2019 Ridership Numbers Reveal Transit's Dim Future


Thanks to a late-year surge in New York subway ridership, nationwide transit ridership in December 2019 was 3.0 percent greater than December 2018, and ridership for 2019 as a whole was 0.1 percent greater than in 2018, according to data released last week by the Federal Transit Administration. Take away the New York City subways and nationwide ridership fell by 1.5 percent in December and 1.2 percent for the 2019 as a whole.

New York City subway ridership (not including PATH trains) grew by a phenomenal 14.7 percent in December and 3.6 percent for the year as a whole. While subway ridership peaked in 2014, it rose in 2019 to the second highest in its history. Its post-World War II peak was only about 2.0 billion trips a year compared with 2.7 billion in 2019.

The rest of the nation’s transit industry didn’t fare so well. Ridership in both December and 2019 as a whole fell in 32 out of the nation’s 50 largest urban areas. When compared with 2014 ridership, 2019 ridership fell in 44 out of the 50 largest urban areas.

Even New York-area ridership, other than the subway, is doing poorly. Not counting the subway, New York-area ridership fell by 3.6 percent in December. In fact, non-subway ridership in the New York area peaked in 2005 and has slowly but steadily declined since then. In 1995, the subway accounted for less than half of the region’s ridership; in 2019 it was 63.5 percent.

Transit agencies should particularly worry about the future of their bus systems. Transit buses, including commuter buses, trolley buses, and bus-rapid transit as well as conventional buses, carried fewer riders in 2019 than in any year since 1939. According to appendix A of the American Public Transportation Association’s latest transit fact book, buses carried 75 percent of all transit riders in the country in 1960 and 65 percent in 1990. As of 2019, it was down to 47 percent.

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Randal O'Toole is an land-use and transportation policy analyst and the author of American Nightmare: How Government Undermines the Dream of Homeownership.

Photo credit: Steve Morgan via Wikimedia under CC 4.0 License.