Bus riders continued bailing on SEPTA in 2018, bringing it to its worst ridership numbers in nearly 20 years.
SEPTA has lost riders for four straight years — almost entirely from buses, the most recent data from the Federal Transit Administration showed. The transit agency lost 14 million bus trips from 2017 to 2018, the data showed, an 8 percent decline.
Of the 308.5 million trips on SEPTA last year, roughly half were provided by a bus. That bus rider count, 155 million trips, is the lowest SEPTA has reported since 2002, the earliest year covered by the federal database, and is the worst overall ridership across all of SEPTA’s modes since 2003. That decline has come even as Philadelphia has grown by about 82,000 people, as of 2017. Regional Rail and subways both reported modest ridership gains in 2018, but not nearly enough to offset bus losses.
The federal data are based on preliminary counts, and 2018′s ridership numbers may improve as SEPTA gathers more accurate information, but the downward trend is likely to hold.
“It’s troubling,” said Christopher Puchalsky, director of policy and strategic initiatives for the city’s transportation office, which has been central to an effort to revitalize bus service. “We’re not looking to lose ridership. We’re not even looking to tread water here.”
Getting riders back onto buses would help the city, he said, by reducing congestion and air pollution, and providing better access to jobs for the city’s poorer neighborhoods.
SEPTA has brought in $6.3 million less in fare revenue so far than it had budgeted in the current fiscal year, which began in July. SEPTA relies on passenger revenue to provide almost a third of its nearly $1.5 billion operating budget. Much of the rest comes from state subsidies.
SEPTA has promised a bus network redesign to provide faster and more reliable service, but it will be years before it happens. SEPTA anticipated issuing a request for proposals this spring to find a design firm to handle the two- to three-year task, said Richard Burnfield, SEPTA’s treasurer and deputy general manager.
“The longer you wait, the more people leave the system,” said Steven Higashide, director of research for TransitCenter, a New York City-based philanthropy focused on transit issues.
>>READ MORE: SEPTA gives its bus network map an upgrade
Transit agencies in Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago, and Boston all reported declining bus ridership, though none lost as large a portion of riders as SEPTA. Factors like cheaper gas, easy-to-obtain car loans, and the popularity of ride-sharing services have all played a role in eating away at bus ridership. TransitCenter found that people driving their own cars may be the most significant cause of reduced bus ridership.
“One of the messages that city decision-makers really need to hear is that although services like Uber and Lyft are still very new, it is still private vehicles that are the primary competitor for transit,” Higashide said.
Cities that have bucked that trend are often those that have reinvented their bus networks. Houston, for example, saw a 1.2 percent increase in bus ridership last year. The redesign there sought to better coordinate bus service with light-rail service, and though in the three years since the redesign bus ridership growth has been modest, overall transit ridership has grown by 5 million trips.
“What we did by focusing on frequency, off-peak service ... that’s really something riders want, and they’re showing it by riding,” said Christof Spieler, who had been on the board of the Harris County Metropolitan Transit Authority, based in Houston.
SEPTA is pushing back against the ridership drain, Burnfield said.
Last month it launched a new north-south bus route, Route 49, that is already reporting 1,600 riders a day, he said. A direct bus on Roosevelt Boulevard introduced in fall 2017 led to a 5.5 percent ridership increase in 2018. SEPTA is also introducing a new bus map that highlights its highest frequency routes. The city, meanwhile, has installed 215 new bus shelters, with plans for 400 more.
SEPTA is quick to note it is on pace for a $9 million surplus for the current fiscal year, Burnfield said, and generally overall revenue has held steady even as bus ridership has declined, meaning the lost riders have yet to cause service reductions. But SEPTA is not projecting fare revenue growth in the coming fiscal year for the first time in years.
In Philadelphia, street congestion has made bus service slower and later. SEPTA has been advised to eliminate transfer fees to boost ridership, but it will be another year before SEPTA decides its transfer fee policy.
The city is interested in creating dedicated bus lanes that would give buses clear travel paths, but the two that exist on Chestnut and Market Streets suffer from spotty enforcement, and creating a third on the Boulevard could take years.
Riders, meanwhile, complain about daily frustrations that drive people away from buses, including trips canceled due to drivers not coming to work and problems with SEPTA Key, which currently doesn’t offer a family card. Parents must buy a Key card, at a cost of nearly $10 each, for every child older than 4.
“That means a family of four has to spend $40 just to be able to have the funds to go,” said Tomika Anglin, a regular bus rider who has advocated for better transit. “It’s cheaper and more efficient to get into an Uber when you are a family traveling.”
SEPTA has plans to provide a family card but didn’t say when that would be available.