No Fundamental Shift to Transit: Not Even a Shift

Published March 21, 2014

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) is out  with news of higher transit ridership. APTA President and CEO Michael  Melaniphy characterizes the new figures as indicating “a fundamental  shift going on in the way we move about our communities.” Others even characterized  the results as indicating “shifting consumer preferences.” The data shows  either view to be an exaggeration.

1935 and 2013

This is hardly a reliable time for making judgments about  fundamental shifts or shifts in consumer preferences. Economic performance has  been more abysmally abnormal only once in the last century –during the Great  Depression – than at present.

The last year, 2013, is the sixth year in a row that total  employment, as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics was below the peak  year of 2007 (Figure 1). This run of dismal job creation was exceeded only between  the Great Depression years of 1929 and 1936 in the last 100 years (Note 1). From  World War II until the Great Recession, the maximum number of years that  employment fell below a previous peak was two, following the 9/11 terrorist  attacks (2001 to 2003). The Great Recession may have ended, according to the  National Bureau of Economic Research, but the Great Malaise continues as the  economy is performing well below historic levels. Judgments about fundamental shifts and consumer choice today are not more reliable than they would have been in the Great Depression year of 1935.

Transit’s Market  Share: Stuck in Neutral

But more importantly, there is no shift to transit.  APTA is right to point out that transit  ridership has grown faster than vehicle travel in the United States since 1995.  Nonetheless, transit’s share of urban travel has barely budged, because its 1995  share of travel was so small. This is indicated by Figure 2, which compares the  overall market share of transit to that of cars and light trucks from 1995 to  2013. Indeed, the top of Figure 2 (the 100 percent line) is virtually  indistinguishable from the personal vehicle share over the entire period. The bottom  of the chart (the zero percent line) is virtually indistinguishable from the  transit share. This is not the stuff of fundamental shift.

Commuting: The Story  is Not Transit

A similar pattern of little or no change is indicated by the  commuting (work access) data from the Census Bureau’s American Community  Survey.

Over the past five years, as with virtually all the years  since such data has been collected, the overwhelming majority of new commuters  have driven alone (Figure 3). Indeed, transit has not taken a single net  automobile off the road since 1960, and not in the last five years. Between  2007 and 2012, 93 percent of the additional commuters drove alone (Note 2). The  drive alone market, which might have been thought to be saturated, actually rose  from 76.1 percent to a 76.3 percent market between 2007 and 2012.

The biggest change has been the continuing loss in carpool  use, which dropped from 10.4 percent to 9.7 percent from 2007 to 2012. It is  estimated that nearly 450,000 passengers left carpools (excluding drivers),  approximately 1.8 passengers for each additional commuter using transit  (250,000).

The largest gain from 2007 to 2012 was in working at home,  including telecommuting. Working at home increased from 4.1 percent to 4.4  percent. In actual numbers, working at home added 1.9 times the increase in  transit commuting. Its change in market share was greater than that of transit  in 42 of the 52 major metropolitan areas. Surprisingly, this includes New York,  with its incomparable transit system (by US standards).

Transit’s share of commuting inched up only 0.1 percentage  points between 2007 and 2012. This is so small that if this rate of annual  increase were sustained for 50 years, transit’s commute market share would  edge up to only 6 percent (Figure 4),  approximately transit’s 1980 market share (doubling to 10 percent would require  130 years). The latest data indicates both gains and losses for transit, with  market shares up in 28 major metropolitan areas and down in 24.

Transit Losses

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. While spending billions of dollars on  rail, working at home – which involves little or no public expenditure – increased  by triple the number of people drawn to transit. And things have not changed  materially, even during the claimed “fundamental shift.” In the last  five years, the working at home increase is more than double that of transit.

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. Even this decline  may be under-stated because of how transit counts passengers. Each time someone  steps on a transit vehicle, they are counted (as a boarding). A person who  transfers between two or three buses to make a trip counts as two or three  boardings, which is what the APTA data reports.

When rail is added to a transit system, bus services are  reconfigured to serve the rail system. This can mean many more boardings from  transfers without more passenger trips. This potential inflation of ridership  is likely to have occurred not only in Los Angeles, but in all metropolitan  areas that added rail systems.

Transit Gains

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. Between  2007 and 2012, 68 percent of the additional transit commuting occurred to  employment locations in these six municipalities. This is higher than the 55  percent of national transit commuting that these areas represented in 2012. The  much larger share being attracted by these areas in the last 5 years is an  indication that transit ridership, already highly concentrated in just a few  places, is becoming even more concentrated.  Further, 50 percent to 75  percent of commuters to the corresponding six downtowns reach work by  transit.

Rational Consumer  Behavior

Even when the nation finally emerges from the Great Malaise,  only vain hope will be able to conceive of a large scale consumer preference driven  shift toward transit. The rational consumer will not choose transit that is  slower or less convenient than the car. Where transit access is impractical or impossible,  people will use cars. This is the case for most trips in all US metropolitan  area, as the Brookings Institution research cited below indicates

The  Brookings Institution research indicated that the average employee in the  nation’s major metropolitan areas are able to access fewer than 10 percent of  jobs in 45 minutes. This is not only a small number of jobs, but it is a travel  time that is approximately twice that of the average employee in the United  States (most of whom travel by car).

More funding for transit cannot solve this problem. The kind  of automobile competitive transit system needed to provide rational consumer  choice between cars and transit would require annual expenditures rivaling the  total personal income in the metropolitan area, as Jean-Claude Ziv and I showed  in our 2007 11th World  Conference on Transport Research paper (2007). It is no wonder that not a  single comprehensive automobile competitive transit system exists or has been  seriously proposed in any major US or Western European metropolitan area (Note  3).  Transit is about the largest  downtowns and the largest urban cores.

Unbalanced Coverage

All of this appears to have escaped many media outlets, which largely parroted the APTA press release. For example, The New York Times, CBS  News, the Washington Post, and the Chicago Tribune were as parish  newsletters commenting on a homily by the priest, for their failure to report  both sides. A notable exception was USA Today, whose reporter consulted  outsider Alan Pisarski (who has written for Pisarski placed  the APTA figures in historical context and expressed reservations about  restoration of the transit commuting share numbers of 1980 or before.


Note 1: Current Employment Statistics Survey data, 1939 to  2013. 1913 to 1938 estimated from data in Historical  Statistics of the United States: Bicentennial Edition.

Note 2: The source for the commuting data is the American  Community Survey of the Census Bureau, which indicates an employment level in  2012 that is higher than in 2007. The Current Employment Statistics Survey of  the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates a decline.

Note 3: I would be pleased to be corrected on this. In 2004,  we issued a challenge on this subject, and while there were some responses,  none met the required criteria (see  The criteria are repeated below:

To identify an actual system or  propose a system that provides the following in an urban area of more than  1,000,000 population:

· Transit choice (automobile  competitive public transport service) for at least 90 percent of trips and  passenger kilometers in the particular urban area.

· Automobile competitiveness is  defined as door to door trip times no more than 1.5 times automobile travel  time.

The description of any system not  already in operation should also include an estimate of its cost, capital and  annual operating.


[Originally published at New Geography]