President Donald Trump’s controversial pledge to exit from the Paris Climate Accord has no shortage of detractors, particularly among groups seeking steep reductions in U.S. carbon emissions. Those critics might also have a bone to pick with the nation’s millions of price-sensitive commuters.
An American City Business Journals analysis of federal data indicates that usage of public transportation — a cornerstone to most proposals to reduce carbon emissions — has been on the decline for the better part of a decade. In fact, U.S. passenger counts were lower in 2016 than they were in 2008, and public transit systems in some 42 states and the District of Columbia collectively failed to grow ridership from levels posted in 2015.
The cause? Keith Millhouse, a transportation expert based in Southern California, said the nation’s transit slump can be pegged to the sector’s symbiotic relationship to gas prices, although other factors also are at play. A growing economy has put money in pockets, and that empowers more consumers to buy cars. And then there is the factor of time, not to mention the rapid rise in popularity of competitively priced ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft, he said.
“People don’t want to, or aren’t able to, spend two hours on a bus every day” if it can be avoided, said Millhouse, a transportation consultant who twice served as chairman of the transportation commission in Ventura County, California. He said a trend toward looser regulations around driver’s licenses, particularly as they apply to non-U.S. citizens, also have put more commuters behind the wheel.
Still, gas prices appear to be the primary disruptor to the nation’s rail and bus systems. In 2016, the average U.S. retail price for a gallon of gasoline was $2.32, or 37 percent below where it was in 2012. During that same span, ridership among U.S. transit systems slipped around 3 percent to 10.2 billion passenger trips, according to the Federal Transportation Administration.
States that saw some of the largest declines in public-transit passengers also are among the nation’s most rural. Idaho reported a 24.3 percent decline in 2016, while West Virginia (14.2 percent decline), Vermont (11.8 percent) and Delaware (10.4 percent) also reported dips in the double digits. Likewise, many of the U.S. metros that reported steep declines in 2016 included less-settled areas in states such as Texas, Kansas, South Carolina and Georgia.
Some argue there is a silver lining to the nation’s transit slide, in that it forces states and cities to refocus on delivering value and better customer service. For example, Millhouse said now is the time to experiment with new fares, routes and schedules.
He also cautioned that annual declines are hardly reason for panic, as ridership has always fluctuated opposite the economy’s ebb and flow. “In some respects, it’s a vicious cycle.”