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Bus ridership falls as population grows
TriMet anticipates that increasing apartment construction along busy streets will help it regain the bus ridership it has lost during the past decade.
"We're finally seeing the density that the region's land use planning has predicted," says TriMet public affairs director Bernie Bottomly. "The people moving into the new apartments drive less and take transit more than previous residents."
When Bottomly presented a ridership analysis to the regional transit agency's board of directors on Sept. 27, he said overall ridership has been relatively flat over the past 10 or so years. But Bottomly also said that was because increases in MAX ridership had offset decreases in bus ridership caused primarily by changes in where people live and work within the region.
But overall ridership has actually fallen significantly compared to population increases within TriMet's service district.
Between 2005 and 2016, the population in the urbanized tri-county area served by TriMet has increased 25 percent, from 1.25 million to 1.56 million people. But the number of annual boardings has increased only 5 percent, from 96.8 million to 101.5 million — which is 20 points less than the population increase.
Largely because TriMet opened three new MAX lines during that time, light rail ridership has kept pace with the population increase. It jumped from 31.9 million boardings in 2005 to 40 million boardings in 2016, a 25 percent increase.
But bus ridership has fallen from 63.9 million boardings in 2005 to 60 million boardings in 2016, a 6 percent drop.
As Bottomly explained to the TriMet board, much of the decrease in bus ridership is explained by gentrification in inner Portland neighborhoods. Lower-income residents who took buses for many trips have been replaced by higher-income residents who use the bus only to commute to work. Many of the displaced residents have moved to East Portland, Gresham and parts of Clackamas County where bus service is limited, Bottomly said.
In addition, interviewed after the meeting by the Portland Tribune, Bottomly also noted that since the Great Recession ended, much of the new housing built outside the city is not well served by buses, either. They include new residential developments in Happy Valley, Wilsonville and rural Washington County.
"Where some of the growth has happened has been remote and on the edges," Bottomly said.
Apartment construction along high-capacity transit corridors in Portland is continuing, however, including streets with current frequent bus service or where frequent bus service is being considered. The Comprehensive Plan update approved by the City Council last year envisions that Portland will add 123,000 more households by 2035, with 80 percent of them either in the Central City or designated centers served by buses.
Bottomly points to Division Street as an example of where bus service will increase to serve added density. TriMet is planning its first Bus Transit Line on Division between Portland and Gresham. It will rely on larger capacity articulated buses to serve even more people living in new apartments encouraged by the project.
Major new residential developments in Washington County could outstrip potential ridership gains, however. Tens of thousands of new homes are planned or under construction in South Hillsboro and the South Cooper Mountain area of Beaverton, two locations not fully served by transit.
Overall TriMet ridership has fluctuated in recent years. Boardings fell from a record 103 million in 2012 to 99.8 million in 2014, the year after Boring withdrew from the service district. They rebounded to 101.7 million in 2015, then fell slightly to 101.5 million in 2016. They fell again to 98.9 million boardings in the 2017 fiscal, with bus boarding dropping 3.8 percent and and MAX boardings down .75 percent.
TriMet isn't the only transit agency where ridership is down compared to population. In fact, overall ridership is down on most systems in the country.
According to an analysis of data from the American Public Transportation Association by the Eno Center for Transportation, from 2014 to 2016, all but seven of the country's largest urban systems lost riders. For the nation as a whole, ridership declined by 4.5 percent.
As with TriMet, these decreases are coming at a time when the population of the country has increased by 4.5 million people. Most of this growth is occurring in major cities and metropolitan areas.
Commonly cited reasons include continuing low gas prices that are encouraging driving and service problems in older systems with aging infrastructures.