Mass Transit Ridership Is Falling in Southern California, Study Finds

Published March 21, 2018

Mass transit use in six southern California counties declined significantly during the past decade, according to a new study by researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) Institute of Transportation Studies (ITS).

Researchers found train and bus ridership in southern California declined by as much as 15 percent in the past five years alone.

The Southern California Association of Governments, which includes the governments of Imperial, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, and Ventura, had requested ITS undertake the research. 

Moving to Cars

The study found several factors contributed to the decline in transit use, including erosion of transit service quality, rising transit fares, falling fuel prices, the growth of ridesharing services such as Lyft and Uber, and the migration of frequent transit users to outlying areas with less transit service.

The most important reason for the decline of transit ridership was increased use of private vehicles, particularly among low-income households, which have traditionally been the region’s core transit users, the study found.

Southern California added approximately 2.3 million people between 2000 and 2015, and about 2.1 million vehicles, an average of 0.95 vehicles per new resident, the researchers found. From 1990 to 2000, 1.8 million people moved into the region, and only 456,000 vehicles were added, approximately 0.25 vehicles per new resident.

The authors conclude the most important factor influencing whether someone uses mass transit is access to a car or other private vehicle.

Tax Money Diversion

Kerry Jackson, a fellow of the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute, says policymakers continue to divert fuel tax dollars from roads to transit despite the decline in ridership.

“The Institute for Energy Research said a few years ago Washington was spending 16 percent of federal gasoline tax revenue on mass transit,” Jackson said. “I don’t think many people are aware of this. If they were, you can bet they’d be upset.

“Meanwhile, at the state level, California’s fuel prices have spiked in recent months due to a fuel tax hike to raise $52 billion to repair the roads,” said Jackson.

‘Freedom and Independence’

Jackson says the UCLA study provides more evidence gas taxes are being misspent and most people prefer to drive their own cars.

“If ridership numbers continue declining, state and local governments and transit authorities are going to find it harder and harder to justify spending taxpayers’ dollars on transit,” said Jackson. “Transit ridership numbers don’t look like they are likely to improve soon.

“Many factors are contributing to people increasingly choosing private vehicles as they travel, and this trend will continue to grow as long as policymakers stay out of the way and stop trying to use public policy to manipulate people’s behavior,” Jackson said. “The bottom line is cars provide low-income residents with freedom and independence they otherwise wouldn’t have, and they open up more economic opportunities for them as well.”

Kenneth Artz ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.


Michael Manville et al., “Falling Transit Ridership: California and Southern California,” UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies, January 2018: