Home Buses On the causes of the decline in bus ridership

On the causes of the decline in bus ridership

by Benjamin Kabak

When the MTA cut service last year, they made subway travel slightly less convenient. Waits were a minute or two longer as trains were somewhat more crowded, but by and large, other than those who took the M to lower Manhattan or relied upon it along 4th Ave. in Brooklyn, the subway cuts went largely unnoticed. In fact, ridership has continued to climb despite the service reductions.

The bus cuts, on the other hand, produced some rather dramatic results. Take a look below at the chart showing bus ridership since March 2009. This is not a trend which we should be applauding.

On the most basic level, the cause of this slowdown in bus ridership can be traced to the service cuts. The MTA eliminated numerous high-cost routes that, despite low ridership levels, served a good number of people in the aggregate, and it cut back other service on nights and weekends. If there are fewer buses, there will be fewer bus riders. That’s just a basic lesson in transit economics.

Yet, on a more advanced level, the MTA says more is at work here. That bus ridership declined by 13.2 percent while subway ridership increased by 12.6 percent can’t just be explained by the service cuts, and in the Wall Street Journal this week, Andrew Grossman tried to find out just what’s going on here. The authority is blaming everything from the economy and socioeconomic makeup of bus riders to increased surface congestion. “We don’t know exactly why, but we’re seeing a decline in the inner portions of the boroughs,” MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz said to The Journal. “One thing that is contributing to that is traffic congestion. The buses just are not traveling at optimal speeds. Other than that, we can’t really pinpoint why ridership is declining on portions of these routes.”

Grossman pinpoints a number of other potential causes:

Some of the decline is by design. When the MTA eliminated dozens of bus routes last summer to save money, it focused on places where buses ran along subway lines. The B39, for example, used to run over the Williamsburg Bridge—right next to the J, M and Z trains. The authority also reduced the frequency of certain bus routes. At the same time, subways have gotten some high-profile improvements, such as digital clocks that tell straphangers when the next train is coming…

Another factor: Buses are breaking down more often. MTA data show the average distance a bus travels before it needs repair has been decreasing as the bus fleet ages…Then there’s a city economy in which some neighborhoods are thriving while others struggle. That’s one of the causes MTA Chairman Jay Walder pointed to when asked about the decline Wednesday. “Some of it may also have to do with the ways in which the economic recovery is taking hold and the ridership in different parts of the city,” he said.

Neighborhood farthest from subway routes have some of the city’s worst joblessness, according to data compiled by the James Parrott of the Fiscal Policy Institute, a liberal-leaning think tank. In places such as Flatlands and East Flatbush in southern Brooklyn, which have subway lines only at their edges, the unemployment rate was around 13% in the third quarter of 2010, Mr. Parrott said. People without jobs have fewer reasons to travel. Meanwhile, they have to pay more for trips they do take since the fare went up at the end of 2010.

Meanwhile, it doesn’t sound as though the situation is going to improve any time soon. With the onslaught of 328 new articulated buses, the MTA will scale back bus service even further in the coming years. It might just be the perfect storm of economic factors, service cuts and unreliable service. Maybe the buses will gain in popularity when the MTA’s BusTime tracking program has spread throughout the city. But maybe, if the authority doesn’t support bus service, ridership will continue to bleed away from an important piece of the surface transportation puzzle.

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John-2 May 27, 2011 - 6:26 am

I’d be interested in seeing the breakdown of the bus use decline separated out into subway/bus transfer passengers, and those either using the bus alone or transferring from bus to bus. My guess would be you’d see the biggest percentage drop in the latter two categories, especially those transferring from one bus route to another, since service cutbacks there can make connections even more unreliable and frustrating (and being stranded for a long wait at an outdoor bus shelter, especially in the winter months, is way more annoying than waiting for a subway in an enclosed area).

Andrew May 27, 2011 - 7:14 am

If the decline were due to the service cuts, one would expect a sharp drop in July 2010.

In fact, there is no such sharp drop; if anything, the decline flattens out somewhat around July 2010. The sharpest decline comes on weekends in winter 2009-2010 and on weekdays in both winters, probably due to the timing of snowstorms, which make bus service particularly unreliable.

Bus ridership has been on the downswing for decades, aside from the big upswing brought about by MetroCard, which halved the fare for intermodal (bus + subway) riders. I don’t know if that’s because buses have been gradually getting slower or because the subway has been gradually getting better, but this graph doesn’t show any impact of last June’s service cuts.

I’ve generally been a defender of the cuts, but that surprises even me.

Al D May 27, 2011 - 8:06 am

I disagree with this statement:

Neighborhoods farthest from subway routes have some of the city’s worst joblessness,

See: Marine Park, Gerritsen Beach, Manhattan Beach, Mill Basin, Bayside, etc. I’m sure that there are more without even touching Staten Island.

I think a big decline in bus ridership is because it has changed only incrementally in all these years. You can wait 1 minute for 4 buses or 45 minutes for 1 bus. All on the same line, all in the same week. Same as 40 years ago. I=That is even more unacceptable in today’s instant gratification need now society. If only it were as endearing as Forrest Gump’s “Life is like a box of chocolates”.

Recently, I Google Mapped a trip from Williamsburg to Elmhurst.

45 minute travel time on the bus, excluding the wait which of course can be 1 minute of 45 minutes. By car or taxi = 15 minutes! (The G to M was a similar travel time to the bus.)

Now, imagine that you went to take your regular or most favorite subway line, and you had the same travel experiences:

(i) You never knew whether you’d have to wait 1 or 45 minutes for the train on a daily basis: and,
(ii) It would take 3 times as long to get there than a car or taxi.

Subway ridership would decrease markedly and quickly.

Larry Littlefield May 27, 2011 - 9:43 am

Bus ridership had been declining for years before the elimination of two fare zones, making buses free for those transferring to the subway, a break for which those in the affected areas are eternally ungrateful. After a spike in use, buses have resumed their decline.

One possiblity to consider is that people are riding bicycles instead of buses. Bicycles are faster for most trips that otherwise take place by bus. They are also more convenient, since you don’t need to walk to the bus stop on both ends, and then wait for an uncertain period of time. And since that wait is outdoors, bikes are no worse in bad weather, unless a long distance is being covered.

Bicycle use is measured two ways — Census Bureau journey to work data and in counts in and out of the Manhttan CBD. The latter misses the kind of travel that substitutes for bus trips. The former misses not only non-work trips but many immigrants, poor people, especially since the long census form was replaced by the small sample American Community Survey.

I had some work done in my house, and the workers arrived by bike. I volunteer at a food pantry. I’ve been told a couple of times by people who come there that they can only afford one Metrocard for the family, and that the wife uses it to go to work while the husband rides a bike.

Larry Littlefield May 27, 2011 - 9:53 am

By the way, that bus purchase deal is being described as an economic development “investment” with political involvement.

Are you kidding me? $700,000 per bus? How long will it last, 15 years? And the last time the MTA arranged for stuff to be built in Plattsburg, it was defective (the Bombardier cars).

If people actually had to pay for those buses, that cost would be questioned. But of course, the money is borrowed so it’s “free.”

ferryboi May 27, 2011 - 11:13 am

Another possible explanation: the only folks who ride local buses are poor people who cannot afford another way around. With the city becoming gentrified in many areas, poorer riders are being replaced by people who take taxis and/or own their own cars. I doubt riders in Williamsburg, DUMBO, Park Slope, and many suburban areas of Queens and Staten Island are willing to spend half the day riding buses with 20-minute headways, and share the bus with some rather unsavory customers (witness the shooting of a rider in B’klyn last week).

As for express runs, they serve a limited number of riders who work in Manhattan and have no other way to get to work other than driving, which is suicidal at 8am on a weekday, hence the bus.

pete May 30, 2011 - 3:36 pm

Some MTA Bus (not NYCT) express buses run 18 hours a day with LIRR style scheduling/frequency.

Ed May 27, 2011 - 11:39 am

To assess the impact of the service cuts, it would be useful to look at ridership on the routes that were not cut? Is that declining too?

Its possible to cut service on a transportation line to the point where the line is rendered useless, while officially still running, marked on maps and with drivers assigned etc. Its the point where the line runs so infrequently that a potential rider has to plan his entire day and adjust appointments etc. just to use the line, and which point it is no longer a means to get from one place to another but an end in itself. Some of the outer borough bus lines Al D describes may be at this point. My experience is that transportation planners tend to miss this and too often run service below the point of viability, below the point where if they really need to save money they should just eliminate the line altogether.

It also would be useful to make a distinction between busses that operate in the parts of the city with good subway service (most of Manhattan and the near Outer Boroughs), where they essentially supplement and fill gaps in the subway network, and busses that operate in parts of the city without good subway service where the alternative is using a car (or bike). I live in Manhattan, where I have actually noticed a small improvement in bus service, but the difference is that I rarely have to RELY on bus service to get anywhere; I used a cross-town bus the other day when we had planned to walk because one showed up when we were approaching the stop. If you need the to use the bus to get to work, and service is too erratic, you buy a car because otherwise relying on the bus might get you fired.

This blog posted a study a few months earlier indicating that bus service in New York was pretty bad to begin with, so it could be that the last round of cuts sent the service in many areas below the point of viability.

tacony palmyra May 27, 2011 - 2:54 pm

I rarely wait for a bus– I just walk to the nearest subway along its route. So reducing frequency means I no longer take the bus. Say I’m in Alphabet City, I walk along the M14A or D route and a lot of the time I make it to Union Square before I hit a bus. I don’t think the M14 was reduced (was it?) but I’d imagine the people in those “inner portions of the boroughs” are saying “screw this” and walking instead of standing on the corner for an hour.

Bolwerk May 27, 2011 - 12:56 pm

We can’t afford all this transit. We have to pay for the drivers. They won’t do it themselves.

Phil May 27, 2011 - 9:30 pm Reply
paulb May 29, 2011 - 10:54 am

I’ve got no idea what an articulated bus should cost. What’s a more realistic number than $700K? I love the notion that bus ridership might be down because bicycle use is up. Cheerful news like that doesn’t arrive every day.

Jonathan May 30, 2011 - 11:10 am

They may have found ways to make inflexible demand flexible. Have they tightened up student passes? Eligibility for half-fare?

Those are groups of people who we always assumed had to take the bus, without alternate, for non-discretionary travel. Anecdotally, student passes have been cut (would like some actual numbers).

Plus what ferryboi says, big time. Old demo was far more likely to take the bus. More likely to work or have appointments cross-borough. New demo takes the train to work in the city.

I know we can’t do an O/D, but I bet it’s different riders making very different journeys, not Miss X deciding that the subway was the better mode and dumping the bus.

One year later, reflections on the service cuts :: Second Ave. Sagas July 12, 2011 - 1:54 am

[…] both on the periphery of transit in New York City and in the meaty center. Bus ridership has declined precipitously, and while slow boarding and sluggish surface traffic are certainly to blame, that New Yorkers must […]


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