The blog of the Urban Institute
June 25, 2021

US Public Transit Has Struggled to Retain Riders over the Past Half Century. Reversing This Trend Could Advance Equity and Sustainability.

June 25, 2021

Since 1970, the number of US workers roughly doubled, increasing from 77 million to more than 150 million. But over the same period, the number of transit commuters increased by only about 1 million. Just 5 percent of workers now get to work by bus or train nationwide, compared with almost 9 percent a half century ago. Most people are driving instead.

This trend is partly the product of the federal government’s decision to keep land-use development planning and transportation separate. This choice has encouraged suburban sprawl, inequitably distributed public services, and an ever-growing reliance on automobiles. Increasing public transit ridership, which is more sustainable (PDF) and more affordable than driving, can help construct a more environmentally friendly and equitable society.

But national trends tell just one part of the story. Changes in metropolitan-area commuting show more varied patterns, some of which offer lessons for the future. Communities where transit use is growing show that, to expand ridership, urban regions must prioritize accessibility and concentrate land-use development around transit service.

A changing geography of transit use

To understand changes, I developed a database of commuting patterns in all US metropolitan areas between 1970 and 2019 (the most recent, prepandemic information), using US Census Bureau data on the primary transportation mode workers use to commute to and from jobs.

Even though the most populous metropolitan regions now account for a much smaller share of the national workforce than they did in 1970, transit use in those regions has remained consistent. In 1970, about 38 percent of US transit commuters lived in the New York City metropolitan area, while about 9 percent of employees nationwide did. Today, the area’s share of the nation’s transit commuters is roughly the same, at 38 percent, while its share of employees countrywide is down 50 percent to 6 percent. But other metropolitan areas have experienced significant changes in terms of people commuting by transit.

Major regions in the South and Midwest have seen declining transit shares of the nation’s transit commuters. For example, metropolitan areas like Buffalo, Milwaukee, and Richmond—where 10 percent of commuters once travelled by transit—saw dramatic declines in the share of workers using transit to commute. In Birmingham and Memphis, where buses once attracted tens of thousands of daily commuters, the number of daily transit users is 20 percent of what it was in 1970.

Map showing that in most US metro areas, commuters relied less on transit over the past 50 years

In the Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and New Orleans regions, there are at least 50,000 fewer transit commuters in each than there were 50 years ago. On the other hand, the Washington, San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Boston regions each have at least 100,000 more transit commuters today than in 1970. In the New York City region, there are half a million more daily bus and train riders. This adds up to three million daily transit commuters—by far the nation’s largest number.

Side by side bar charts showing metro areas with the largest losses and biggest gains in the number of transit commuters from 1970 to 2015-19

Regions with growing transit use have been more successful in attracting economic growth. The top six markets for venture capital investment in 2020 are also the top six regions for transit-user growth. Those regions have attracted real estate investment, resulting in populous, densely developed, and pedestrian friendly downtowns that are attractive for transit riders.

The metropolitan areas that have lost the most transit riders have faced rough demographic trends. The historic center city jurisdictions of those 10 poorest-performing regions represent 10 of the 11 cities that lost the most population since 1970, each losing at least 100,000 people. Cities that gained transit commuters experienced different trends. Only three of them (Los Angeles, New York, and Phoenix) were among the top-10 gainers in center-city population.

The metropolitan areas where transit use declined did not lose population—each gained tens of thousands of workers since 1970. The Chicago region gained 1.2 million, more than the Seattle region, whereas the Philadelphia area gained almost 900,000, as many as the Boston region. But the places with lower transit use more dramatically redistributed residents and jobs to their suburban fringe, where commuting by car is all but obligatory because of pedestrian-hostile urban design.

To compound matters, all of these regions except New Orleans are in the Rust Belt, which has suffered from decades of disinvestment accompanying deindustrialization. Transit use has declined in parallel.

Solutions from the West

How can metropolitan regions bring more people back onto transit in the years ahead?

It’s helpful to look at the regions where transit commuting shares have increased the most over the past half century, where a higher percentage of the workforce rides buses and trains to work than before. These regions include the northwestern cities of Portland and Seattle, the Bay Area cities of San Francisco and San Jose, and Salt Lake City.

Side by side bar charts showing metro areas with the most and least percentage point change in share of commuters using transit from 1970 to 2015-19

A few lessons stand out from their experience that could apply to cities elsewhere:

  • Cities like San Francisco have reduced fares for people with low incomes, making it more feasible for more people to ride the bus or train.

Together, these approaches have allowed these metropolitan areas to buck the national trend. Though not every region has the resources to invest in significantly expanding transit options, federal, state, and local policymakers can collaborate to bring people back onto trains and buses. In the end, that would mean a less polluting, more equal society for all of us to enjoy.

(Mlenny / Getty Images)

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