Empty buses don’t improve air quality

By John Hood

Raleigh, NC – In nearly all North Carolina communities with bus systems, ridership is significantly lower than it was just a few years ago. In Greensboro, for example, there were 1.9 million passenger trips on city buses last year, down approximately 60% from the total in 2014. Over the same period, Winston-Salem buses experienced a comparable drop-off. In Charlotte, it was a staggering 75%.

It’s not just our largest cities where buses are running well below capacity. Salisbury, Gastonia, Rocky Mount — all have seen ridership declines, ranging from moderate to massive.

Of course, transit use cratered pretty much everywhere when COVID struck in early 2020. Fearful people found other ways to commute, gained the option of working from home, or lost their jobs entirely. Ridership has since bounced back somewhat, though it remains below pre-pandemic levels.

Declines in bus usage didn’t begin with COVID, however. In 2019, the city of Concord’s buses carried 9% fewer passenger trips than in 2014. The drop was 12% in Fayetteville, 15% in Raleigh and Salisbury, 18% in Wilmington, 25% in Winston-Salem and Cary, 28% in Greensboro, and 35% in Charlotte. Among major urban centers, only Asheville, Chapel Hill, and Durham bucked the trend.

Those three communities, and perhaps a few other college towns, have distinctive characteristics that boost their transit friendliness and may prove to be persistent in the post-COVID era. For most of North Carolina, though, realism requires that we accept a basic truth: traveling by bus was never a popular choice, was becoming less so prior to the pandemic, and is now even more unpopular because of it.

For one thing, some jobs that were shifted to remote out of desperation are going to remain remote by choice. Estimates of the percentage vary, but if you take a look at parking lots and foot traffic in downtown areas, the significance of the shift is impossible to miss. If one’s policy goal is to reduce the number of single-occupancy vehicles traversing our roads and streets, either to alleviate traffic congestion or improve air quality, telecommuting was always going to be a handier tool than transit or carpooling.

For another thing, while some politicians and policy wonks may be all-in on a war against cars, most of us never volunteered for such a war — and greatly resent any attempt to conscript us into it. That’s why gas prices are such a hot political issue at the moment. In theory, they represent the kind of price signal many left-wing activists have long dreamed about, a “real” price of driving that reflects a bigger share of the negative externalities it imposes on the environment and society. In practice, most people find high gas prices outrageous and intolerable.

Why was bus ridership declining before COVID? Here’s a key reason: thanks to growth in employment and incomes, more lower-income folks were finding it possible to lease or buy personal vehicles. They saw this as a major improvement in their standard of living. They were right.

In Charlotte, admittedly, some of its huge drop in bus traffic during the past decade occurred not because residents were getting cars but because they were getting off buses to ride trains. The net effect wasn’t to boost transit usage, however. According to a report by Charlotte radio station WFAE, ridership across all transit types is still down 65% since 2014.

As a fiscal conservative, I’ve long doubted pie-in-the-sky projections for transit usage in a state like North Carolina where most people prefer suburban or rural lifestyles to residing in dense urban cores. That doesn’t mean I’m against all transit spending. I just see it more as more of a public-assistance expenditure, to help the relatively small number of people who can’t drive for economic or medical reasons, rather than as a practical means of moving large populations around 21st-century cities.

No matter what the formula looks like on paper, it’s impossible to reduce congestion or improve air quality by running empty or near-empty buses.

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member. His latest books, Mountain Folk and Forest Folk, combine epic fantasy with early American history.