Subway up, bus down, but why?

The following fact is making heads spin at the MTA’s headquarters: there were 1.6 billion subway and 696 million bus rides in 2010. Those numbers seem pretty high, and they are. However, a chronology of public transport ridership in New York City reveals something interesting. Compared to 2009, subway ridership is up 1.5% to the second-highest total in history, trailing only 1950, but bus ridership is actually down 1.7%. Even after the introduction of the dreaded triple-digit monthly MetroCard and a slew of service consolidations and cuts, more people are using the subway (or exploiting their unlimited cards, or both), yet they’re shunning the bus. Since these numbers are contradictory to what is otherwise common sense, the MTA is confused, as is the rest of the city.

To explain this phenomenon, they’ve proposed a number of theories ranging from socio-economic problems to eliminating redundancy, going as far as to say increased congestion is slowing down buses too much. Unfortunately, none of these come close to explaining the figures presented here. Thus, I would like to propose one: it is a combination of all of these plus changing land use patterns. A bit more digging into the archives of station ridership shows some interesting trends. In regards to land use, the outer boroughs show more increased ridership per station than those in Manhattan. In particular the concept of corridor development appeals to me and seems to add insight into this counter-intuitive pattern.

The example that I’d like to use is Williamsburg, in this case North Williamsburg. Perhaps the oddest neighborhood I can think of in New York City, Wiliamsburg is experiencing growth and gentrification on a scale not seen since the Village. The L is now reviled amongst residents for its high hipster usage, while rents continue to increase steadily across the East River, pushing people further east into what used to be dangerous and untouched areas. This is evidenced in annual entries at many of the stops on the L.

  • Bedford Avenue: 7.418m (up 9.7%)
  • Lorimer Street: 4.394m (up 2.8%, includes G riders)
  • Graham Avenue: 3.029m (up 11.4%)
  • Grand Street: 2.104m (up 6.2%)
  • Montrose Avenue: 1.501m ( up 13.5%)
  • Morgan Avenue: 2.021m (up 20%)

These increases are rarely seen at any other stations, let alone in such succession. While the MTA believes that bus and subway ridership are intrinsically linked, I think that in some cases this may not be true. Instead, we should account for the fact that the city has increased in population by almost 200,000 according to the Census Bureau (but let’s not get into the recount saga), and many of those transplants are oblivious to the inner workings of the bus system, instead looking for relatively affordable housing in trendy areas with subway access. To them, Williamsburg is priced well and close enough to Manhattan to be considered convenient. In this way, continued development has increased ridership by dispersing population.

The MTA uses the cancellation of the B39, essentially the J/(M)/Z in bus form, as an explanation for more subway trips. At the same time, ridership on the Jamaica Line, which runs across the Williamsburg Bridge, has grown at a slightly lower rate than that of the L, essentially mirroring growth taking place in South Williamsburg. Increased ridership can also be attributed to the re-routing of the M via the Sixth Avenue Line, making it more desirable and useful.

  • Marcy Avenue: 3.276m (up 8.9%)
  • Hewes Street: .786m (up 5.5%)
  • Lorimer Street: 1.405m (up 1.8%)
  • Flushing Avenue: 2.611m (up 5.6%)
  • Myrtle Avenue: 2.992m (up 8.9%)

Finally, ridership at Manhattan stations has not grown much, further validating the theory that dispersion of population due to gentrification and the search for affordable housing, as well as fitting more residents into the city. Times Square is up only .6%, while some important interchange in Midtown and Lower Manhattan have actually lost riders, such as Grand Central, Lexington Avenue-53/51, and Fulton Street.

Perhaps there is no clear reason why such a pattern emerged, but I would like to think that a number of factors at play, but that bus service changes only play a small part, and rather the economy has changed where businesses and residents are located as well as development patterns.

2 Responses to “Subway up, bus down, but why?”
  1. ajedrez says:

    On Second Avenue Sagas, somebody mentions that bus ridership didn’t actually decline that much after the service reductions: It was later on in the year where the ridership declined.

    I think part of it was that, after the service reductions, people who were accustomed to taking buses decided to try out other bus routes: For example, riders on the B2 on the weekends could’ve tried taking the B100. However, they may have seen that, for one reason or another, those alternate routes were more unreliable, and they could’ve decided to simply walk or take the subway if it was available.

    I think another thing could’ve been people who normally take 2 bus routes, but because one route was eliminated, they have either decided to take only 1 bus, or they have decided to use a different way of making the trip (subway, walking, or forgoing the trip altogether). Admittedly, some of this could be offset by riders who have to make additional transfers because of routes that were eliminated.

  2. Alon Levy says:

    My explanation is more general: bad service will see ridership continuously decline as people get richer and can afford to buy a car. It explains how American cities that kept their bus systems saw declines in transit ridership in the last few decades, with only a recent uptick, whereas those that built light rail (such as Portland) stopped the bleeding in the 1980s and have maintained a less awful transit mode share.

    Ridership at the Midtown stations is very sensitive to the economy. 51st-53rd/Lex got pummeled by the recession. Better control stations in Manhattan would be those that are used for more than just finance work trips; Times Square is one, but you should also check the Uptown stations.

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