For the subways, buses, and light rail lines of America, the last five years have been nothing but bad news. Since 2014, low gas prices, aging infrastructure, and the rise of Uber and Lyft have led to spiraling ridership on public transit systems from coast to coast.
But the latest statistics from the National Transit Database suggests that a turnaround may be afoot—thanks to service improvements in two major cities. Ridership across U.S. public transit agencies rose 2.2 percent compared to the same time period in 2018, the American Public Transportation Association reported last month. This was the second consecutive quarter to mark an increase, and the first consecutive quarter to post an increase since the end of 2014, when ridership hit a 50-year peak. The uptick in ridership between Q3 2019 and Q3 2018 amounted to about 54 million more trips.
This growth was driven almost entirely by an influx of subway, commuter rail, and bus trips in the New York City region, as well as subway trips on Washington, D.C.’s Metro. Both cities, which have the nation’s first- and third-highest shares of transit commuters, have weathered major reliability and maintenance crises in recent years and hemorrhaged riders as a result.
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s nadir came in 2016, when the agency shut down all rail service following a cable fire, enraging District commuters. One year earlier, an electrical smoke incident had claimed the life of a rider in L’Enfant Plaza. In summer 2017, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a “state of emergency” for New York City’s subway system, where on-time performance had dropped to just 65 percent on weekdays.
But both have since made substantial improvements, including a year of 24/7 track maintenance in D.C. and nearly $800 million of signal upgrades, drain clearing, and employee overtime payouts in New York. Upticks in ridership are a sign of success, said Yonah Freemark, a consultant and MIT researcher (and occasional CityLab contributor) whose blog, The Transport Politic, tracks transit usage in the U.S. and beyond. “The progress in New York and Washington is undoubtedly a product of those region’s considerable efforts to improve service over the past few years.”
Still, neither system has reached their prior ridership peaks. And their 2019 gains are an outlier: the rest of the country’s transit systems still lost ridership last year. That includes major cities such as L.A., Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia.
Some factors in the ongoing decline are local. In L.A., a recent rehabilitation to the light rail line connecting downtown and Long Beach (now recently rebranded as the “A line”) likely shifted passengers away over the past year. And since it reopened as the A Line—part of L.A. Metro’s new name scheme—“reliability hasn’t been good and ridership hasn’t come close to fully rebounding,” said Ben Fried, the communications director of TransitCenter, a public transportation think tank. In Boston, the derailment of a Red Line train in June 2019 may still be deflecting passengers, while in Chicago, population decline, ongoing construction, and the popularity of ride-hailing services seem to be pushing riders away.
Longer-term ridership trends vary depending on the mode. Rail passenger numbers have grown over the last 30 years, and only began to dip in 2015. But bus ridership has been fading steadily every year since 2012. In 2018, it was just 80 percent of where it was in 1965, when the federal government began tracking transit data. It is now scraping new lows, said Simon Berrebi, a post-doctoral researcher at Georgia Tech studying the causes of transit’s decline. “2019 is on target to be the lowest bus-ridership year in recorded history for the third consecutive year,” he said. “It’s happening despite improvements in employment and population gains, which are all usually major contributors to ridership.”
Many factors explain the dwindling popularity of the bus, according to transit experts, including low gas prices, cheap auto loans, the rise of Uber and Lyft, rising telecommuting, and unreliable, slow service aboard the rubber-tired workhorses of America’s transit fleet. A few cities, including Seattle and Austin, have been able to reverse these trends by creating bus-priority lanes and bumping up frequent service.
Not only does low ridership result in lower farebox revenues for transit agencies, it also creates a vicious cycle. It frequently forces agencies to cut routes and defer maintenance projects, which in turn results in even fewer passengers. Declining transit use means more cars on the road, transit experts say, leading to vehicle congestion, air pollution, and traffic fatalities. Meanwhile, Freemark said, the U.S. continues to invest far more heavily in infrastructure for driving than for buses and trains: Between 2010 and 2019, the U.S. built some 28,500 miles of arterial roads, and just 1,200 miles of transit service.
“It’s definitely a good sign that transit ridership finally appears to be on the upswing,” Freemark said. “[But] most transit systems in the U.S. are still struggling.”
Last year in Washington, D.C., a pair of city council members grilled the head of the city’s department of transportation on the status of bike and pedestrian projects in the District. It had been three years since the city had committed to following the traffic-calming principles outlined in Vision Zero, the international movement to reduce the injury toll associated with cars and trucks in cities. But the results, so far, had been disappointing: By that point in the year, 34 people overall had died on the city’s roads—D.C.’s worst year for traffic deaths in a decade.
The council members, Mary Cheh and Charles Allen, wanted an update from Jeff Marootian, director of the District Department of Transportation, on what the city had been doing in its efforts to make the streets safer. But as the hearing wore on, his answers started to sound like a refrain: Almost every new bike- or pedestrian-infrastructure project, from a road diet on Maryland Avenue to an Eastern Downtown protected bike lane, seemed to be about six to nine months away. In fact, the city task force that was supposed to coordinate Vision Zero policy across city agencies had only just met for the first time the month before.
“Do you get why that’s frustrating to hear?”Allen said to Marootian. “I think we can do more, and I want to impress on you that I think we need to treat this with a higher level of urgency. Why aren’t we experimenting with all kinds of different ways to pilot different ideas? If we mess it up, it’s a can of paint.”
Last month, the city council reconvened with Marootian for a seven-hour redux of that hearing, and there were signs that this advice had been heeded. In 2019, DDOT established a Vision Zero Office, fast-tracked quick-build safety projects like adding plastic pylons at crosswalks to slow drivers turns, and piloted some new ideas, such as dedicated bus lanes or painted curb extensions, that could be executed with little more than a can of paint. So far, 21 people have died from road crashes this year in the District, putting the city on track for the lowest number of traffic fatalities since the city committed to Vision Zero in 2015.
It’s a modest sign of progress, to be sure, especially considering the campaign’s ambitious benchmark. But it’s progress all the same.
When D.C. joined 13 other U.S. cities in making the Vision Zero commitment, its goal—eliminating all traffic deaths by 2024—seemed ambitious but also somehow achievable. Transformative safety improvements and a new era of technocratic, data-driven mobility were said to be a few short years away; self-driving vehicle technology appeared to be poised to eliminate the error-prone humans who were racking up 40,000 fatalities a year in the United States. Instead, technology has arguably made drivers worse, by dazzling them with digital distractions that have made cars even more lethal to other road users. While driving deaths have declined, this year United States is having its deadliest year for pedestrians and cyclists since 1990.
What’s more, Vision Zero has run up against decades of institutional inertia. Departments of transportation have long focused on optimizing urban streets grids for automobiles; retooling these bodies to focus more attention on walkers and bike riders has proved daunting. D.C.’s bumpy Vision Zero journey offers an instructive illustration of how difficult this process can be. In the case of this city, it took something else—a tragic pair of fatalities and a fired-up advocacy community—to speed up the District’s push for safer streets.
That process is ongoing. At the October hearing, the room learned that a 15-year-old girl had been killed earlier that day on East Capitol Street. Minutes after learning that news, three younger residents spoke to the council about the importance of Vision Zero in the clearest way possibly. “There are too many cars,” Siddharth Kravitz, 9, told the council. “It’s hard to cross the street. Every day someone driving a car comes close to killing us. It makes me scared. They go way too fast.”
Two victims, and a powerful pushback
Rachel Maisler did not want the summer of 2019 to be like the one before it. In 2018, Maisler, a health and aging policy consultant who now chairs the D.C.’s Bicycle Advisory Council, spent a lot of time organizing rides for the dedication of ghost bikes for three cyclists killed in the District that year. She also organized the dedication of a ghost scooter in Dupont Circle.
There’s a lot of organizational labor behind these memorials: You need to find a bike to paint white, write to elected officials, contact the slain cyclist’s family, pick a route, and invite DDOT and the press to attend. For Maisler and her fellow riders, it had become all too routine.
At each memorial ride, Maisler called for the city council to hold a public hearing on D.C.’s lack of progress on its Vision Zero commitments. “It felt like we were getting to the tipping point, where the city would have to act,” Maisler says. “We did this on our own time, because we thought more needed to be done in response to these fatalities.”
The new year began with some positive signs. In January 2019, DDOT installed yellow pylons and white flexposts to slow down sharp turns from drivers and installed signs to ban right-turns-on-red at 100 intersections around the city. Mayor Muriel Bowser named Linda Bailey, previously the executive director of the National Association of City Transportation Officials, to head the city’s new Vision Zero Office. In March, the mayor signaled a sort of reset on the policy, as city officials participated in a Vision Zero Summit sponsored by the Washington Area Bicycling Association in March.
But on Friday, April 19, a driver in a stolen van struck and killed Dave Salovesh while he was waiting at a red light on Florida Avenue. (The van’s 25-year-old driver later pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to 8½ years in prison.) Salovesh, 54, was an active member of the bike advocacy community in D.C.; he routinely tweeted about riding in the city and advocated for a less incremental approach to making safe streets.
“He was a good rabble rouser, and I considered him a friend,” says Charles Allen. Salovesh was one of Allen’s constituents in Ward 6. “Dave believed strongly in accountability in government. He could call me out for something I’d done that he disagreed with, then go right back to talking about baseball, or our kids.”
After his death, the fight for safe streets became much more personal, for bike advocates, for elected officials, and for DDOT.
“We were all dealing with this profound grief,” Maisler says. “I was in a complete daze that Saturday.” After a coordination call with fellow safe streets advocates, they made a plan to write to elected officials and hold a rally at the steps of the Wilson Building, the District’s city hall, that next Friday.
But the next day—Easter Sunday—a 31-year-old man named Abdul Seck who was visiting friends in Southeast D.C. from the Bronx was hit by a car while walking at 16th and V when a driver failed to stop at the intersection and collided with another vehicle. Pinned under the vehicle, he died of a cardiac arrest that Monday. The car’s 21-year-old driver was charged with second-degree murder.
Community advocate Ron Thompson Jr. organized a vigil on Wednesday, where Maisler met him and asked him to speak at the rally. “The unfortunate proximity of two tragedies at two very different places with two very different people brought me and folks of my community—in Ward 8, Southeast, predominantly black, very low-income—together with folks who are predominantly white, with college degrees, and affluent or more wealthy than us, around this common issue,” Thompson says.
The two victims shared something else: Better road design could have helped prevent their deaths. By the end of the summer, both crash sites saw fixes implemented by DDOT. On Florida Avenue, where Salovesh was killed, emergency legislation finally expedited a protected bike lane that had been planned for years on a road long known as dangerous.
Thompson also knew the intersection where Seck died: His mother had been in a minor car crash there just months before. The pattern of reactive problem-solving fit what Thompson, now working as an equity organizer with the urbanist nonprofit Greater Greater Washington, had seen advocating for basic fixes in his neighborhood.
“The best way to get DDOT to do things was to tweet it out to them and shame them into what they should already do,” Thompson says. “There’s deep inequity there, when you have to do this performative petition in order to get basic infrastructure in your neighborhood so that a child can walk to school safely.”
At the Rally for Streets that Don’t Kill People that Friday, a crowd of several hundred community members showed up before an installation of ghost bikes at the doorstep of the Wilson Building. They held a mass “die-in” on Pennsylvania Avenue and shared anguished stories about friends and family members they’d lost to traffic violence. “It was all these different pieces of the advocacy community coming together,” Maisler says. “Everyone has a different point of view, but every single voice melded together to elevate the message and drive it home that safe streets matter for every one in the city.”
Visible signs of progress
D.C.’s bike advocates have never been shy about telling DDOT what it could or should be doing to make the city’s streets safer—and showing it how to do it. Salovesh was known to place red Solo cups on painted bike lanes to show the dangers to cyclists, or deploy pool noodles on a bike lane that had become a favorite U-turn spot for drivers. (The latter led DDOT to add wheel-stop barriers to the lane.)
Salovesh’s friend Rudi Riet, a local mobility advocate in D.C., calls these interventions “pushing the city beyond the hypotheticals.” They’re also about making the streets more playful as well as safer. “People will gravitate toward things that are fun, that are enjoyable, that make you smile, that lower your blood pressure,” Riet says. “We equate sweetness with pleasure. Dave wanted to equate riding a bike and walking with pleasure and make it a game.”
Over the summer, DDOT seemed to embrace that that experimental approach. The agency repurposed timber for bike lane barriers, and placed speed stars to calm alley traffic near a local school. They piloted rush-hour bus-only lanes downtown and then made it permanent. “Our real effort this year has been to shape the way that we’re delivering projects,” Marootian says. “The mayor challenged us with identifying our highest impact projects and accelerating the delivery of them in every way that we possibly can.”
For example: On a Saturday in early October, the city closed three miles of one of the city’s busiest and most dangerous roads, Georgia Avenue, for an Open Streets event, turning the four-lane thoroughfare into a space for steel drum bands, skateboard ramps, yoga classes, and a bouncy house.
“Georgia Avenue is a vibrant corridor with lots of businesses and residents,” Marootian said. “It really has a dynamic energy that we thought could be harnessed for an Open Streets event. One of our goals is really to capture people’s imagination about what our streets could look like in the future.”
Marootian also says that the city’s coming Vision Zero progress will also focus on equity issues, pointing to the horizon of capital projects over the next four years that will direct more resources on the city’s lower-income neighborhoods.
There are a slew of new bills designed to bolster street safety under consideration. Among them is a mandate to finish installing the network of protected bike lanes envisioned in a 2005 Bicycle Master Plan. Other bills would require all-way stops and sidewalks on both sides of the street as a default on residential roads, a citywide ban on right-on-red, dedicated bus lanes for each the city’s eight wards, and dropping speed limits to 20 mph on most city streets. “We’re taking the kitchen sink approach,” Allen says. “The time for nibbling at the edge and half measures is over. We need to have the political guts to make decisions that prioritize someone’s life. If you’re going to say Vision Zero, you’ve got to mean it.”
For traffic safety advocates in the District, the progress is welcomed, but it’s still not enough. “I like seeing the action from DDOT, and I commend them,” Riet says. “I just wish that it wasn’t reactionary.” He’s worried that the latest traffic safety bills will get watered down. But mostly, he wants the city to remember the human costs of inaction.
That’s where the death of Dave Salovesh comes into the picture. Reducing him to a symbol, in a way, is a shame; his friend was a lot more than just a bike advocate. “Dave was a father. He was a PTA guy. He was a coach,” Riet says. The same goes for all the other lives lost on D.C.’s streets. “It didn’t matter whether they were on bicycles, on foot, or even if they were in a car. These tragedies could have been prevented.”