Despite more people living and working in California, mass transit ridership continues to decline. The problem is particularly severe in Orange County, where transit ridership is down 30 percent since 2008.
The Eno Center for Transportation found that between 2014 and 2016, transit ridership dropped in all but seven of the country’s largest urban areas. Cutbacks in transit service are the top reason for the decline nationally. Rail cutbacks, such as running fewer trains per hour or closing the system earlier in the day, play a role. But most of the decline is due to decreasing bus services. Between 2009 and 2014, transit agencies decreased bus miles of travel by 5.2 percent.
The Mineta Transportation Institute found that when you control for variables such as gas prices and other transportation options, bus frequency is the best predictor of ridership. Put simply, decreasing bus service substantially decreases ridership, even for buses that were largely empty.
Some politicians propose new rail services as alternatives. But replacing these bus lines with rail lines provides worse service to low-income users, who may depend on transit to get to their jobs. Dallas and Houston both built light rail systems to replace their existing bus lines. For several years, despite spending millions of dollars on new equipment, the new systems carried fewer passengers than the original bus-only systems.
Fortunately, there are several steps that can be taken to cost-effectively improve transit service, including four immediate steps that agencies should take. First, transit agencies should use intelligent transportation systems technology to reduce bus travel times and make them more appealing. Installing transit traffic signal priority technology, for example, gives green light traffic signals to buses and increases bus speeds by 20 percent.
Second, Orange County Transportation Authority leaders could update the bus network to reflect today’s work and travel patterns. While some routes were changed in 2015, the entire network should be updated. Yes, this puts the transit agency in a tough political spot because existing customers will complain to local elected officials about any route changes. But at very little cost, Houston redesigned its bus network’s routes, eliminating some lines and substantially increasing service on weekends. As a result, weekend ridership increased by almost 50 percent.
Third, OCTA and other agencies can partner more aggressively with…