Public transport

Mar 17, 2014

Is transit winning the transport battle in the US?

New data shows public transport use in the US in 2013 was the highest it’s been since 1956. But that should be small comfort – compared to cars, public transport use in the US is still piddling

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Number of public transport trips in the US by mode (billions). Source data: APTA

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) says Americans made 10,654 million trips by public transport in 2013, up 1.1% compared to 2012. Travel by cars went up just 0.3% over the same period and population by 0.7%.

Public transport patronage in the US has been growing in absolute terms for two decades: APTA says it’s increased 37% since 1995. Over the same period, the US population grew 20% and car use (VMT) increased 23%.

According to the Chair of APTA, Peter Varga, the rising mode share of public transport indicates there’s a “fundamental shift going on in the way we move about our communities”. Mr Varga says:

People in record numbers are demanding more public transit services and communities are benefiting with strong economic growth. Access to public transportation matters. Community leaders know that public transportation investment drives community growth and economic revitalization.

APTA’s media release highlights a welcome and important improvement, but it might give a misleading impression. It tends to obscure the enormous challenge still facing public transport policy in the US.

It should be clear that 10,654 million transit trips relative to a 2013 population of 317 million is not as compelling as almost the same number of trips against a 1956 population of 169 million. Urbanisation has also increased substantially over the last 57 years, which should favour transit.

Another issue is APTA’s focus on percentage increases doesn’t show that public transport still only accounts for a very small proportion of all travel.

The journey to work is the purpose where public transport does best, but according to another study, Commuting in America 2013, only around 4.9% of Americans currently commute by transit (up from 4.6% ten years ago) compared to 86% who drive to work.

While the use of public transport for commuting grew three times faster than car use over 2000 to 2010, the absolute increase in car trips was nevertheless much larger. Car commutes increased by 5.4 million trips over the ten years whereas journeys to work by transit increased by 0.9 million.

Mode shift to public transport from cars is part of the explanation for the relatively slow growth rate of car use over the last decade, but it’s not the primary reason. The authors of Commuting in America 2013 say it’s predominantly due to slower growth in the total level of commuting.

It’s likely wider economic and social changes explain most of this slowing (e.g. see here, here, here and here), but strong growth in working at home was also a factor. The number of home-based workers grew by 1.7 million over the last decade, almost double the increase in commuting by public transport. (1)

It’s also worth looking more closely at APTA’s figures for 2012 and 2013, since they measure all public transport use, not just work trips. They show the story of public transport growth in the US is mostly about rail and a handful of old cities, especially New York.

The national 1.1% increase in patronage over 2012-13 reported by APTA is almost entirely due to a single mode. Of the total 117.2 million increase in trips over the year, almost all of them (113.2 million) were made on heavy and commuter rail.

Light rail trips increased by a much smaller amount (7.9 million) and bus trips fell marginally (-5.2 million). Nonetheless, buses are easily the largest transit mode, carrying 25% more travellers than heavy and commuter rail in 2013 and ten times as many as light rail.

Turning to cities, New York’s MTA is the dominant agency. It carried 3,648 million of the nation’s 10,654 million public transport trips in 2013, well ahead of Chicago with 602 million trips.

Heavy and commuter rail passenger trips in New York totalled 2,836 million and accounted for 66% of all rail trips in the US.  The next largest city for rail was Washington DC, with a comparatively small 273 million trips.

The MTA was also the largest bus operator, carrying 812 million bus passengers in 2013 and accounting for 15% of all bus trips in the country. The next biggest cities for buses were Los Angeles (363 million), Chicago (300 million) and Philadelphia (161 million).

Without New York’s MTA, there would’ve been no increase in public transport patronage in the US between 2012 and 2013. The agency carried an extra 123 million passengers by rail and bus combined; more than the total national net increase in patronage of 117.2 million trips over the period.

Outside of New York, there was no net growth in public transport. A number of other cities certainly experienced some growth, but their increases in aggregate were offset by those cities that suffered falls in patronage.

Eight cities increased patronage on heavy rail and seven lost passengers. APTA draws attention to Miami’s impressive 10.6% increase in heavy rail patronage but the increase was from a very small base i.e. from 19.2 million trips to 21.3 million.

Light rail systems in ten cities (out of 27) and bus systems in 17 cities (of 37) lost patronage over 2012-13. More cities gained than lost, as would be expected with population growth, but the absolute increases were not large.

For example, APTA highlights the impressive performance of New Orleans’ light rail system, which increased patronage by an impressive 28.6%; numbers went from 5.5 million to 7.1 million. The number of passengers using the Los Angeles light rail, the second largest system in the country, increased 6.0% from 60.2 million to 63.8 million. (2)

These are impressive growth rates but in the context of the total travel task in the US, and especially compared to the proportion of travel carried by car, the absolute increases are very small beer. (3) An added problem is that too many new rail-based public transport projects are boondoggles (e.g. see How cost-effective are new rail transit projects?).

As I’ve noted before many times (e.g. see here, here and here) getting travellers to shift out of their cars in significant numbers will only occur if cars are made less attractive compared to public transport. Making public transport more attractive is very important, but policy-makers also need to give much more attention to taming cars.


  1. Other than school trips, public transport achieves its highest mode share on the journey to work. However commuting accounts for less than 20% of all trip purposes in the US. Public transport’s share of non-work trips is much lower, probably less than half what it is for work trips.
  2. Patronage on the largest light rail system in the US, Boston, fell from 76 million to 72.3 million.
  3. Update: in an article published on 21 March in the Washington Post, Use of public transit isn’t surging, academics David King, Michael Manville and Michael Martin point out that transit only carries 2-3% of all trips, for all purposes, in the US.
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8 thoughts on “Is transit winning the transport battle in the US?

  1. IkaInk

    @Alan – Nothing specific Alan, just seems to be implied as your posts are almost always Australia centric. I wanted to put in my two cents that there aren’t many lessons to be learnt here for the vast majority of your readers.

  2. Alan Davies

    IkaInk #6:

    I don’t find it particularly useful to try and compare the whole of the US against the whole of Australia.

    Can’t see anything in either the article or the comments (except hk #1?) that compares anything in the US to anything in Australia. What’s prompted this comment?

  3. IkaInk

    Late to the party I know, but I don’t find it particularly useful to try and compare the whole of the US against the whole of Australia. We’ve got plenty of similarities sure, but the US is far, far less urbanised into large cities than Australia.

    There are 9 cities in the US with more than a million people. That’s 9 cities, to 313million people. Australia has nearly 23 million people, and 5 cities over a million. It doesn’t take much to realise that the vast majority of the US population is scattered all over the place in small cities, small towns and rural areas. Australia on the other hand is generally concentrated along one coast line, and is far more urbanised even within that context. Our urban pattern is much more similar to Canada than the USA and Canada is a much better country to compare ourselves to in regards to transport, if we’re looking at nation wide data. On the other hand, if we’re looking at city level data than the US has plenty of valid comparisons, just don’t pretend that at a nationwide level we’re even remotely similar.

    It is also silly to assume that because a few of the larger cities in the US spend some serious money on transit projects that you could expect to see anything other than piddling mode share changes at the national level. Unless a lot of those small towns and small cities all start making changes to their transport priorities, mode shares in the US will remain relatively the same.

  4. Alan Davies

    And here’s an article that’s pushing back: Transit ridership – debunking the debunkers (sort of), by Michael Lewyn. I think “sort of” is putting it much too kindly. Weak arguments and partisan stereotyping of all those who question the significance of APTA’s data as “transit critics”.

    Update 30 March: Yet another partisan response to King, Manville and Smart’s criticism (see comment #3) of APTA’s boosterism. This one’s How transit pays for the automobiles sins, by Tony Dutzik. He characterises King et al as “transit denigrators”

  5. Alan Davies

    Another new article on the APTA report, this time from Wendell Cox, No fundamental shift to transit: not even a shift. Some comments on specific cities:

    In Atlanta, with the nation’s second largest Metro (subway) system built since 1975, a declining overall employment base was accompanied by a loss of 13,000 transit commuters, at the same time that there was an increase in working at home of 19,000.

    In Portland, considered by many around the world to be an urban planning Utopia, the data is hardly favorable. Since 1980, the last year with data before the first of five light rail lines and one commuter rail line opened, transit’s market share has dropped from 8.4 percent to 6.0 percent…

    In Los Angeles, ridership at the largest transit agency continues to languish below its 1985 peak, despite having opened 9 light rail, Metro, and rapid busway lines and adding more than 1.5 million residents…

    At the same time, gains are being made in some metropolitan areas. Ridership has risen more strongly in transit’s six “legacy cities,” the municipalities (not metropolitan areas) of New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston, and Washington.

  6. Alan Davies

    Great article in the Washington Post today which echoes my sentiments. Use of public transit isn’t surging was written by academics David King (Columbia), Michael Manville (Cornell) and Michael Smart (Rutgers).

    Transit receives about 20 percent of U.S. surface transportation funding but accounts for 2 percent to 3 percent of all U.S. passenger trips and 2 percent to 3 percent of all U.S. passenger miles. In fact, use of mass transportation has remained remarkably steady, and low, since about 1970. There is nothing exceptional about last year’s numbers; they represent a depressing norm.

    The money quote:

    The U.S. transportation system is deeply troubled. The country has difficulty financing improvements to its aging infrastructure, and heavy reliance on driving creates congestion, increases carbon emissions, pollutes our communities, and is a leading cause of injury and death. No one should pretend these problems are spontaneously solving themselves because Americans have decided en masse to ride transit instead of driving.

  7. Tom the first and best

    I think that if further study of where the falls in PT use took place, public subsidy cuts causing service cuts would be the min cause of those falls, followed by population decline.

  8. hk

    The mainly APTA sourced article is an overall positive news break on USA PT trends. Australian PT advocates such as the PTUA and TCPA supporters and friends should feel encouraged. Integrated health, land-use and transportation system modellers would find it of interest to also know whether the USA PT mode share trends are resulting in more sustainable transportation outcomes benefiting the health and well being of communities. A few words on active transport trends need to be included, in a PT summary for the sake of completeness, even if only a piddling commute component of city wide travel in the USA.

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