Despite decades of ridership and revenue growth, the country’s busiest transit systems have struggled in recent years both at the turnstile and in the farebox, even as operating costs and unmet capital needs continue to grow. Metropolitan transit agencies serving New York, Chicago, Washington, DC, Boston and San Francisco, the country’s five largest systems, have all seen ridership declines in each of the last three years, and only the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) saw revenues increase, according to financial disclosures.
Some of the decline can be attributed to service quality. But these systems are also challenged by competition from ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft, bike-share programs and the ever-polarizing electric scooter phenomenon.
For many systems, the declines aren’t evenly distributed. In Chicago, New York and DC, weekday and rush hour demand remains strong amid steep late-night and weekend declines.
With farebox revenue from optional trips falling, the systems have struggled to support high peak volumes without imposing service cuts elsewhere or draconian fare hikes that could further impact ridership.
But ride hailing apps and other new mobility options also create the potential for growth by extending the reach of bus and rail networks, with Uber and Lyft providing “last-mile” service to areas underserved by public transit.
The technologies that make new mobility options possible are also improving access to legacy transit. Smartphone apps allow riders to track when their next bus will arrive, and many transit agencies will roll out mobile pay options in the coming years, two developments with the potential to significantly improve the efficiency and predictability of bus service. Pilot programs that leverage mobile technology to provide new service options promise to further change the public transit landscape going forward.
Autonomous vehicle, smart city and mobile pay technologies will also open new possibilities in bus rapid transit, which offers many advantages associated with rail at significantly lower cost.
The private sector has shown interest in partnerships that will maximize the benefits of these new innovations. Uber and Lyft offer public transit information on their apps in a growing number of cities, with increasing levels of integration.
The cities that benefit most from these partnerships will be those that maintain high service standards and develop mobility plans tailored to their specific markets, experts say.
Tech improvements and private sector partnerships won’t appeal to commuters for whom poor service and safety problems relegate public transit to a worst-case option, Brittney Kohler, the director of the National League of Cities’ transportation and infrastructure program, said in a recent interview.
“You can’t innovate if you’re not meeting your basic demands,” Kohler said.
Some funding for innovation and service improvements will have to come from the federal government, Paul Skoutelas, president of the American Public Transportation Association, said recently.
“First and foremost we know [transit agencies] don’t have the funding we need,” he said.
Today’s mobility era is an opportune moment for the federal government to advance much-needed initiatives to modernize public transportation assets across the country.
Federal initiatives to support public transportation innovation should prioritize flexibility and empower local and regional authorities, Kohler and Skoutelas both say.
Advances that encourage urban core residents to abandon their cars won’t necessarily convince suburbanites to trust their commutes to public transit. So localized planning and regional collaboration will be crucial to getting twenty-first century transit right.