"Transit ridership fell in 31 of 35 major metropolitan areas in the United States last year..."

Bus ridership in Washington, DC has been in decline since 2013, but do we know why?

By JohnMark Fisher

August 2018


The goal of this website is not to firmly conclude why bus ridership is decreasing, but to present Washington, DC specific data in an easily digestible manner on factors widely regarded as possible reasons this is happening.

The hope is that you, the reader, can take in this information and derive your own theories while reflecting on whether these are trends you have observed in your community over the same period.

Over the next two infographics, you may hover your mouse over any bar (excluding "Traffic") to derive the actual figures for that year.



Perhaps population has decreased?

Nope, but that is a good guess! If population is dwindling, it would make sense that fewer people would be around to fill the buses. However, population in DC has steadily risen since 2006 and Mayor Muriel Bowser is excited about the District potentially topping 700,000 residents in 2018.

Automobile Registration

Have Washingtonians decided to buy a car and drive themselves?

Perhaps... Since 2014, the percentage growth of automobile registrations has outpaced population change. However, one could make the argument that this is due in part to the negative trend in gas prices in the Central Atlantic region (and the U.S. in general) over this same period of time.


The number of cars on the road is outpacing population, surely this must be reflected in the traffic counts?

Unlike population and automobile registrations, traffic has seen some subtle inconsistencies over the years*. There were percentage decreases in 2011 and 2015, but perhaps the most interesting thing here is the roughly 2.5% increase throughout 2016, right around the same time bus ridership started its significant downward trend...

* data for 2017 is not yet available

Bus Ridership

The outlier of the group.

None of the other previous variables saw percentage increases over 3% or fell more than 1.5%. Meanwhile, bus ridership spiked in 2011 with a 6% growth and only six years later saw a 6% dip (on top of two straight years of 4% stumbles).

Considering none of these mirrors the bus ridership trend, it would be difficult for one to conclude that any one of these factors solely impacted bus ridership. If traffic was not getting any better or worse while population and car ownership were increasing, how exactly were people getting around town?

Alternative Means of Commuting

The means of transportation that residents used to commute to and from work between 2011-2016 has stayed quite consistent, but there is a pattern of change developing! We saw there are more cars in DC, but those driving alone and carpooling have actually seen slight percentage decreases, which may be due to the fact that DC is consistently among the cities with the worst traffic (cars can be convenient, but crawling along the Beltway is a surefire way to kill your caffeine buzz).

How are they getting to work now? Public transportation saw growth from 2011-2013, but has been decreasing ever since...

We are now left with three categories that have seen steady increases: walkers, "other", and those that work from home. With technological advances granting more workers the ability to work remotely (myself included) and the numerous development projects of DC reaching their relative peak, it makes sense that more people would live nearer to their offices or stay home all together.

"Other" includes bikers (with and without motors) and those that hail a ride the old fashioned way or through their mobile devices. Thanks to options, cyclists have pedaled DC into the #2 spot of a "top biking cities in the U.S." list. As for hailing a ride, this seems low considering the meteoric rise of ride-sharing applications, but receiving pure data from these companies still remains a pipe-dream to most. Until aggregate data is made widely available, we will be unable to fully understand this technology's impact on bus ridership beyond assumptions based on individual or anecdotal observations.

Fare Increases

Since 2010, WMATA has increased their bus fares five times to varying degrees. The most recent fare increase of a quarter per trip was the largest percent change since it went from 85¢ to $1 in 1991. Regarding the most recent increase...

“It’s economics 101,” said Arlington resident Jim Hurysz, who opposed the County Board’s decision last month to raise fares. “Higher fares means fewer riders.”

[It] will affect hundreds of thousands of daily commuters, but are particularly troubling for bus riders, many of whom use the bus because it’s cheaper than Metrorail. Some of the region’s low-wage workers, immigrants and elderly residents on fixed incomes depend almost exclusively on the buses to get around.

Washington Post - June 17, 2017

If you commute by bus, this removes roughly $125 from of your pocket annually.

Sandbox Map

"Play" with this map and the spatial data it makes available to answer questions that may have popped in your head while reading the previous sections! The layers available to help with your analysis are population and per capita income hot-spots, Metrorail lines and stations, proposed bus rapid transit (BRT) and rapid bus routes (the difference being that BRT will have dedicated bus lanes), and the roads that were in the top 20% of traffic density during 2016 (i.e. where to not drive at 5 p.m. on a Tuesday).

You may also right click to drop a pin (left click to remove it) and display all bus stops serviced by routes that serve the bus stop nearest the pin. Use the dropdown menu and buttons below to load bus stops for a specific route in the Metrobus system. Check out the per capita income difference the infamous X2 covers as it travels from west to east. The "Remove Stops" button clears all stops from the map.

In conclusion...

Decreasing bus ridership is not endemic to Washington, DC and it is likely the trends discussed here are happening in urban areas all over the country. Numbers don't lie. Right now, people prefer other modes of transportation. This begs the question, are buses worth saving?

Over the past few years we have only scratched the surface of location-based smart phone applications that allow us to request a ride (Uber officially launched in 2011) or hop on a bike or scooter to quickly get us to our destination for nearly the same price as a standard bus. Cries for alternative and affordable public transportation options will become more common and it is up to us to say whether we believe these are worth the investment.

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Data Sources and References

Population, Per Capita Income, and Means of Commuting

DC Car Registration

Bus Ridership

Metrobus Fare History

Traffic Volume and DC Geospatial Data

Base Maps

Lede Quote: Washington Post March 20th, 2018

Bus icon made by Vectors Market from www.flaticon.com is licensed by CC 3.0 BY

Metro icon made by Freepik from www.flaticon.com is licensed by CC 3.0 BY

Arrow icon made by Dave Gandy from www.flaticon.com is licensed by CC 3.0 BY