As Subway Trips Climb, MTA Bus Ridership Continues to Stagnate

Total MTA Subway and Bus Ridership, 1970-2014

While subway ridership hit a 65-year high last year, the story for surface transit in NYC is different. Bus ridership has yet to recover from a major round of service cuts in 2010, and in 2014 it lost some ground, according to new stats from the MTA.

After the MetroCard boom in the late 1990s, bus ridership has dropped 10 percent since 2004. Over the same period, subway ridership increased 23 percent.

The city’s bus network is operated by two different MTA divisions: New York City Transit, which runs most of the routes throughout the city, and MTA Bus, which runs primarily in eastern Queens. NYCT bus ridership fell 1.6 percent in 2014 compared to the previous year. The borough-by-borough picture was mixed, however, with small gains in the Bronx and Staten Island.

The most significant ridership declines in recent years have been in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and in 2014 the drop was again especially sharp in Manhattan, which saw a 5.8 percent decrease. Select Bus Service routes were not immune. On M34 SBS, ridership declined 11.2 percent, and trips fell a combined 8.6 percent on the M15 local and M15 SBS on the East Side. Both routes received SBS upgrades several years ago, leading to increased ridership immediately afterward.

In the two boroughs where total bus ridership went up, so did SBS ridership. The Bx41 on Webster Avenue received SBS upgrades in 2013, and the improvements led to a 21.4 percent ridership gain last year. Trips on the city’s first SBS route, the Bx12, which launched on Fordham Road and Pelham Parkway in 2008, increased 3.4 percent in 2014. On Staten Island, ridership climbed 7.2 percent on the S79, which received SBS upgrades in 2012.

  • ohnonononono

    Funny, riding the M60 bus you wouldn’t know that ridership went down 5%. Post SBS, there are still issues with that bus when I ride it being too crowded and people continue to crowd on, and won’t move out of the front doorway, and there are frequent stand-offs between the driver and riders desperate to get on– i.e. yelling “I’m not moving the bus until people move out of the doorway!”

    SBS is speeding trips up. Okay. But if we want to grow ridership did we forget that we need to actually, ya know, run more buses?

    Another issue: if I could WALK or take the bus if it happens to show up when I’m at the stop, SBS is not a good thing. I can’t make a last-minute decision to jump on an SBS bus, which I can with a local bus. Are we losing the casual riders with unlimited cards on SBS routes who get out of the subway and keep walking instead of getting an SBS ticket? The M34 has spent basically the whole year with its stops constantly moving and being closed off. I’m sure some people who used to take it sometimes just don’t bother anymore. Speeding up the trips of infrequent buses doesn’t work for routes in Manhattan where people are taking relatively short trips. The best way to grow ridership on these routes would be to run more buses.

  • al

    Speed up the buses. Institute off board payment for all buses. Install transit priority on traffic lights, that can also green light emergency vehicles. Add HOV-Bus lanes on surface streets.

  • HamTech87

    Anyone have thoughts as to why bus ridership is declining?

  • Bolwerk

    A couple of possibilities….

    Some of it is probably that bus riders who leave the city aren’t being replaced by transplants who ride buses. The subway seems to be capturing the transplant crowd.

    The upward/flat trend from 1996 to 2007 correlates to the Metrocard introduction and urban revival in general.

    The decline now is slight, but it could also be partly explained by people still adjusting to the 2010 service cuts against the backdrop of a crappy economy. It can be hard to find a new job. It can be hard to move. Adjusting takes time.

  • sbauman

    Bike share.

    The % drop in Manhattan this last year leads all the other boroughs by far.

  • street_user

    I agree with Bolwerk. Changing demographics is a huge factor. I think we all know transplants who have never even boarded a bus. Also, I could see service cuts hitting buses harder than the subway. I can imagine riders taking fewer trips/changing modes if their bus route is cut. Most subway riders are still pretty dependent on it even if the service is worse.

  • ahwr

    Also, I could see service cuts hitting buses harder than the subway.

    Going by vehicle revenue miles, subway service in 2013 was down ~0.7% from 2008. NYCT bus service was down ~4.3%. Passenger miles were down ~2.5% on those buses, but up 8.67% on the subways.

    In 2008 the average bus speed was 7.77 mph. In 2013, summing bus, commuter bus, bus rapid transit (all reported together as bus in 2008) the speed fell to 7.53 mph. That might be meaningless though, if faster express buses were hit harder by service cuts than slower local buses.

    I know transplants that take buses. They don’t live near the subways. It might be helpful to look at where population growth has been.

  • Joe R.

    To some extent a lot of the bus ridership is captive, meaning people only take a bus in order to get to the subway. Furthermore, these combined bus-subway trips tend to be a bit more arduous and inconvenient than subway only trips. Perhaps the decline in bus ridership is due to people deciding not to take such trips at all as bus service to the subway became either less frequent, or more time-consuming due to congestion. Sure, this would also cause a decrease in subway trips, but combined bus-subway trips are a small portion of the total. An increase of subway only trips could more than compensate for it. The bottom line here is trips, especially optional trips, have a lower likelihood of being made if they’re slower.

    All this underscores what many here have said about buses. Make them fast and frequent are people won’t use them.

    Telecommuting may also explain part of the decline. If your commute to work is subway only and quick there would be less demand to telecommute. It would also be harder to justify to your boss. On the other hand, if your already arduous 1 hour each way bus-subway commute just got longer because of traffic congestion or less frequent bus service, both you and your boss might see the value in letting you telecommute at least some of the time. After all, employees who arrive at work tired/stressed out tend to not be very productive.

  • BSPABNY

    Definitely agree regarding M34 SBS. I used to take it occasionally, on bad weather days, etc. For the past few months, construction has been a deterrent. It will be interesting to see what happens to ridership once the stops are back in their permanent locations and all the improved sidewalk and street infrastructure is in place.

    I also agree that investments that speed up trips (off-board fare collection, exclusive lanes, signal priority, etc.) are more effective on longer routes, while investments that reduce wait times (more buses!) are better at boosting ridership on routes like the M34 that serve shorter trips. Theoretically, faster buses should mean each bus can make more trips per day, but I’m not sure if the modest travel time savings on the M34 will allow for more trips. In that case, all the benefits accrue to riders, and MTA has little incentive to spend more on increased service.

    I really can’t think of a good explanation for that large of a drop in M15 SBS riders. It would be great to see ridership broken down by segment to see if there’s a big difference north of Houston and south of Houston.

  • JamesR

    It’s simply an inferior product relative to rail of any kind (commuter rail or subway). That goes for both the local and express buses. We need a re-think of how buses can operate in this city – having spent the $6.50 to crawl from Riverdale to midtown on the BxM buses during rush hour on numerous occasions, what we have now isn’t working the way it needs to be. The locals buses are worse and the level of service is in no way befitting of a transit mode in a trendsetting alpha world city like New York. It’s gotten to the point that I’d rather walk from the uphill mile from the West 231st St 1 station rather than deal with the ongoing peak hour bus issues. And re: bus service late at night, forget it – you’re on your own.

  • Brian Howald

    It’d be handy if they broke out the M15 numbers for local and SBS. I think it’s worth looking into the possibility that SBS routes are experiencing greater than average fare evasion due to the sparse enforcement.

  • Larry Littlefield

    The long term trend has been down since 1970, with one exception.

    See that increase in bus ridership from 1996 to 2002 or so? That was when the introduction of the Metrocard made bus to subway transfers free with pay per ride cards (and all marginal trips free with the unlimited cards). Bus ridership increased for three reasons.

    1) People took the bus instead of walking for short trips, if the bus was there, because it was free. One could argue this was bad (less exercise).

    2) People could take a round trip for one fare, using the bus one way and subway the other. I’ve done this myself, many times.

    3) People could make a linked trip, getting off the subway at a stop other than their own and shopping/picking up kids followed by a bus ride, without an additional fare. I’ve done that too, many times.

    Indeed, the Metrocard was described as a way to “save the bus system.’

    So why has ridership been falling for 45 years, that blip aside?

    Safer, better and cleaner subways. In the bad old days many people, women in particular (and white women even more in particular), avoided the subway like the plague. And remember, the buses were air conditioned two decades before the trains.

    Biking, which competes directly with buses for trips of approximately the same distance.

    Taxis and car services. Ditto. I’ll bet their fare increases have lagged those of mass transit, albeit at the cost of turning into a job only immigrants will take. There are now 100,000 people registered as taxi and livery drivers, I’ve read here. That is a huge number.

    In fact, after work I’ll be heading for Costco to buy stuff for a food pantry tomorrow. After arriving by subway, I have a choice of getting home on two buses (an extra $2.75 and 45 minutes-plus) or car service (an extra $14 including tip and 20 minutes).

    Then tomorrow, I head for the food pantry. I can bus it ($2.75 each way or walk home) or bike it (free, but the stuff is unwieldy to carry).

    That is two trips with a choice of bus or not bus. I’d bet neither of those non-bus choices were common back in 1970.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I’m late to the party, but let me embellish my thought with two more anecdotes.

    My mother in law grew up in Flatbush, 1950s. She used to take the trolley to Coney Island. Why not just take the Brighton line, I asked? Well, they you had to go through turnstiles and up down stairs, while you could just hop on a trolley that came frequently and moved quickly given the lack of traffic at the time.

    In the 1970s a friend’s mother lived up the Upper West Side and worked on the East Side. She took the M104 Bus. Never ever used the subways. That’s bus was the lifeline to the East Side, where everyone went back then because Times Square was a mess. Which is why the M104 riders shouted down the 42nd Street light rail — the wanted to keep their bus to GCT.

    These are two reasons to take surface transit that no longer exist. The subway are safe, and buses are caught in traffic.

  • fuzdis

    This is easy. Lyft & Uber, bicycles & walking. People still have places to go, not like they’re sitting at home. The bus is just the least enjoyable way to do it.

  • Joe R.

    And unless we drastically reduce other types of motor traffic buses in NYC will probably never be able to offer a reasonable level of service. That’s why the entire idea of trying to use BRT instead of just biting the bullet and building more subways is destined to fail. Any way you slice it, buses are an inferior product to rail. No amount of fancy packaging or branding is going to change that simple fact. They cost more to operate, they’re usually much slower, they give a much lower ride quality, the vehicles don’t last as long in service, etc. If you try to make them more like rail by using full grade separation, you may as well just lay down tracks instead of asphalt and run trains because your costs aren’t much lower.

    And yes, I used to walk many a time from the subway to home and back instead of taking the local bus. This was 2.7 miles each way, but to me it wasn’t worth taking the bus to save a few minutes over walking (that’s how bad it was during rush hour) AND paying an extra fare for the privilege of doing so. When Metrocard eliminated double fare zones the calculus changed a bit, but there still might be times walking makes sense, like when you get out of the subway at 1 AM, just miss a bus, and the next one is in 30 minutes.

  • Charles

    I’m not interested in riding buses driven by people who think their jobs give them the right to kill me.

  • Bolwerk

    Rail wouldn’t be cheaper to operate for the kinds of things buses are good at doing though, at least not always. Or, more important than cost, subways can’t offer the kind of granular service offered by transit buses (though streetcars or surface rail in theory could).

    Our politicians are so pig ignorant of how proper transit is supposed to work that they even make that distinction, and conclude a bus lane is just as good as a subway. And for whatever reason, groups like ITDP have decided it’s more important to have vehicles they like – they don’t like rail for some reason – than to do what is in the best interest of riders.

  • Alex

    It could also have to do with income levels. People that ride the bus more often typically are from lower income areas that may be increasingly getting priced out by rising fares.

  • Alex

    So then you must never ride in taxies?

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