Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California
Cover page of Transit Blues in the Golden State: Analyzing Recent California Ridership Trends

Transit Blues in the Golden State: Analyzing Recent California Ridership Trends


Transit patronage plunged staggeringly, from 50 to as much as 94 percent, during the first half of 2020 amidst the worst global pandemic in a century. But transit’s troubles in California date much earlier. From 2014 to 2018, California lost over 165 million annual boardings, a drop of over 11 percent. This report examines public transit in California in the 2010s and the factors behind its falling ridership.

We find that ridership gains and losses have been asymmetric with respect to location, operators, modes, and transit users. Transit ridership has been on a longer-term decline in regions like Greater Los Angeles and on buses, while ridership losses in the Bay Area are more recent. While overall transit boardings across the state are down since 2014, worrisome underlying trends date back earlier as patronage failed to keep up with population growth. But reduced transit service is not responsible for ridership losses, as falling transit ridership occurred at the same time as operators instead increased their levels of transit service.

What factors help to explain losses in transit ridership? Increased access to automobiles explains much, if not most, of declining transit use. Private vehicle access has increased significantly in California and, outside of the Bay Area, is likely the biggest single cause of falling transit ridership. Additionally, new ridehail services such as Lyft and Uber allow travelers to purchase automobility one trip at a time and likely serve as a substitute for at least some transit trips. Finally, neighborhoods are changing in ways that do not bode well for public transit. Households are increasingly locating in outlying areas where they experience longer commutes and less transit access to employment. At the same time, a smaller share of high-propensity transit users now live in the state’s most transit-friendly neighborhoods.

While the 2010s proved a difficult decade for public transit in California, and the opening of the current decade has been an even bigger challenge, transit remains an essential public service. Effectively managing transit recovery in California will require a clear-eyed understanding of the substantially altered environment within which these systems large and small must now operate.

Cover page of Research Synthesis for the California Zero Traffic Fatalities Task Force

Research Synthesis for the California Zero Traffic Fatalities Task Force


This research synthesis consists of a set of white papers that jointly provide a review of research on the current practicefor setting speed limits and future opportunities to improve roadway safety. This synthesis was developed to inform thework of the Zero Traffic Fatalities Task Force, which was formed in 2019 by the California State Transportation Agencyin response to California Assembly Bill 2363 (Friedman). The statutory goal of the Task Force is to develop a structured,coordinated process for early engagement of all parties to develop policies to reduce traffic fatalities to zero. Thisreport addresses the following critical issues related to the work of the Task Force: (i) the relationship between trafficspeed and safety; (ii) lack of empirical justification for continuing to use the 85th percentile rule; (iii) why we need toreconsider current speed limit setting practices; (iv) promising alternatives to current methods of setting speed limits;and (v) improving road designs to increase road user safety.

Cover page of What’s Behind Recent Transit Ridership Trends in the Bay Area? Volume I: Overview and Analysis of Underlying Factors

What’s Behind Recent Transit Ridership Trends in the Bay Area? Volume I: Overview and Analysis of Underlying Factors


Public transit ridership has been falling nationally and in California since 2014. The San Francisco Bay Area, with the state’s highest rates of transit use, had until recently resisted those trends, especially compared to Greater Los Angeles. However, in 2017 and 2018 the region lost over five percent (>27 million) of its annual riders, despite a booming economy and service increases. This report examines Bay Area transit ridership to understand the dimensions of changing transit use, its possible causes, and potential solutions. We find that: 1) the steepest ridership losses have come on buses, at off-peak times, on weekends, in non-commute directions, on outlying lines, and on operators that do not serve the region’s core employment clusters; 2) transit trips in the region are increasingly commute-focused, particularly into and out of downtown San Francisco; 3) transit commuters are increasingly non-traditional transit users, such as those with higher incomes and automobile access; 4) the growing job-housing imbalance in the Bay Area is related to rising housing costs and likely depressing transit ridership as more residents live less transit-friendly parts of the region; and 5) ridehail is substituting for some transit trips, particularly in the off-peak. Arresting falling transit use will likely require action both by transit operators (to address peak capacity constraints; improve off-peak service; ease fare payments; adopt fare structures that attract off-peak riders; and better integrate transit with new mobility options) and public policymakers in other realms (to better meter and manage private vehicle use and to increase the supply and affordability of housing near job centers).

Cover page of Automatic Generation of School Bus Routes in Los Angeles

Automatic Generation of School Bus Routes in Los Angeles


The goal of our project is to automatically generate school bus routes for the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). We examined four algorithms, including two from the existing literature and two new ones that we developed. A major focus of our work was the construction of “mixed-load routes,” which transport students from multiple schools. Based on our measurements (whose imperfections we discuss), three of the four algorithms perform at least as well as the existing route plan, and one of those three performs better than the existing route plan. We also delivered a user-friendly routing program to LAUSD that uses one of these algorithms, and we have made our software publicly available. Our insights and results are also applicable to other school districts that permit mixed-load routing.

Cover page of What’s Behind Recent Transit Ridership Trends in the Bay Area?Volume II: Trends among Major Transit Operators

What’s Behind Recent Transit Ridership Trends in the Bay Area?Volume II: Trends among Major Transit Operators


Transit ridership in the San Francisco Bay Area is falling. Yet some operators, areas, times, directions, routes, modes, and services have fared better than others. These differences help reveal the causes of the Bay Area’s overall ridership slump and inform policy and service decisions that aim to restore Bay Area transit use. To investigate these temporal and spatial trends, we analyze ridership on the eight largest Bay Area transit operators in considerable detail in Volume II of our report.

Overall, we find a significant level of “peaking.” Ridership losses at off-peak hours, on weekends, on outlying routes, in non-commute directions, and on smaller operators account for a large and disproportionate share of the whole region’s patronage decline. Downtown San Francisco and commute-oriented rail lines like Caltrain have gained ridership as less central, lower-service routes have lost patronage. These patterns match our statistical modeling of BART ridership, on which station-area jobs had the greatest influence, one that has grown over time. The most significant exceptions to the Bay Area’s peaking problem are operators in urban cores, like Muni and AC Transit, where residential and employment density throughout the network have blunted peaking, though not necessarily overall losses.

Absolute patronage declines and peaking are intertwined but distinct problems, with cross-cutting divisions. Yet on all agencies, we see at least some evidence of peaking. The resulting dependence on peak trips both incurs high costs and depresses passenger satisfaction.

Cover page of An Assessment of Performance Measures in the Transportation Development Act

An Assessment of Performance Measures in the Transportation Development Act


"This report examines the performance measures requirements in California’s Transportation Development Act (TDA) of 1971. The TDA is an important source of funding for the state’s public transit agencies, representing approximately 18 percent of their total (2018) revenue between the TDA’s two funds (LTF and STA). Since the TDA’s passage in 1971, the transit operating environment in California has changed, in some cases dramatically. The state has nearly doubled in population (20.4 million in 1971 to 39.8 million in 2019), traffic has worsened considerably, climate change is now a central public policy focus, and many places around the state are investing heavily in making public transit a viable alternative to driving. Our research examined the TDA’s performance requirements and their effects on the state’s transit operators. We also considered alternative approaches to both transit finance and performance requirements, by studying transit funding programs in 13 other states that invest significant amounts of funding in transit. In brief, we find that the TDA’s use of performance measurements to allocate funding is unusual. The states we studied do not for the most part make funding contingent on performance, thereby avoiding the unproductive and difficult-to-implement “death penalty” (Taylor, 1995) of withholding subsidies for a much-needed public service. In several of the cases analyzed, by contrast, states guarantee specific levels or amounts of funding for transit service.

To examine how the TDA’s performance measures are working, we conducted a survey of California transit professionals at agencies and at Regional Transportation Planning Agencies (RTPAs). That California’s aspirations for transit have evolved over the years is reflected in the frequent loopholes and exemptions the legislature has added to the TDA to give struggling operators more latitude to receive funding in order to meet multiple goals and objectives while staying in compliance with a single cost-effectiveness goal. The extent and frequency with which these exemptions have occurred suggests that the larger aims for public transit, and indeed the goals for the TDA program itself, have evolved, and need to be re-thought holistically, rather than incrementally.

Accordingly we offer six recommendations concerning transit performance assessment in the TDA."