The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) Congress passed in 2021 provides hundreds of billions of dollars for transportation, including $39 billion for public transportation. Transit projects funded through the Capital Investment Grants program, for example, include new subways, light rail lines, and bus rapid transit routes. Collectively, these could provide new transportation options for millions of residents across the United States.
Convenient transit is essential. Bus and train services can increase access to employment, health care, recreation, and other services. It can be especially important for people with low incomes and people of color, who've been historically isolated from effective access to transportation in the United States because of systemic racism. Transit also produces less pollution than automobiles, reduces highway congestion, and encourages denser, more walkable land uses.
But US transit ridership is low. Only about 2.5 percent of the country’s workers commute by public transportation. Ridership has declined since the 1970s, and the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the trend, though ridership is recovering.
One explanation for continued low ridership is likely that only about 8 percent of US housing units are located near rail and bus stations that offer high-quality service. New IIJA-funded investments could make transit more appealing to more Americans—but only if federal dollars are directed toward areas most in need and if local stakeholders intentionally design projects that expand access.
How accessible is high-quality transit for most Americans?
To explore transit accessibility for US residents, I collected data on the location of fixed-guideway stations over time since 1970 and compared these with the location of housing units throughout the country over the same period. I define fixed-guideway stations as those served by subway (referred to as heavy rail), light rail, streetcar, commuter rail, and bus rapid transit routes. I did not include “regular” bus routes because they are generally less reliable and slower, and historical data on their location are not available.
Between 1970 and 1990, the share of US housing within one kilometer of fixed-guideway stations declined from about 7.5 percent to less than 6 percent. This is mainly because of declining transit expansion rates, population declines (PDF) in central cities (where the best transit options are located), and sprawl into suburbs (PDF), where transit options are limited.
On the other hand, since 1990, the share of housing units near stations increased to 8 percent (about 5 percent of housing units are within a kilometer of light rail or metro stations). Meanwhile, the number of light rail stations nationwide increased by more than 1,000. Nevertheless, these data mean that more than 90 percent of US housing is located far from fixed-guideway transit stations.
For comparison, I examined similar data for Canada, England and Wales, and France. Each country features greater accessibility to transit stations. In the European countries I explored, more than 20 percent of housing is located within a kilometer of a fixed-guideway station—a much higher rate than in the United States. That’s one reason the average resident of France and the United Kingdom takes almost four times as many (PDF) transit trips annually as the average US resident.
Accessibility to fixed-guideway transit in the United States varies tremendously. Almost 50 percent of housing in the New York urban area is located within one kilometer of stations, mostly because of its extensive Subway network. The Bay Area (San Francisco and San Jose), Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Seattle, and Washington, DC, regions each have at least 20 percent of their housing within such distances. On the other hand, fewer than 5 percent of housing units are within a kilometer of fixed-guideway stations in the Detroit, Houston, and Tampa regions.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, access to transit is associated with ridership (it is possible that access influences ridership, or that ridership encourages localities to increase access, so the causal direction is unclear here). Census data for 2021 show that more than 8 percent of commuters in the Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and DC urban areas use transit to get to work, and in the New York and San Francisco areas, the figures are 28 and 16 percent. Yet, in the Detroit, Houston, and Tampa urban areas, 2 percent or fewer of workers take a bus or train to work.
With big projects planned, Minneapolis and Seattle will increase access to affordable public transportation
Based on my review of national transit data, among the 20 largest US urban areas, Minneapolis and Seattle are planning the lengthiest expansions of their fixed-guideway transit systems on a per capita basis. Each has several bus rapid transit, light rail, and commuter rail projects under construction or planned in the coming years (they will likely receive IIJA funding to cover part of these projects’ costs), adding up to more than 20 kilometers per million inhabitants each, far more than any other large urban area.
Only about 14 percent of the Minneapolis region’s current housing is located within a kilometer of rail or bus rapid transit stations, and though Seattle performs better (about 25 percent), most housing is far from stations.
In Minneapolis, planned light rail lines running west of downtown, plus several bus rapid transit corridors, will increase accessibility to almost a quarter of urban-area housing units. In Seattle, a bevy of light rail investments connecting downtown with Tacoma to the south, Redmond and Issaquah to the east, and Everett to the north, will increase the share of the region’s housing units near fixed-guideway transit to almost 36 percent.
In both regions, new transit projects will be particularly effective in expanding accessibility for people living in federally subsidized affordable housing units. In each, the number of such units located near transit would expand by more than 20 percent, reaching thousands of families who are most likely to benefit from the low-cost, speedy access provided by rail and bus rapid transit routes.
Leveraging federal transit investments to increase accessibility
IIJA funds could help expand transit access for more people. Evidence suggests that most housing nationwide is far from stations.
When selecting projects for funding from IIJA, US Department of Transportation officials could consider how much investments may increase transit access to a higher share of the population, especially if those projects can improve accessibility to employment and other needs for people of color and residents with low incomes. If linked with local land-use policies that encourage dense development near stations, transit projects could be particularly useful.
Localities designing projects could also invest in the parts of their communities with the worst access to high-quality transit but with existing conditions, such as high population densities, that are likely to encourage ridership. Making the right choices about how to use infrastructure funds could ensure projects are most effective and produce the most ridership.