Transit Ridership

How much are Bay Area residents relying on public transportation?

Transit Ridership

Transit ridership refers to the number of passenger boardings on public transportation, which includes buses, rail systems 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 public 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 2014, Bay Area residents boarded buses, trains and ferries approximately 1.7 million times. While ridership has now surpassed pre-recession levels – growing robustly for the third consecutive year – the region has still not exceeded its modern historic peak of nearly 1.8 million weekday boardings 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 2014, this had fallen to 70 trips per year – a decline of 12 percent over a 23-year period.

Short- and long-term ridership trends have indicated 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
BART and Caltrain are serving record numbers of passengers.

BART and Caltrain set records for average daily ridership in 2014. Both operators have experienced healthy ridership growth since 1991, with Caltrain recording an increase of more 200 percent, while BART boosted its ridership by more than 60 percent. While Caltrain’s growth follows implementation of the Baby Bullet express service in 2004, BART’s ridership has grown despite only limited expansion to its service hours over the same time period. While BART has been on a long-term growth trajectory, fiscal year 2014 operator strikes temporarily stalled its ridership growth.

It’s a different story for bus operators, however. While 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. AC Transit, VTA, SamTrans, and Golden Gate all posted per-capita ridership declines ranging between 25 and 40 percent since 1991. San Francisco Muni, which provides nearly half of all transit trips in the region, is in a similar (albeit less dire) situation with its bus services – even as light-rail ridership has markedly increased. While some of these declines are a result of service cuts, ridership has declined at an even faster rate.

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National Context
Similar to “mature” metro areas like Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Chicago, transit ridership in the Bay Area has not kept pace with population growth.

With the key exception of New York, many of the nation’s most transit-oriented metro areas have seen a decline in per-capita ridership since 1991 – and the Bay Area is no exception to that finding. While most of these regions have performed significantly better than Houston or Atlanta – classic Sunbelt metros that continue to expand outward at relatively low densities – they face a common challenge that stretches from Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., to Chicago and the Bay Area.

The average New York metro area resident now boards transit nearly 50 percent more often than she did in 1991, just 23 years ago. 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


Federal Transit Administration: National Transit Database

Time Series 2.1 Data Table (1991-2013)

Federal Transit Administration: National Transit Database

Monthly Module Adjusted Data Release (2013-2014)

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 (2011-2014)

Population Statistics

U.S. Census Bureau: Intercensal Estimates (1991-2014)

U.S. Census Bureau: American Community Survey

Population Statistics

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

Methodology Notes: 

The NTD dataset was lightly cleaned to correct for erroneous zero values - in which null values (unsubmitted data) were incorrectly marked as zeroes. Paratransit data is sparse in early years of the NTD dataset, meaning that transit ridership estimates in the early 1990s are likely underestimated. 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. 2014 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.