You’ve probably noticed in recent months that overall transit ridership has declined. In some regions, transit ridership has declined to the point where transit agencies are seriously having to examine cutting service and raising fares just to stay afloat. Here in Tampa Bay, ridership on both Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART) and the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) have seen ridership declines over the course of 2016. While the overall downward trend may be alarming to some transit riders, it is important to know what factors are going into any widespread transit ridership decline.
Back in 2008 and 2009, transit ridership was surging at a time when transit agency budgets were shrinking. This was largely because gas prices were at all-time highs, unemployment was up, and the overall state of the economy was very gloomy. Fast forward to the present time – August 2016, and gas prices still hover near their lowest levels since 2007/2008, unemployment is down, job markets are changing, and the overall state of the economy – while not entirely positive – has very much rebounded from the lows of 2008/2009. This upcoming election is going to change the playing field yet again for transportation – so it is very important that everyone thoroughly research the candidates and issues at hand.
The number of transportation options have expanded in recent years – especially in larger metro regions. These options range beyond driving alone, and using bus and/or rail lines – and include biking/walking, carpool/vanpool, ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft, carsharing services like ZipCar, and even telecommuting and revised work weeks. All of these allow for people – especially Millennials – to broaden how they get around. On one note – the recent tension between local and state governments and the ridesharing companies may cause transit ridership to tick upwards again. This is especially the case in Hillsborough County, where the fate of Uber and Lyft hang in the balance of the notorious Public Transportation Commission (or PTC). The PTC oversees taxicab and limo companies – which argue that ridesharing companies are operating illegally because they (the rideshare companies) are not held to the same standards as they (the taxi and limo companies) are. Despite efforts to try and come to a consensus, the PTC has not budged on background checks and vehicle inspections. Therefore, the PTC is going evaluate whether to impose new rules on the rideshare companies anyways – something that could signal an immediate exit for both Uber and Lyft from Hillsborough – which in-turn could spark a jump in bus ridership for HART.
With gas prices being lower and the overall economy in a better state than it was in 2008, the auto manufacturers are spending tons of money trying to get Milliennials back into cars – and in the case of the US automakers – gas-guzzling SUVs. You’ve probably been seeing various ads featuring Millennials and how “they love their cars”, so it should be no surprise here that this effort is also contributing to the overall decline in transit ridership – but specifically amongst choice commuters like many Millennials.
Another reason for the decline in transit ridership is the fact that many transit agencies have had to scale back their offerings. Some bus and rail lines do not provide convenient and frequent service, and some lines have had to be cut back or eliminated due to budget cuts. This in-turn forces transit riders out of the system and into the realm of other options available – especially again…choice commuters.
If you’ve heard about the DC Metro saga, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. Unfortunate events like the poor maintenance within the DC Metro system have also discouraged transit riders from using their respective systems. Poor transit agency management and decisions can also drive customers away from bus and rail lines and back into cars. It is already bad enough when transit agencies have to juggle with limited funding, but it is far worse and damaging when agencies have to deal with worsening ridership figures due to a large chunk of riders leaving the system – because they hate the management and decisions they’ve made.
So to conclude; is it doomsday for the transit agencies? I wouldn’t say so. But, depending on how the upcoming elections pan out – we could either see transit funding and levels remain about where they are here in the US, or we could see a dramatic decline in transit funding and services. Once again, it is important for everyone to thoroughly research the candidates and issues at hand. Above all though – register to vote before it’s too late! I don’t care what or who you are voting for. Sitting out a crucial election like this one is the absolute worst decision that you can make.
With that being said, in the coming days – I will be launching a Transit Rider Interview initiative to try and gauge how transit riders feel about their current transit system(s). I will be following up with another blog post that goes further into what the initiative is about.