Long-Term Transit Trends

February 14th, 2013

SORTA recently announced a 4.2% increase in total ridership in 2012 to a total of 17.4 million trips for the year. I was curious about the context of that number, so I did a little digging. Here are the comparable statistics for the last 20 years thanks to the National Transit Database, a program of the Federal Transit Administration. (Transit agencies are required to report some basic statistics to the feds.)

Cincinnati annual transit ridership trends

SORTA on top, TANK on the bottom.

Between 1991(the first year data is available) and 2011(the last) we’ve got a 34% decrease in the total number of trips provided by our friends north of the river. TANK on the other hand has seen a 20% decrease in that time. If you were paying close attention, you may have noticed that the number SORTA reported for 2012, 17.4 million, is actually a bit lower than the number shown in the chart here for 2011(18,957,732). That would make an increase of any size for 2012 seem rather extraordinary!

According to SORTA planners, the disjunction is actually due to a change in the way riders are counted. Prior to the installation of the new fareboxes in November 2011, SORTA had to estimate the total number of riders from a representative sample. The fareboxes now allow a complete count of every single passenger. I’m guessing they must have provided some insight into the full 2011 numbers too because for there to have been a 4.2% increase, the 2011 number that was reported to the FTA would need to go down by a couple million. I doubt they would have issued a press release without good cause, so let’s replot that with the corrected data for 2011 and the reported 17.4 million for 2012:

TANK and SORTA annual ridership stats

Jeepers. That 2008-2011 drop has a bit more momentum to it now.

Hooray for a 4.2% increase!…


A hint as to the reason for the prior large decline in ridership could actually be found in the very same spreadsheet from the NTD. Here I’ve added total fare revenues in dollars to the chart.

SORTA and TANK ridership stats and fare revenues

For both TANK and SORTA for the last few years fare revenues have been increasing at the same time that the number of riders was going down. What does that mean? You guessed it! Wealthy philanthropic transit patrons slipping 50’s into the……Ok. No, it was fare increases.

Surely that’s not the whole story, but it must have played a part.

But what’s TANK doing hiding down there in those flat lines? Let’s see if we can’t expand them a bit to compare trends better:

SORTA vs TANK with ridership and fare revenues

Here I’ve multiplied TANK’s trips and fares six-fold so we can better compare them to SORTA’s more exaggerated changes.

An interesting note: TANK seems to be about 1/6th of the size of SORTA. Sorry, Kentucky. Those are the numbers. Still, TANK was the first to introduce smart cards, onboard wireless, GPS tracking…and they have a better web designer IMO. I suspect that once an agency is large enough to warrant an IT department, even a small one, the innovation process really grinds to a halt. Yes, I’m talking to you, every IT department ever.

I’m actually not totally sure what more to make of the rest of it, so I’ll welcome y’all to chime in in the comments. Particularly of interest to me: The 1995 to 2000 ridership figures for both agencies seem to be doing quite the opposite of each other between periods of stronger correlation. What’s going on there?

4 responses to “Long-Term Transit Trends”

  1. Neil says:

    I seem to remember reading on UO that 2008 is also when service cuts were done to the system. I may need to double check, but that would also be a good reason (as well as the economy falling and prices going) for the decrease in ridership during that period.

    Great work as always, Nate.

    • Nate Wessel says:


      Thats a good point! I don’t know why I didn’t think to mention service cuts. The way the NTD quantifies service, I think they could be a bit hard to see in the data. If I remember right, the measure is something like total passenger revenue miles(which would disproportionately show cuts to long suburban lines and express service) and…I forget what the other measures were. I’ll have to go back and look again.

      • TBender says:

        In 2008 fuel prices skyrocketed, pushing lots of people to transit (either for the first time, or back after a long period of non-use). The problem was, most agencies only get 25% farebox recovery, so the fares these new riders were paying weren’t even remotely covering the new and huge increase in the cost to operate transit.

        Buses run on gas too.

        2008 saw nationwide fare increases and service reductions to get budgets back to a more reason since 2008??

        2009 saw a fast drop in fuel prices, and within a few months about 75% of the new riders that came flocking to transit in the summer of ’08 were back in their cars. Fares stayed high, ridership declined and there wasn’t much ability to bring back the service that was eliminated. On top of that, many agencies had locked in fuel prices at $3.00 a gallon when market prices were below $2.00, so they never saw any relief.

        From 2009 to 2012 the recession and associated unemployment in the region further led to ridership declines (something like 75% of transit trips in Greater Cincinnati are employment-related). Lower employment levels also meant less operating revenue for transit agencies like SORTA who are funded largely via payroll taxes.

        2013 shows some promise. Employment is turning around. We have earned the respect of a lot of new customers over the past 5 years, but at the same rate lots of people have figured out how to survive while paying $4/g. for gas.

        The ridership spike in 2008 was an outlier. Throw it out when looking at ridership data and the trends will make much more sense to you.

  2. […] October now, eight months since I first touched on annual ridership figures and it’s about time for a little update. I only have recent numbers from SORTA at the moment […]