Total U.S. transit ridership decreased by 3.8% from 2008 levels according to the Fourth Quarter Public Transportation Ridership Report recently released by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). APTA attributes the decline in ridership to high unemployment, economic recession, and lower gas prices, as well as bus and rail service cutbacks resulting from lower state and local funding.
Despite the decline, ridership has still been growing faster than population over the past decade. The 2008 ridership level was the highest in 52 years, and some decrease would be expected given the higher rates of unemployment and lower gas prices. Higher rates of unemployment mean that fewer people are traveling to work, and lower gas prices make automobile travel less expensive. The national unemployment rate increased from 5.8% in 2008 to 9.3% in 2009. Meanwhile, the U.S. average gasoline price decreased from $3.25 per gallon in 2008 to $2.35 per gallon in 2009. Research has shown that these factors do affect transit ridership. According to estimates obtained from a previous SURTC study, changes in unemployment rates and gas prices of these magnitudes could be expected to decrease ridership by as much as 10%, so a 3.8% drop is fairly modest. Ridership was down by less than 1% in 2009 compared to 2007 levels.
Further, while there was an overall decrease, the number of riders in rural and small urban areas was fairly constant, and ridership increased for demand response service. Bus ridership declined by just a half percent in 2009 in areas with a population below 100,000 (and was actually up 1.5% in the fourth quarter), and demand response ridership rose 2.7%.