Americans reject public transportation, choose autos

Published August 1, 2002

Transit advocates claim recent increases in transit ridership are proof Americans are turning away from the automobile and that transit–especially rail transit–deserves more funding than ever. Yet transit gains are tiny relative to increases in auto driving.

The tens of billions of dollars invested in transit in recent years have done little but leave surface transportation funding highly unbalanced. Though we travel nearly 100 times as much by auto as by transit, we spend less than four times as much on highways as on transit.

Data recently issued by the Census Bureau, American Public Transportation Association, and U.S. Department of Transportation allows a new look at the state of transit in American urban areas. I am grateful to Wendell Cox for summarizing the 2000 census data on his Web site.

Is transit gaining on the automobile?

Transit agencies carried Americans on nearly 9.4 billion transit rides in 2000, more than in any previous year since 1960. The increase from only 7.8 million trips in 1995 has been much ballyhooed by the transit industry and its supporters. Yet new data from a variety of sources demonstrate that transit funding has been a gross failure by practically any measure–and that the greatest failure is light rail.

“Transit rides” (known in the business as “unlinked trips”) are not the same as personal trips. If you ride a bus then transfer to a subway, you take one personal trip but the transit agency counts you twice. Some suspect increases in unlinked trips are partly due to increased transfers, not increased personal trips.

In transit’s defense, however, transit passenger miles have actually grown faster than unlinked trips: 16 percent in the last decade compared with 7 percent in trip growth. Yet urban auto driving grew even more (Table One).

Table One
Transit and Driving, 1990-2000
(billions of trips or miles)
  1990 2000 % Increase
Transit Trips 8.8 9.4 6.8
Transit Passenger Miles 41.1 47.7 16.1
Urban Vehicle Miles 1,275 1,665 30.6
Rural Vehicle Miles 869 1,085 24.9
Source: American Public Transportation Association and Highway Statistics 2000, table VM-2.

The good news that transit trips are back to 1960 levels is dimmed by the fact that, since 1960, the U.S. population has grown more than 50 percent and urban driving has increased by a whopping 420 percent. Despite the doubling of U.S. jobs since 1960, the number of commuters riding transit to work fell from 7.8 million in 1960 to 6.1 million in 2000.

For transit supporters, the most disappointing new statistic comes from the 2000 census, which reported the number of American workers taking public transit to work was virtually unchanged since 1990. The estimated 6,067,700 American workers using transit in 2000—4.7 percent of all workers—was about 1,900 less than in 1990. This is all the more stunning because the number of workers grew from 115 million to 128 million. Any growth in transit ridership must be non-commuter traffic—which means it isn’t doing much to relieve rush-hour congestion.

Transit’s tiny market share

Transit’s market share is pitifully small. The National Transit Database reports passenger miles by transit mode in each urban area. The Federal Highway Administration’s Highway Statistics series reports vehicle miles in each urban area, which can be multiplied by 1.6 to get passenger miles. From these data we can calculate transit’s share of motorized travel as well as rail transit’s share of motorized travel.

Table Two compares these numbers for 2000 with transit’s share of the commuter market reported by the 2000 census. The motorized travel data are for urbanized areas, while the commuter data are for metropolitan statistical areas, which are slightly different. But the comparisons are still useful.

Table Two
Transit’s Share of Motorized and Commuter Travel (percent)
Share of: Motorized Travel Commuter Travel
  Transit Rail 2000 1990
Atlanta 1.3 0.8 3.7 4.7
Austin 1.0 0 2.6 3.4
Baltimore 2.2 0.5 6.2 7.4
Boston 4.6 3.7 9.0 10.6
Buffalo 0.7 0.1 3.5 4.7
Chicago 3.9 2.8 11.5 13.7
Cincinnati 0.9 0 3.1 3.6
Cleveland 1.3 0.4 3.4 4.6
Dallas-Ft. Worth 0.5 0.1 1.8 2.4
Denver 1.4 0.1 4.3 4.3
Detroit 0.5 0 1.8 2.4
Houston 1.1 0 3.3 3.7
Indianapolis 0.3 0 1.3 2.0
Kansas City 0.3 0 1.3 2.0
Las Vegas 1.2 0 4.1 2.0
Los Angeles 1.5 0.3 4.7 4.6
Louisville 0.4 0 2.2 3.2
Milwaukee 1.2 0 4.0 4.8
Minneapolis-St. Paul 1.0 0 4.6 5.2
Nashville 0.2 0 1.0 1.7
New York 10.8 6.8 24.9 26.6
Orlando 0.7 0 1.7 1.6
Philadelphia 3.2 1.9 8.7 10.2
Phoenix 0.5 0 2.0 2.0
Pittsburgh 1.6 0.2 6.2 8.0
Portland 2.1 0.7 5.7 5.4
Providence 0.5 0 2.5 3.2
Raleigh-Durham 0.1 0 1.7 2.0
Rochester 0.5 0 2.0 3.2
Sacramento 0.8 0.3 2.7 2.4
Salt Lake City 1.1 0.4 3.0 3.0
San Diego 1.5 0.6 3.4 3.3
San Francisco 4.3 2.7 9.5 9.3
Seattle 2.7 0 6.8 6.2
St. Louis 0.8 0.3 2.4 3.0
Washington 3.7 2.8 11.1 13.3
West Palm Beach 0.3 0 1.4 1.4
Source: Transit and rail’s share of motorized travel is from the 2000 National Transit Database and Highway Statistics 2000. Transit’s 2000 and 1990 share of commuter travel is from and is based on 2000 census data.

Six urban areas—Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington—stand out as megacities in which transit carries more than 3 percent of all passenger miles and more than 8 percent of commuter travel. The “big six” carry two out of three transit passenger miles in America. All six have rail systems, but more important, they tend to have massive numbers of downtown jobs.

Transit gains swamped by auto travel

Table Three shows that transit gains are swamped by increased auto driving: Even Seattle and Portland’s gains in transit market share are trivial compared to changes in auto driving.

Portland gained 24,000 transit commuters, but 380,000 new jobs—meaning it gained more than a dozen times as many new auto commuters as new transit commuters. Increases in automobile passenger miles are typically 20 to several hundred times as much as increases in transit passenger miles.

Table Three compares the growth in annual passenger miles to 2000 from 1993, the earliest year for which both transit and highway data are posted on the Web. The key figure is the last column, which shows the increase in highway driving relative to transit use.

Even where transit gained a share of commuter travel, the growth of total highway and street passenger miles was 22 to 185 times greater than the growth in transit passenger miles. In some regions where transit lost market share, highway growth exceeded transit growth by hundreds of times.

Table Three
Growth in Transit and Auto Passenger Miles
(change from 1993 to 2000)
Region Transit Highway Highway/Transit
Regions in which Transit Gained Market Share
Denver 137,850 5,422,201 39
Las Vegas 106,350 6,511,042 61
Los Angeles 352,793 15,153,032 43
Orlando 80,651 5,907,117 73
Portland 145,332 3,193,369 22
Sacramento 50,654 2,871,453 57
San Diego 176,976 5,905,894 33
San Francisco-Oakland 55,012 6,635,106 121
Seattle 153,310 3,847,580 25
West Palm Beach 28,498 5,265,641 185
Regions in which Transit Lost Market Share
Atlanta 221,237 13,075,616 59
Austin 29,140 2,922,841 100
Baltimore 14,723 2,868,458 195
Chicago 387,946 9,377,493 24
Cincinnati 34,058 2,604,203 76
Cleveland 51,186 1,675,522 33
Dallas-Fort Worth 88,583 22,127,977 250
Fort Lauderdale 5,924 5,236,713 884
Houston 107,820 9,937,914 92
Indianapolis 5,346 2,703,553 506
Memphis 5,989 2,059,904 344
Milwaukee 57,433 810,258 14
Minneapolis-St. Paul 72,688 7,189,024 99
Philadelphia 133,376 2,091,251 16
Phoenix 26,207 5,846,785 223
Salt Lake City 11,919 2,101,908 176
San Antonio 26,924 4,302,457 160
St. Louis 86,274 4,068,492 47
Source: Changes in transit passenger miles are from the 2000 and 1993 National Transit Databases. Changes in auto passenger miles are from the 2000 and 1993 Highway Statistics, table HM-72, with daily vehicle miles of travel converted to annual passenger miles by multiplying by 365 days and 1.6 riders per auto.

Transit is well funded

Transit’s insignificance in the face of growing auto traffic is not a result of inadequate funding. From 1991 through 2000, transit agencies spent more than $70 billion on capital expenses, nearly two-thirds of which went into rail projects. The agencies spent more than $186 billion on operating expenses, but collected only $72 billion in fares.

The growth in spending has far exceeded the growth in either ridership or fares. Since 1991, capital spending has grown by 76 percent and operating subsidies (operating expenses minus fares) have grown by 32 percent. Yet transit ridership has grown by just 9 percent.

As a result, transit subsidies have steadily grown even after adjusting for inflation. In the past decade, inflation-adjusted subsidies per ride increased by 18 percent and subsidies per passenger mile increased by 8 percent. In 2000, subsidies averaged $2.51 a ride and 49 cents per passenger mile.

Light rail is the biggest waste

The biggest offender is light rail. Table Four shows that 10.9 percent of transit capital investments were in light rail, yet this mode carries only 2.8 percent of transit riders and collects only 2.1 percent of transit fares. Nor are there much savings in operating expenses, since light rail accounts for 2.7 percent of transit operating expenses.

Table Four
Share of Expenses, Fares, and Ridership
by Transit Mode (percent)
Mode Capital Operating Fares Ridership
Bus 30.7 57.3 50.0 44.6
Commuter rail 21.9 11.9 15.7 19.7
Heavy rail 32.1 17.4 28.4 29.0
Light rail 10.9 2.7 2.1 2.8
Other 4.5 10.8 3.8 3.8
Source: American Public Transportation Association.

This table compares the share of capital investments by mode over the past decade with operating expenses, fares, and ridership in 2000. “Other” includes demand-responsive buses, ferries, people movers, trolley buses, and various other modes.

Table Five shows that, as a result of wasteful spending on light rail, light rail subsidies in 2000 were 2.5 times as much as for buses. Light rail subsidies per passenger mile were nearly three times as much as for other rail modes.

Table Five
Subsidy Per Trip and Per Passenger Mile
by Transit Mode (dollars)
Mode Unlinked Trip Passenger Mile
Bus 2.09 0.56
Commuter rail 7.49 0.33
Heavy rail 1.63
Light rail 5.22 1.23
Trolley bus 2.19 1.39
Demand response 16.83 2.11
Source: American Public Transportation Association. Includes capital and operating subsidies.

Another way of measuring transit productivity is to look at ridership per directional route mile. A directional route mile is a mile in each direction; thus, a 10-mile rail line is usually 20 directional route miles. Table Six summarizes productivity by mode.

Table Six
Daily Passenger Miles
Per Directional Route Mile
Mode Average Maximum
Commuter rail 3,362 10,220
Heavy rail 24,617 46,236
Light rail 4,428 8,484
Freeway lane mile 26,334 37,430
Source: Transit from National Transit Database, freeway from Highway Statistics 2000 (average of 50 largest urban areas only).

In 2000, America’s heavy rail lines carried an average of 24,600 passenger miles per directional route mile (pm/drm) each day. This is close to a lane of urban freeway, which carries about 26,000 passenger miles per lane mile—with a maximum of 37,000 pm/lm in Los Angeles.

However, New York subways are the only rail transit systems more productive than a freeway lane. The second most productive heavy rail line, in Boston, carried only 17,100 pm/drm. Heavy rail lines in Los Angeles, Cleveland, and Miami are particularly unproductive, carrying under 7,500 pm/drm.

Yet most light rail lines pale even by comparison to unproductive heavy rail lines. The average light rail line in 2000 carried only 4,400 pm/drm. The most productive was Boston’s at 8,500. The Hudson-Bergen, Sacramento, Baltimore, Denver, and San Jose light rail lines were particularly unproductive, carrying 3,500 pm/drm or fewer.

Transit vs. auto subsidies

Nationwide, automobiles carry about 2.6 trillion passenger miles a year on urban highways and streets, and another 1.7 trillion on rural roads. Urban transit, which carries less than 50 billion passenger miles a year, represents barely 1 percent of surface travel and 2 percent of urban travel.

In 2000, various levels of government spent about $65 billion on road capital investments, $30 billion on road maintenance, and $29 billion on administration, highway law enforcement, collection costs, and other costs.

Governments collected $101 billion in gas taxes, vehicle taxes, and tolls, so it is difficult to argue that most of the spending on roads was a subsidy. While it is true state and local governments spent about $29 billion of property taxes and general funds on roads, they also diverted $17 billion in highway user fees to transit and other non-highway uses. This means total subsidies to highways were about $22.4 billion.

This probably overstates highway subsidies, as it may leave out some highway user fees. It certainly includes some costs that are not truly highway costs, such as the cost of state and regional transportation planning when that planning is more oriented to transit than highways. In addition, highways carry roughly a trillion ton-miles of freight each year, something often forgotten when calculating subsidies to the auto.

Table Seven shows that total highway subsidies are slightly less than total transit subsidies. But since Americans travel nearly 100 times as many miles by auto as by transit, subsidies to transit per passenger mile are almost exactly 100 times greater than to autos.

Subsidies or not, all of the spending on roads put together amounts to less than 3 cents per automobile passenger mile. Yet we spend nearly 68 cents a passenger mile on transit, 49 cents of which is a subsidy.

For comparison, Table Seven also shows light rail costs to be $1.37 per passenger mile. This is nearly 50 times greater than the cost of roads. Subsidies to light rail are nearly 250 times greater than to roads.

Table Seven
Highway and Transit Revenues and Spending in 2000

(dollars and miles in billions except last two lines in cents)
Highway Transit Light Rail
Fares/tolls & user fees $101.5 $8.7 $0.2
Capital investments 64.6 9.6 1.2
Operations, maintenance, & other 59.4 22.6 0.6
Total costs 123.9 32.2 1.9
Net revenues -$22.4 -$23.5 -$1.7
Passenger miles of travel 4,400 48 0.1
Cost in cents per passenger mile 2.8 67.5 136.5
Net revenue in cents per pm -0.5 -49.2 123.2
Source: Highway Statistics 2000, table HF-10 and American Public Transportation Association. Data may not add due to rounding. “Other” for highways includes law enforcement, administration, research, planning, and user fee collection costs.

Lessons for urban areas

Urban leaders, especially those in such rail-wannabe regions as Cincinnati, Louisville, Phoenix, and Seattle, should recognize that:

  • After decades of annual subsidies in the tens of billions of dollars, urban transit still carries an insignificant number of trips in all but a few urban areas—and its importance is declining in most of those areas.
  • Investments in transit have failed to halt or even slow the growing amount of auto driving. Even where transit is gaining market share, those gains are dwarfed by huge increases in auto driving.
  • By itself, rail transit will not increase transit’s market share or even total transit ridership. Growth in ridership and market share is due more to regional growth and downtown job concentration than to investments in rail transit.
  • Light rail transit is particularly wasteful, costing two-and-one-half to three times as much per passenger mile as other transit modes.
  • Contrary to popular belief, transit subsidies are 100 times greater than highway subsidies, averaging 50 cents per passenger mile and $2.50 per transit ride. Light rail subsidies are nearly 250 times greater than highway subsidies.
  • Growing urban congestion is partly a result of transportation planners short-changing auto travel as they divert at least $9 billion a year in highway user fees to unproductive transit systems.

Randal O’Toole ([email protected]) is senior economist with the Thoreau Institute ( and author of The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths.