand responsive service restricted to persons with handicaps and senior citizens not near fixed route service.

Rides By Mode992

Graphic courtesy Metropolitan Council.

Bar Graph993

Graphic Courtesy Metropolitan Council.

Subsidy per passenger

Since the late 1970s transit service has been evaluated using the statistic “subsidy per passenger”. It tells how much each passenger is subsidized after fare revenue is subtracted from total operating costs. Each of the above categories of service is compared to its peers, because they have different ridership potentials. A suburban local route, for example, is unlikely to perform as well as a core local route.

The whole point of calculating subsidy per passenger is to decide where to allocate subsidy dollars. All transit service is subsidized, but when is the subsidy requirement too much? When should a service be downsized to reduce the bleeding, or discontinued because the subsidy cannot be justified?

The apples-and-oranges nature of the city versus suburb transit categories requires living with a subsidy double standard. Consider these subsidy per passenger averages:

Center city
$1.79    Light rail
$3.64   Arterial BRT
$5.14   Core local bus
$7.49   Supporting local bus

$7.23   Commuter/express bus
$9.21   Highway BRT (Red Line)
$11.04 Suburban local bus
$17.25 Commuter rail

Justifying this kind of spread is mostly a political exercise. It’s no surprise that the central cities are far more productive transit markets than the suburbs. If service was allocated only on the basis of subsidy per passenger the suburbs would have much less than they have today. In fact, that was the practice during the 1970s and it led to the creation of the “opt out” suburban transit authorities. They rebelled and seceded because they felt they weren’t getting enough transit money. As I once said sarcastically, “All politicians want their fair share of empty buses.”

Politics aside, there is an argument to be made for suburban express buses and even the North Star commuter rail–despite rather high subsidies, they divert quite a few long trips from the rush hour freeways, and reduce air pollution accordingly. One can also argue that suburban local buses are a critical lifeline for transit dependent suburbanites and to cut them off would be inhumane.

Once the urban-suburban double standard is accepted, it’s still necessary to deal with the routes that require too much subsidy. The Met Council and Metro Transit divide them into three groups:

1–The subsidy per passenger is 20-35% over the peer route average, triggering a review and minor modifications.

2–The subsidy per passenger is 35-60% over the peer route average, triggering an intense review and major changes to the route.

3–The subsidy per passenger is greater than 60% over the peer route average, triggering restructuring or elimination of the route.

Reflecting the superior ridership within the central cities, it’s no surprise that 10 percent of the city routes exceed the peer group average by more than 20 percent, whereas 32 percent of suburban routes do. When ridership declines, as it has for the last few years, those numbers get even worse, because service cuts haven’t kept up with ridership loss.

It should be emphasized that a few suburban services perform much better than these averages would imply, even better than the Core Local Bus average. Among them are some of the long, high frequency rush hour expresses, which average $7.23/passenger. Examples include:

$3.62   Route 250 Blaine-Minneapolis
$3.23   Route 270 Maplewood-Minneapolis
$2.69   Route 355 Woodbury-Minneapolis
$3.06   Route 460 Burnsville-Minneapolis
$1.51    Route 781 Maple Grove-Minneapolis
$2.58   Route 850 Coon Rapids-Minneapolis

The same is true of Suburban locals, which average $11.04 subsidy/passenger. Check out the weekday performance of the series of shuttles that focus on the Brooklyn Center Transit Center. They compare favorably to Core Local routes.

$3.44  Route 717 To Robbinsdale
$4.51   Route 721 Bass Lake Road
$5.48  Route 722 Eastern Brooklyn Center
$5.72  Route 723 North Hennepin College
$4.20  Route 724 Zane Ave.-Brooklyn Blvd.

Here’s a chart from the Met Council report that summarizes subsidy per passenger across all the service types and providers.

By Provider990

Graphic Courtesy Metropolitan Council.

When it comes to subsidy, Dial-a-ride is an outlier. The Transit Link service that is available to the general public has a subsidy per passenger of $20.71. Metro Mobility’s is $27.94. To put that in perspective, a suburban local route that exceeds its peer group average subsidy per passenger by 75 percent still performs better than a dial-a-ride. Although these are called shared ride services, the reality is that most trips carry only a single passenger. General public dial-a-ride averages only 2.6 passengers per bus/train hour. That compares to these other service categories:

270                  Commuter rail
227                  LRT
45                    Arterial BRT (A Line)
35                   Core Local bus
30                   Commuter express bus
21                    Highway BRT (Red Line)
20                   Supporting local bus
16                   Suburban local bus

The decline in bus ridership

While Twin Cities rail ridership continues to grow, buses (except for Arterial BRT) are another story. The New York Times just published an excellent article on the nationwide decline in urban bus ridership. The Twin Cities are featured, with bus ridership dropping 21 percent since 2013. That number would have been worse had most Minneapolis high school students not been shifted from school buses to public transit a few years ago. The question is, “Why is this happening given the resurgence of center city populations?”

According to the Times article, a series of developments are working against bus ridership.

  1. The rise of on-demand bikes, scooters and ride share services like Uber and Lyft, which are often more convenient than busing.
  2. More telecommuting.
  3. Replacement of in-store shopping with online shopping and home delivery.
  4. The gentrification of center city neighborhoods displacing low income residents who rode more often.
  5. Suburbanization of the poor, moving them to areas with much less available transit service.
  6. Low gas prices.

To those I would add:

  1. Frustration with buses delayed by ever increasing traffic congestion.
  2. Frustration with buses detoured and delayed by road construction.

When ridership declines, transit operators have two choices. They can maintain service levels and live with the increased subsidy per passenger, or they can reduce service proportionately. When they do the latter, it starts the spiral of less ridership leading to less attractive service, which further depresses ridership, resulting in even less service.

The coronavirus
No one expected it, but the coronavirus has already reduced transit ridership in some cities and it seems certain to do the same thing here. Lower ridership means less fare revenue at a time when transit finances are already precarious. Unless the virus retreats in the next month, I would expect to see rush hour service reductions on the June schedule change to make the service better match demand.





Aaron Isaacs

About Aaron Isaacs

Aaron retired in 2006 after 33 years as a planner and manager for Metro Transit, where he worked in route and schedule planning, operations, maintenance, transit facilities, light rail and traffic advantages for buses. He's an historian of transit, as a 40+ year volunteer with the Minnesota Streetcar Museum. He's co-author of Twin Cities by Trolley, The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and author of Twin Ports by Trolley on Duluth-Superior.