Why Is Bus Ridership Declining?

THE COMMUTE: Transit ridership reached an all time high shortly after World War II. It has been declining since then, especially after fare increases and during downturns in the economy with a few exceptions. The reasons are many, most importantly the rise in use of the automobile and the building of highways, while transit elevated lines were ripped down without subway replacements. The buses replacing the elevated lines and trolleys were slower and less attractive.

The downward trend was temporarily reversed with the introduction of MetroCard Gold in 1997, which eliminated what was considered two-fare zones, allowing free transfers between subways and buses. This made bus service much more attractive for shorter trips where a subway was also involved, because it essentially cut the transit fare in half. As a result, bus patronage rose 30 percent, sparking the purchasing of additional buses and increased service for a time. Other factors for increased transit ridership at that time were new equipment and better maintenance of the infrastructure.

However, with the recent recession, transit ridership has once again begun to decline and so have service levels. As we have begun to emerge from the recession, a new disturbing and baffling trend is emerging. Subway ridership is beginning to increase again. However, bus ridership is continuing to decline. The Wall Street Journal recently discussed this. For those without a Wall Street Journal subscription, the full text of the article is posted on BusChat.

From the article:

The nation’s largest municipal bus system has endured a slow slide in ridership since 2005. It was down another 1.7% last year despite a sharp drop in the city’s jobless rate… it appears that a mix of factors, including the city’s uneven economy and unprecedented service cuts, all play a role.
Bus riders tend to be less affluent than subway riders, and the economic problems of the past three years have had a bigger impact on working-class New Yorkers in outer boroughs who depend on buses.
On top of that, the MTA eliminated or cut service on dozens of bus routes last summer. Finally, congestion means many buses crawl along at walking speed during rush hour.
None of that completely explains the prolonged drop in bus ridership. There were 13.2% fewer trips on New York City Transit buses in 2010 than there were in 2005. Subway ridership rose 12.6% during the same period.

The MTA offered the following explanation:

“We don’t know exactly why, but we’re seeing a decline in the inner portions of the boroughs,” said Kevin Ortiz, an MTA spokesman.
“One thing that is contributing to that is traffic congestion,” Mr. Ortiz said. “The buses just are not traveling at optimal speeds. Other than that, we can’t really pinpoint why ridership is declining on portions of these routes.”

That explanation is very incomplete.

The folks at BusChat, some of whom I believe know more about what is really going on than upper management at the MTA, weighed in with their explanations. Here is what a few of them had to say. My comments are in parentheses.

The Hat: (Bus driver) Decreased reliability of buses…Non-covering of runs (the term used to describe a day’s work by the bus operator during the course of a day); using antiquated dispatching procedures to “put buses on time”…Also changes in routing w/o enough time to cover new ground. (Typos corrected with some editing.)
Mr. Mabstoa (Bus Dispatcher) there were times before the service cuts that we were instructed at the depot level not to fill runs at all to cut overtime… There were times where we had 20 runs a day open. Of course ridership is down if there are no buses running!
B49 Limited: Buses have longer wait times especially the busier routes like the B 35 at nights…When 20 – 30 min because the new norm for bus waiting (and buses are overcrowded), people are going to look for alternative(s)… Queens and Brooklyn needs to modernize its (routing) system…(There should be) a 10-year review of the bus system. Many routes in Brooklyn need to be modernized…MTA is not making great strides to improve it and since MTA Bus and MTA NYCT are treated “separately. (This prevents making efficiencies such as combining the B2 and B100)  (Typos corrected.)
Joe V: With 3 fare hikes in 4 years, people will walk 15 – 20 minutes rather than take a short bus ride.
BusMgr: Bus speeds are probably a good part of the reason, but the excuse of “traffic congestion” is mere deflection. There might be marginal changes in level of congestion, but the levels of traffic congestion in the City of New York have not changed considerably…In years past, drivers would work their butts off keeping a schedule. They would hustle, encourage their passengers to step lively while boarding and alighting…Dispatchers along the route would encourage their drivers to move along and keep the schedule…Doors on buses, both at the front and the rear, operated more rapidly…
GI Ravage: More people are using “commuter vans” to/from the subway (and the MTA does not consider this demand when determining bus schedules).

Other reasons not mentioned are:

  1. Undercounting of bus passengers due to some buses operating with broken fareboxes (buses used to be taken out of service for that reason), and the increasing number of fare evaders since bus drivers no longer challenge riders who do not have the correct fare and now just let everyone board due to concerns about bus operator safety; also more passengers entering the rear door without paying when buses are too overcrowded to let them board through the front door.
  2. In recent years there is much more deadheading of buses, i.e. buses operating not in service instead of carrying passengers, a hidden service cut.
  3. Bus stops that are spaced further apart making buses less attractive. People would often start walking if they saw no bus coming. With stops further apart, it makes it more difficult to run to a bus stop if you do see a bus a few blocks away so they may decide to just walk their entire trip if it is a short one.
  4. Two-door Articulated (accordion-style) buses on Manhattan crosstown routes greatly slowed down service by increasing dwell times at bus stops and increased the spacing between buses, making walking a more attractive option.

Throughout history it was always possible to travel long distances on a single fare, it was also true that many trips would require multiple fares, sometimes four or more. Extra fares were required for travel to the Rockaways, traveling over toll bridges, changing between some bus lines and to trains, etc.

However, due to the redundancy of the system, passengers could usually figure out a way to reduce the number of fares to one or two and occasionally three, by using bus routes requiring a greater walking distance.

Gradually, most of the extra fares were eliminated so fewer trips would require them. However, with the elimination of many bus routes last year, that system redundancy has been reduced and direct connections between neighborhoods and other bus routes severed, increasing the numbers of buses required for some trips from two to three and hence, an extra fare. Those additional fares have also has encouraged more trips to be made by subway or car service or not at all, affecting buses greater than subways.

While obvious to the users of the system, these reasons remain a mystery to managers making $100,000 plus at the MTA. Can you think of additional reasons why bus ridership should be declining while subway ridership is increasing?

The Commute is a weekly feature highlighting news and information about the city’s mass transit system and transportation infrastructure. It is written by Allan Rosen, a Manhattan Beach resident and former Director of MTA/NYC Transit Bus Planning (1981).


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