Cities should look to Seattle on how to stop the transit ridership crisis

There's some strange objection most people have to riding buses, but those same people are fine with riding other forms of transportation, like streetcars, subways and commuter rail. It's evident that this is happening in the 35 top United States transit markets, where ridership has fallen in all but four of them.

Transit agencies are facing a plethora of new issues: cheap gas, inexpensive car loans and the rise of ride-sharing apps all are stealing away riders who are choosing alternative methods of getting to work or to social events. Despite these issues, however, there are a couple cities that have managed to increase their ridership in a time when most cities are loosing major amounts of riders. The biggest and most notable example of this is the seaside and eco-friendly city of Seattle, where ridership increased by three percent between 2016-2017.

CityTrips in 2016Trips in 2017Change
New Orleans20,771,42520,779,0020
Salt Lake City43,622,61643,258,540-0.8%
New York-Newark4,191,920,6624,147,327,410-1.1%
San Francisco-Oakland390,307,851385,364,770-1.3%

There's a few cities on this list that are doing something right, including Seattle, Phoenix, Houston and well, sort of New Orleans (their ridership hasn't dropped, at least!).

More Money, More Resources

In Seattle around half of all trips made to downtown during rush-hour are now made on transit, and solo drivers account for only one fourth of the total. This impressive feat is fuelled by a 13 percent increase in service over the last four years thanks to a series of funding packages approved by voters in the city.

Just in 2014, Seattle voters decided to increase sales tax by 0.1 percent as well as raise the price to register your vehicle, promoting the city to add more bus service. Then in 2016, a 25-year funding package was approved that will double the amount rapid transit in the city.

Meanwhile in Phoenix, voters approved a sales tax hike in 2015 to raise money for more than $31 billion in transit improvements. Half the funding is dedicated to bus service, and as a result of the improvements bus ridership increased by 6.1 percent between January and August of 2017.

Making Bigger Improvements

Spending money on resources doesn't mean it's a good way to spend the money. Both rail and bus networks need to be planned carefully to not only take into consideration how the city operates today, but also how it will look 25-30 years down the line.

One way Seattle and Phoenix are doing this is by substantially increasing bus service in the short term, until longer-term rail lines can be constructed. RapidRide service was introduced in Seattle beginning in 2015 and brings many more of the city's residents in proximity of quick, 10-15 minute bus service during the day and evenings.

Seattle transit ridership in millions

Houston has not only added new light rail lines recently, but has also reimagined its bus network to form more of a grid, while increasing the service on several lines on weekends and spending no additional money. Weekend ridership rose immediately and by the third month, local bus service had risen by a staggering 8 percent.

These ridership changes are relatively impressive but it's important to not that Houston didn't increase it's bus service budget as a part of the network redesign, so there's only so much that can be done using the resources at-hand.

Now this isn't to say that smaller improvement aren't needed either, such as on Third Avenue in Seattle, where buses alternate stops to stay ahead of each other. Or when buses experience long delays at intersections, the transit department might look to see how they can change that so buses are getting people around faster. Queue jumps at traffic lights and bus bulbs are also ideas the city looked into and implemented where needed.

Essentially, when buses retain a certain level of reliability, people will end up choosing them because they know they can count on them to get where they need to go on time.

Creating a Comprehensive Transit Masterplan

Similar to Seattle, in San Francisco Muni, the city-run transit agency, is gaining riders too. There has been a 3.6 percent increase in ridership since 2012 and the Muni Forward plan is to thank for this. It's a plan put in place by the city to improve bus speed and reliability all over the city, and implement other factors that get people to where they're going, such as city-wide all-door boarding, bus lanes and improving walkability near transit stations.

The approach San Francisco is taking is working so well because they are looking at the system as a whole to improve things, instead of improving one specific neighbourhood or bus route. The results are evident on the website and though some service has been reduced on a few routes, it's mostly been increased drastically to reduce the wait between some buses by more than half.

When voters see that transit service in their city is reliable and working well, they're more likely to vote for giving the system more money through a combination of sales and property taxes and vehicle registration fees.

📸: Wikipedia 📈: King County Metro Transit and Sound Transit