Ridership on Maryland commuter buses grew at a rate of 5% each year between 2006 and 2012. It’s a sign that the commuters are eager for alternatives to driving, even at the farthest edges of the region.

Daily vehicle trips on top 6 highways with commuter buses (left) and daily

commuter bus riders (right). Click to view raw data (XLSX).

MTA runs 24 commuter bus routes to DC, Baltimore, and other job centers like Silver Spring. They start from as far out as Hagerstown, Kent Island, and St. Mary’s County. Buses stop at park-and-rides and streetcorners in outer suburban areas before running non-stop through the inner suburbs along highways like Route 50 and I-270.

Meanwhile, traffic levels on those highways have barely budged. Traffic counts by the State Highway Administration show that the number of vehicles on the road has declined on five of the eight highway corridors where commuter buses run. Growth rates in the other three were 1%, 2%, and 3%. This happened despite continued population growth in the outer suburbs.

Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

The boom in ridership on these buses has at least 4 likely causes. For starters, gas prices have gone up, while the social stigma attached to riding a bus has lessened. In addition, since house prices have gone down compared to closer-in areas, new residents of the exurbs are less affluent and want to save money by taking the bus. There’s also a growing immigrant population in the outer suburbs, who don’t look down on buses as much as the native-born do.

All of these factors are long-term trends that will keep ridership growing in future years.  Indeed, the demographic changes have just begun. The consequences of the outer-suburb real estate bust will be felt for years to come as the housing stock gradually passes into new hands.

Quite aside from predictions for the future, the data point to one immediate action item.  The number of bus trips has not kept up with growing demand.  By 2012, only 75 more bus trips had been added to the 421 that ran each day in 2006, and many of the new trips were on low-ridership routes along the ICC. 

A piece of Maryland’s new transportation funding ought to go for additional commuter buses.  When car traffic is stagnant and bus ridership is zooming, more buses are a better use of money than wider roads.