The average transit bus carries 11 people at one time over the course of a working day, but some transit agencies do far better than others at filling seats. The best by this measure are from agencies that primarily provide commuter buses. Since their buses operate mainly during rush hour, they tend to fill more seats. The highest is a commuter-bus line in the New York area that carried an average of 44 passengers per 57-seat commuter bus in 2012.
Most transit agencies feel obligated to provide service throughout the day, but some of these still do far better than 11 passengers. The Honolulu bus system is one of the best, averaging 23 passengers on buses with an average of 45 seats. The Los Angeles MTA attracts 20.5 passengers per bus, New York City MTA 19, San Francisco Muni 18, and Ames, Iowa transit 16.
By comparison, buses run by Austin’s Capital Metro carry the national average of about 11 people, Tampa buses carry about 9 passengers, Durham-Chapel Hill buses carry less than 8.5 passengers, and Pinellas County, Florida buses carry just 8 people, yet transit agencies in all of these regions want to build expensive, “high-capacity” light-rail lines. Norfolk-Virginia Beach buses average 9.5 riders; Charlotte buses 9 passengers, and Dallas buses just 6 people, yet all of these regions have built and want to expand expensive light-rail systems.
Your message should be: Fill the buses first. A transit agency that can’t fill its buses at least to Ames, Iowa, if not Honolulu levels, should not be spending a lot of money on rail transit.