Transit Ridership

How much are Bay Area residents relying on public transportation?

Transit Ridership

Definition: 
Transit ridership refers to the number of passenger boardings on public transportation, which includes buses, trains and ferries. Transit ridership can be measured in terms of weekday boardings or in terms of annual boardings for a typical resident (per capita).

The Bay Area’s buses, trains, ferries, light-rail vehicles, cable cars and streetcars provide mobility for people without cars and offer an alternative to driving for hundreds of thousands of residents who do own cars. Public transit helps to provide an alternative to congested roads and reduces greenhouse gas emissions by getting cars off the road.

While featuring one of the nation’s most extensive public transit systems, the Bay Area has not experienced significant growth in transit ridership over the past few decades – with residents primarily shifting between bus and rail modes. This has resulted in crowded conditions on BART and Caltrain, while suburban buses have lower utilization than in years past.

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Regional Performance
While transit ridership has been on the rise in the last few years, it remains below the modern-era peak achieved in 2001.

On a typical weekday in 2016, Bay Area residents boarded buses, trains and ferries approximately 1.8 million times. While ridership has surpassed pre-recession levels – growing robustly for the fifth consecutive year – the region is still just shy of its modern historic peak of weekday boardings, which was reached in 2001. On a per-capita basis, transit use is well below the levels of the early 1990s. The average resident boarded transit 79 times per year in 1991, while in 2016, this had fallen to 70 trips per year – an 11 percent decline over 25 years.

Short- and long-term ridership trends indicate an ongoing shift in transit demand away from local bus services and toward regional rail systems. While ridership on rail systems has grown steadily over the decades, bus ridership has dropped significantly. On a per-capita basis, ridership on Bay Area buses has fallen by one-third since 1991. Given that the majority of Bay Area transit trips take place on buses – rather than trains – this has played a major role in the overall per-capita decline in regional transit use.

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Historical Trend for Daily Transit Ridership

Local Focus
After several years of robust growth, ridership growth on both BART and Caltrain slowed in 2016.

In 2016, BART and Caltrain set records for average daily ridership. Caltrain ridership grew just 1.5 percent year-over-year, however, after climbing by 6 percent to 17 percent annually over the previous five years. Since 1991, Caltrain recorded a daily ridership increase of more than 200 percent, while BART ridership grew by more than 76 percent. For both operators, ridership growth since the end of the Great Recession has occurred despite only limited expansion to service hours over the same time period.

It’s a different story for bus operators, however. Though bus ridership has rebounded slightly in the last few years, most agencies have seen significant per-capita declines in ridership over the last few decades. While some of these declines are a result of service cuts, ridership has declined at an even faster rate. AC Transit, VTA and SamTrans all posted per-capita ridership declines of 30 percent to 40 percent since 1991. San Francisco Muni, which provides nearly half of all transit trips in the region, registered an 11 percent decline in per-capita bus ridership in the same period. However, the recent population and jobs boom in San Francisco has had a positive impact on Muni ridership with per-capita boardings increasing markedly in 2016 for not only light rail but also for its bus services.

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Historical Trend for Daily Transit Ridership

National Context
After adjusting for population growth, only four of the ten major metros in the United States saw real growth in transit ridership in 2016.

Per-capita transit ridership trended upward in 2016 in Houston, Philadelphia, the Bay Area and New York, but stayed flat or declined in all other large metros. Annual bus boardings in Miami and Los Angeles continued to decline, causing overall per-capita transit ridership in both metros to drop for the second year in a row. Washington – which ranks second among the major U.S. metros for per-capita transit ridership– had 6 percent fewer transit boardings per-capita in 2016 as both bus and rail ridership continued their long-term decline. Ridership loss in 2016 was particularly steep in the nation’s capital as major maintenance work disrupted service on the area’s heavy rail system, causing many rail passengers to switch modes.

With the key exception of New York, all of the nation’s top metro areas have seen a decline in per-capita ridership since the end of the recession. New York is the only metro area to see significant long-term gains in ridership, with the average resident now boarding transit nearly 42 percent more often than in 1991. Benefiting from reinvestment in aging infrastructure, booming residential and commercial development in the urban core, and improved safety for riders at all times of day, New York has been the core engine of transit ridership growth not only in the Northeast but for the entire United States.

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Metro Comparison for Daily Transit Ridership

 
Sources: 

Federal Transit Administration: National Transit Database

Time Series 2.1 Data Table (1991-2015)

Federal Transit Administration: National Transit Database

Monthly Module Adjusted Data Release (2016)

California Department of Finance: Population and Housing Estimates

Form E-8 - Historical Population and Housing Estimates (1991-2010)

Form E-5 - Population and Housing Estimates (2011-2016)

U.S. Census Bureau: Intercensal Estimates (1991-2016)

Image: MTC Library (ID# pisces-062; Year: 2009)

Methodology Notes: 

Simple modes were aggregated to combine the various bus modes (e.g. rapid bus, express bus, local bus) into a single mode to avoid incorrect conclusions resulting from mode recoding over the lifespan of NTD. 2016 data should be considered preliminary, as it comes from the monthly data tables rather than the longer-term time-series dataset. Weekday ridership is calculated by taking the total annual ridership and dividing by 300, an assumption which is consistent with MTC travel modeling procedures; it was also compared to observed weekday boarding data (which is more limited in availability) to ensure consistency on the regional level. Per-capita transit ridership is calculated for the operator's general service area or taxation district; for example, BART includes the three core counties (San Francisco, Alameda, and Contra Costa) as well as northern San Mateo County post-SFO extension and AC Transit includes the cities located within its service area. For other metro areas, operators were identified by developing a list of all urbanized areas within a current MSA boundary and then using that UZA list to flag relevant operators; this means that all operators (both large and small) were included in the metro comparison data.