Understanding Ridership Trends in Transit

(Center Identification Number: 71811-00)

Principal Investigator:

Steve Polzin
University of South Florida
4202 E. Fowler Avenue, CUT 100
Tampa, Florida   33620
Phone: (813) 974-9849
Email: polzin@cutr.usf.edu

Project Scope:

The contributions of public transit and its financial sustainability are dependent on meeting the mobility needs of travelers. Softness in transit ridership trends in Florida and the United States for the past few years, in an era of growing population and overall travel, has raised questions about our understanding of ridership and our understanding of future trends and travelers’ needs. US total transit ridership declined 1.3% in calendar year 2015 and 2.3% in 2016 according to APTA. Year-to-date 2017 numbers from National Transit Data suggest the downward trend is accelerating.  Declines in Florida have been even greater.  Simultaneously, U.S. vehicle miles of roadway travel increased 3.5% and 2.8% respectively during those years according to FHWA and are running at +1.7% thru the first five months of 2017. Declining ridership hurts fare revenues – one component of financial support for transit operations and undermines support for additional public investment that could improve the quality of services offered to those who choose or are dependent on public transportation.

Challenges of growing ridership was addressed in the Planetizen blog, “Public Transportation Ridership: Three Steps Forward Two Steps Back” https://www.planetizen.com/node/85595/ when this trend first became apparent. Since that time several additional articles have appeared raising concerns about the dip in transit ridership, for example the August 2017 Wall Street Journal article with its ominous title   http://www.cetusnews.com/business/America%E2%80%99s-Buses-Lose-Riders–Imperiling-Their-Future.rJeeTFO3wb.html. The ridership challenge is becoming more pronounced and media and policymakers are taking note. There has been speculation as to causes but very little research that quantifies or disaggregates the hypothesized factors or looks at different market segments (urban area size, technology mode, service type, trip purpose, market segment, etc.). There also appears to be a fairly wide degree of variance in trends across urban areas and transit sub-modes that may shed insight as it relates to the impact of market characteristics, service quality, service supply and pricing, etc.  Frequent speculation cites declining fuel prices as a basis for explaining ridership trends. There are also hypotheses that Uber, Lyft and bikeshare maybe capturing some riders and/or shifts to work-at-home may be having an impact. Very little has been done to quantify changes in ridership relative to frequently acknowledged factors in demand (such as fares, service levels, service reliability, market area population, etc.) nor are we aware of any systematic assembly of anecdotal evidence from transit professionals and passengers.

Project Objectives

The objective of this research is to enhance our understanding of the various factors that are impacting ridership demand trends such that the transit industry can direct its resources in the most productive fashion and policy decision-making can be supported by a stronger foundation of knowledge on transit travel demand.  This knowledge can be the basis for discerning strategies for adapting such that mobility needs continue to be met in a resource efficient and market responsive fashion.

Project Kickoff Teleconference

The principal investigator will schedule a kickoff meeting that shall be held within the first 30 days of task work order execution.  The kickoff meeting will consist of a webinar at least 30 minutes in length.  The purpose of the meeting is to review the tasks, deliverables, deployment plan, timeline, and expected/anticipated project outcomes and their potential for implementation and benefits.  The principal investigator shall prepare a presentation following the template provided at http://www.fdot.gov/research/Program_Information/Research.Performance/kickoff.meeting.pdf

The project manager, principal investigator, and research performance coordinator shall attend.  Other parties may be invited, if appropriate.


Task 1: Literature Review

This task will review the literature in two specific areas to support the conduct of the study. First, materials that have explored ridership changes in recent years will be reviewed. Given the relative newness of the trend and the inherent timelines in terms of data availability to diagnose, published information is limited. However, some research, for example, “Transit Ridership in the United States, The Sky is not Falling but the Ground has Shifted[1]” is beginning to emerge and will be evaluated.

The second area of exploration will be a limited review of research regarding the relationship of transit ridership to various hypothesized explanatory variables. This will scan previous analyses and modeling efforts to identify both relationships and data sources that can guide data assembly and success regarding various analytic methods. Documented elasticities with respect to such things as fuel prices, parking prices, fare levels, service levels, etc. will be reviewed in the context of understanding what factors may have contributed to recent trends. This will include an attempt to identify any documentation of surveys or focus groups of users and first-line transit professionals that have addressed ridership considerations. Ridership response to bike sharing and transportation network company (TNC) services, and rider reactions to service reliability and safety are other areas that may offer some insight into ridership trends. The literature might provide insight into successful data collection methods and processes for qualitative aspects of ridership change analysis.

[1] Robert Babbitt, April 11, 2017

Deliverables: Annotated Bibliography.  Upon completion of Task 1, the University will submit to the Research Center at research.center@dot.state.fl.us an annotated bibliography of relevant research in memorandum form.

Task 2: Assess and Assemble Data for Descriptive Analysis

This task will assess the available data sources and assemble data for analysis. This will include using National Transit Database (NTD), American Community Survey data (ACS), and numerous other data sources such as those dealing with fuel prices, economic activity, poverty levels, vehicle registration levels, licensure levels, presence of TNC services, etc. Data will be assembled for Florida Metropolitan areas, select Metropolitan areas from other locations considered peers, and, where possible, national average data. Attention will be paid to geographic and temporal consistency of data, data quality and currency.

This task will also seek to determine if any properties have continuous or high-frequency onboard surveys such that trend analysis relative to recent changes in ridership could be partially analyzed via comparisons of changes in travel or traveler characteristics. This analysis will look at characteristics pre-recession, during the recession, and during the recovery subject to data availability.

Deliverables:  Summary of Data Sources and Availability.  Upon completion of Task 2, the University will submit to the Research Center at research.center@dot.state.fl.us a detailed report of data availability and sources.

Task 3: Industry Engagement

This task will establish a communication channel with Florida public transportation stakeholders. Utilizing the Florida public transportation operations network and CUTR and FDOT relationships, contact information will be assembled for Florida transit agencies and select other interested stakeholders. This group of individuals will be receiving communication in various points throughout the study. An initial communication will advise them as to the study’s scope and schedule. A second communication will provide descriptive information on ridership trends in Florida and the nation. Subsequent interactions will be based on feedback on stakeholder interests but will at a minimum include dissemination of draft and final reports and a webinar on project findings.

Deliverables:  Stakeholder communication.  Upon completion of Task 3, the University will submit to the Research Center at research.center@dot.state.fl.us a memorandum detailing stakeholder interactions.  This will include a membership list, log of communications, a summary of materials shared and feedback and an appendix of all outgoing communications/materials.

Task 4: Descriptive Data Analysis

This task will carry out a comprehensive descriptive data analysis of the assembled data. It will look at variations in conditions across properties and evaluate data trends and correlations. Regression analyses may be carried out to discern contributory factors. Various tabular and graphical materials will be produced to help refine the analysis and ultimately communicate the results. It is envisioned that this descriptive analysis will produce some findings as well as some hypotheses requiring additional analysis through other means. An interim project status report documenting the initial three tasks will be provided.

Deliverables: Descriptive Analysis.  Upon completion of Task 4, the University will submit to the Research Center at research.center@dot.state.fl.us a descriptive analysis of transit ridership trends and interrelationships with other demographic and economic factors.

Task 5: Qualitative Analysis of Ridership Trends

This effort will first carryout a comprehensive descriptive analysis of ridership trends relative to other market characteristics like service type and supply, fare levels, employment growth, auto availability, etc. Based on the results of the descriptive analysis additional efforts will be focused on developing and testing resulting hypotheses regarding the causal factors. This further analysis may include regression analysis, focus groups or case studies depending on the results of the descriptive analysis. Possible implications of the current trends going forward include impacts on service planning and investment priorities, impacts on longer-range modeling and forecasting, and impacts on public attitudes towards public transit investment. The research results should also provide information helpful to transportation planning professionals in understanding current market behaviors such that plans, policies, and investments can be tailored to reflect current and emerging behaviors.

Deliverables:  Qualitative Analysis of Ridership Trends.   Upon completion of Task 5, the University will submit to the Research Center at research.center@dot.state.fl.us a technical memorandum addressing qualitative analysis of ridership trends. This document will subsequently comprise a component of the final report.

Task 6: Interpretation and Implications

This task will focus on interpreting the implications of the findings. This will include assessing changes that might reverse recent trends and strengthen ridership. This could include identifying strong markets, service concepts, or context conditions where transit is performing relatively better. A greater understanding of causal factors related to ridership trends can enhance the ability to forecast transit ridership in response to changes in economic and other conditions and potentially in response to transit service specification. In addition, the implications will be discussed in strategic terms as it relates to positioning public transportation for a productive and sustainable role in providing mobility and enhancing quality of life in the context of changing technology, demographic and economic considerations.

Deliverables:  Implications and Strategic Response. Upon completion of Task 6, the University will submit to the Research Center at research.center@dot.state.fl.us  a technical memorandum addressing the implications and industry strategic response to ridership trends. This document will subsequently comprise a component of the final report.

Task 7: Draft Final and Closeout Teleconference

Task 7A Deliverable:  Ninety (90) days prior to the end date of the task work order, the university will submit a draft final report to research.center@dot.state.fl.us

The draft final report will contain a comprehensive report that documents activities carried out during the research and describes the findings of the various tasks as well as the implications and possible subsequent actions for various parties (transit service planners, transit marketing professionals, policy makers, administrative agencies, etc.) to respond to the findings.  The draft final report will contain documentation of the findings of the analysis carried out throughout the project.

The draft final and final reports will follow the Guidelines for University Presentation and Publication of Research available at http://www.fdot.gov/research/docs/T2/University.Guidelines.2016.pdf

The report will be well-written and edited for technical accuracy, grammar, clarity, organization, and format. Complementary presentation materials for webinar/seminar delivery will also be provided.

Task 7B Deliverable: Thirty (30) days prior to the end date of the task work order, the principal investigator will schedule a closeout teleconference.  The principal investigator shall prepare a PowerPoint presentation following the template provided at http://www.fdot.gov/research/Program_Information/Research.Performance/closeout.meeting.reqs.pdf

At a minimum, the principal investigator, project manager, and research performance coordinator shall attend.  The purpose of the meeting is to review project performance, the deployment plan, and next steps.

Task 8: Final Report

Deliverable:  Upon Department approval of the draft final report, the university will submit the Final Report in PDF and Word formats electronically to the Research Center at research.center@dot.state.fl.us.  The final report is due by the end date of the task work order.

Designated Personnel

Dr. Steve Polzin

Dr. Xeuhao Chu

Jodi Godfrey

CUTR Faculty TBD

Administrative Support

Student Support

Project Schedule

The total performance period for this project is 12 months.


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