Why are fewer people taking the bus?
Consumer spending is up and a near-record number of Baton Rouge residents are working, but CATS ridership remains below 2019 numbers and its recovery trails the national average
The Capital Area Transportation System (CATS), which operates Baton Rouge’s bus service, is transporting fewer riders than it was just a few years ago. In June 2022, CATS ridership was at 52% of 2019 levels while buses traveled 79% of 2019 miles. This week, BR By the Numbers dives into CATS ridership numbers, placing them in the context of current economic conditions.
CATS Ridership – the numbers
In 2019, CATS generally had 200,000 riders or more per month. Year-over-year bus ridership, which was already falling in January 2020, plummeted in March as the pandemic upended our way of life. By April 2020, bus ridership had fallen to 40% of 2019 levels. Today, ridership has plateaued at around half of 2019 levels, give or take a few percentage points.
May 2022 marked the beginning of our third year with bus ridership at or around half of what it was prior to the pandemic. While CATS’ current numbers don’t stack up well to pre-pandemic numbers, they’re slightly more comparable to the national declines in bus ridership that we’ve seen post-March 2020. According to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), bus ridership nationally in December 2021 was at 65% of 2019 levels1 compared to 47% for CATS that same month. So, even by pandemic-era national standards, CATS is falling short.
CATS Ridership – the why?
These numbers beg an important question: why, at a time when both consumer spending has fully recovered and the number of Baton Rougeans working is near a record-high, is bus ridership so low? According to the APTA, bus ridership is largely driven by two categories of riders – those getting to/from work and people shopping/eating out. Together, these account for 64% of bus trips nationally2.
Some characteristics of our post-March 2020 economy may be driving some of this reduction in local bus ridership. BR By the Numbers previously looked at how Baton Rouge residents are changing the way they work. An increase in the number of self-employed workers may mean more residents are working for themselves, potentially at their home from their laptop or computer, and no longer need to commute to an office or establishment. It looks like fewer people are working second jobs in Baton Rouge, potentially because of wage gains for lower-income workers, and this may also be contributing to reduced ridership. Skyrocketing childcare costs could be a factor considering, for some, it makes more financial sense to stay home with the kids than work and pay for childcare. The work from home revolution may also be a factor, although this likely has had less of an impact because the white-collar workers who have mostly benefited from expanded remote work opportunities were less likely to ride the bus even prior to the pandemic.
Consumer spending is up, though, and this is at odds with falling ridership. Retail and restaurants account for 20% of bus rides nationally, lower than the 44% riding the bus to get to and from work, but still a sizeable chunk of riders. Consumer spending in East Baton Rouge rose, on average, from December 2021 through March 2022. During that same period, bus ridership compared to pre-pandemic counts boomeranged from 47% in December 2021 to 38% in February 2022, rising back to 47% of pre-pandemic ridership in March 2022.
Considering almost half of all bus trips were transporting people to/from work, it’s likely our changing work culture is dragging down bus ridership more than an increase in consumer spending is pulling it up. Nonetheless, the ridership recovery in Baton Rouge is behind the national recovery by around 20 percentage points.
CATS Ridership – why it matters
CATS provides vital services for the Baton Rouge community, evidenced by the fact that 96,638 passenger rides occurred on CATS’ most-traveled bus route, its Florida Blvd. Route, from January through June of this year3. Guaranteeing public transit options is both an issue of equity and talent attraction. Nationally, 46% of all bus riders had annual household incomes less than $25,0004. These workers, who often have no access or less reliable access to a personal vehicle, rely on bus service to get to work and run their errands. On the talent attraction front, younger workers increasingly prefer to live in dense urban communities with access to multimodal transportation options, including bus service.
You may be asking – what’s the big deal? If more people are just working from home and consumer spending remains high despite low ridership, why should we be concerned?
The answer is that lower ridership contributes to lower regional economic vitality. In a survey of bus riders conducted by the APTA, 23% said that, if bus service was not available for their trip, they simply wouldn’t be making that trip. That’s 23% fewer trips to work shifts, grocery stores, shopping malls, doctors’ offices, restaurants, bars, and any other establishment accessible via bus service. Based on these estimates, 22,169 bus trips were lost in June 2022 due to reduced ridership from June 2019 levels.
Increasing ridership back to pre-pandemic levels is something transit agencies across the country are struggling to accomplish. The APTA produced a list of relevant recommendations to help transit agencies rebound their ridership numbers. CATS is pursuing some of these recommendations, like expanding ridership access through its Baker Micro-Transit Rideshare Program, dubbed LYNX, and making it easier to pay for the bus through its contactless pay platform, UMO. Other recommendations in the report, like expanding service in suburban areas that are driving population growth, could bring new riders into the system.
Based on historical ridership data, we know that demand exists for robust public transit within Baton Rouge – the question CATS must get to the bottom of is, with other mobility metrics moving toward a full post-pandemic recovery, why is their ridership stuck at just halfway there?
CATS ridership data