The Myth of the Senior Transit Rider

According to Transportation for America — which is largely a shill for the transit industry — the nation is about to face a new crisis: a shortage of mobility “options” for retiring baby boomers. According to a report published by the group on June 14, “By 2015, more than 15.5 million Americans 65 and older will live in communities where public transportation service is poor or non-existent.”

The appropriate answer to that, of course, is “So what?” Most seniors don’t ride transit. Census data show that more than 12.5 percent of all Americans are over 65, yet data from the American Public Transportation Association show that only 6.7 percent of transit trips are taken by senior citizens. The average American rides transit less than 34 times a year; the average senior citizen less than 18 times a year.

Putting that into perspective, the 2009 National Household Travel Survey says Americans over 65 take an average of 1,168 trips per year, nearly all by automobile. Transit serves only 1.5 percent of those trips. This survey of the travel habits of more than 300,000 people also found that senior citizens travel an average of 8,250 miles a year by car. Transit carries seniors an average of less than 100 miles a year, or about 1.1 percent of the total of transit and auto travel.

Despite this, Transportation for America joins the American Public Transportation Association in using the supposed needs of senior citizens to justify more transit subsidies. They say additional federal subsidies are needed to give seniors “options.”

But think about it. Baby boomers have driven cars for almost their entire lives. Nearly all of them will keep driving until they are physically or mentally unable to do so. At that point, they are probably not going to be capable of walking the quarter mile to the nearest bus stop or the half mile to the nearest rail stop that Transportation for America defines as “transit accessible.”

Those baby boomers who prefer transit over driving can do what everyone else does who prefers one set of services over another: locate to where the services they prefer are the greatest. In the case of transit riders, that generally means dense central cities.

Instead, Transportation for America wants transit agencies to extend frequent bus or rail service to every remote suburb where there might be a few people over 65 — not because those people want to ride transit, but to simply give them “options.” In order to pay for service extensions to suburbs, many transit agencies have reduced transit service in the central cities where most transit riders are actually located. As a result, since 1985, per-capita transit ridership has plummeted in such major urban areas as Los Angeles, Chicago, and Atlanta.

Congress expects to pass legislation this year that will decide how to spend $40 billion in annual federal gas tax revenues over the next six years. In recent years, 20 percent of those gas taxes have been spent on transit. Transportation for America’s goal is to further increase that share. But after decades of huge transit subsidies, per-capita transit ridership today is no greater than it was in 1970 — mainly because the subsidies have focused on extending transit service to those who don’t need it rather than providing better service to those who do.

Americans will be better off by privatizing transit. Private operators will provide better service to those willing to live in denser, transit-friendly neighborhoods without wasting a lot of money trying to attract a few suburbanites out of their cars.