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SEPTA lost millions of bus trips last year, feds say. Proposed solutions are in the works

A federal report offers another reminder that Philadelphia is bleeding bus riders. Another report, commissioned by SEPTA and due out this spring, may spur big changes.

Commuters load a bus for the West Chester University at the 69th Street terminal.
Commuters load a bus for the West Chester University at the 69th Street terminal.Read moreClem Murray

Bus ridership in Philadelphia dropped 10 percent in the last year, recent federal data show, a loss that represents one of the biggest drops in the country.

The report from the Federal Transit Administration comes as SEPTA finishes up a nearly yearlong review of the existing network. The FTA gathers month-to-month ridership information from public transportation agencies nationwide.

SEPTA buses, the city's trackless trolleys included, provided more than 159 million trips in 2017, according to the data. That's 18 million fewer trips than the year before.

"It's down pretty much across the country; it's not an outlier in that regard," said Colin Wright, an advocacy associate with TransitCenter, a New York City philanthropic foundation that supports research and advocacy for transit reform.

Philadelphia's ridership drop, though, was worse than most. Nationally, bus ridership on public transit declined about 4.7 percent from 2016 to 2017, the federal data show.

"Ten percent on bus is precipitous in anybody's book," Wright said.

The numbers aren't a total surprise to SEPTA officials, who have been discussing how to respond to a trend of vanishing bus riders since 2015.

"Any time you have a revenue loss, it's something you have to look at very carefully," said Rich Burnfield, SEPTA's deputy general manager and treasurer.

In 2017, SEPTA hired a consulting firm headed by nationally known transit expert Jarrett Walker to review the existing bus network as a prelude to making changes. Walker's review is expected to be complete this spring, Burnfield said.

Even with a rough 2017, SEPTA is actually holding steadier than many comparable transit agencies over the long term. Philadelphia's 3.7 percent bus ridership loss over 10 years was much better than the national average, and better than New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

Increased traffic congestion, the rise of ride-hailing companies, cheap gas, and telecommuting have all played a role, SEPTA officials said. But the losses have been largely seen in off-peak hours and weekends, when SEPTA cuts back on the frequency of its service. In part due to traffic congestion, bus service is slow and sometimes unreliable. On-time rates for buses vary widely among routes, but some are late as often as 30 percent of the time.

SEPTA officials noted that the National Transit Database uses random sampling to gather data, which means if the sampled route is poorly performing, or a random day chosen when ridership was unusually low, the data may skew low. The database also counts transfers as separate trips, which SEPTA does not.

SEPTA's internal review of ridership, which is based on revenue, showed a 3 percent decline in ridership from 2016 to 2017, Burnfield said. A fare increase in 2017, a weeklong city transit workers' strike in 2016, and equipment failures on the Market-Frankford Line last year all should be taken into account when reviewing a year-to-year comparison, SEPTA officials said.

Still, the federal data are used to determine where funding should go across the country, and they offer an apples-to-apples comparison with other major metropolitan transit agencies. Across the board, Philadelphia showed more public transit losses than other large cities. Consider SEPTA's ridership losses on buses:

  1. Ridership declines on SEPTA are almost twice as large as the losses for New York City's MTA and Washington's transit authority.

  2. They are three times worse than Chicago's CTA.

  3. They are five times worse than Boston's MBTA.

  4. Ridership on SEPTA buses is about 3 percent lower than it was in 2002, the oldest data available on the federal database.

Philadelphia's subways had almost 7 percent fewer riders in 2017 than the year prior and almost 4 percent fewer trolley riders. Commuter rail nationally saw a decline, though not as significant as SEPTA's, and streetcar ridership saw a slight increase nationally last year.

The best news for SEPTA in 2017 came from Regional Rail ridership, which was essentially flat from 2016 to 2017 and has increased slightly since 2007.

New Jersey Transit, which provides bus service between Philadelphia and South Jersey, lost 7 percent of its riders from 2016 to 2017 and a whopping 34 percent of its riders since 2007. In 2015, NJ Transit cut back on service between South Jersey and Philadelphia.

With bus ridership trending downward over the last decade, transportation agencies have been seeking ways to attract customers. In Seattle, the King County Department of Transportation invested almost $100 million in transit operations from 2014 to 2017, spending the money on buses and drivers, the agency reported. The agency focused on increasing the frequency of bus service in its neighborhoods outside the city core. It reported a slight increase in bus ridership in 2017 and a 10 percent increase since 2007.

In Houston, a radical redesign of the bus network, supervised by Walker, was planned to improve links between bus service and light rail in the city. Bus ridership on Harris County Metropolitan Transit Authority in 2017 was flat compared with the year before, according to the federal data, but light-rail ridership increased 3 percent.

Houston's experience may have inspired SEPTA, but it probably won't be exactly replicated here, Burnfield said. Unlike Houston, Philadelphia has a fairly well-designed grid served by bus, he said.

"We already have in place a network that has comprehensive, good coverage and is already very frequent," he said.

It will likely take two to three years after Walker's report is finished for SEPTA to enact a bus network redesign, Burnfield said, but the agency may focus on increasing frequency in off-peak hours and weekends and speeding service, he said. In the short term, SEPTA and transportation officials from the city are meeting to discuss the possibility of creating express bus service elsewhere in the city that mirrors what was done on Roosevelt Boulevard last year. An eight-stop express bus on that busy road was created in October with a schedule that promises a bus every 10 minutes on peak hours. Ridership along that route has increased by 14 percent over the 12,000 riders who had been using the local service on the same route, Burnfield said.

SEPTA is also waiting for 525 new buses that are being delivered in batches through 2021 at a cost of $415 million.