Why Few Americans Use Transit

In 1964, most transit was privately owned, earned a profit, and was used by the average urban American 60 times a year. Then Congress passed the Urban Mass Transportation Act, offering capital grants to cities that took over their transit systems. Since then, most transit has been municipalized, we spend nearly $50 billion a year subsidizing it, and today the average American rides transit just 40 times a year.

Transit advocates complain that Americans have some sort of irrational love affair with their automobiles. But Americans have excellent reasons not to rely on transit. Here are nine of them.

1. Transit is slow.

Most transit is much slower than driving, and a lot of transit is slower than cycling. While the average speed of driving in most American cities is more than 30 mph, and in some it is more than 40 mph, the American Public Transportation Association’s Public Transportation Fact Book admits that the average speed of rail transit is just 21.5 mph while the average speed of buses is 14.1 mph. That doesn’t count the time it takes to get to and from transit stops.

2. It doesn’t go where you want to go.

Most transit is oriented to downtown, a destination few people go to anymore as less than 8 percent of urban jobs and 1 percent of urban residences are located in central city downtowns. If you don’t want to go downtown, transit is practically useless as hub-and-spoke transit systems can require hours to take you to destinations that are only a few minutes away by car.

3. It’s expensive.

The transit industry claims that transit saves people money. But the truth is that, for most people, it costs a lot less to drive than to ride transit. Transit fares in 2015 averaged 28 cents a passenger mile. That’s less than the cost of driving if you count all the costs of owning a car and are the only person in the car. But if you already own the car, the cost of one more trip is less than 20 cents a mile, and you save even more if you carry any passengers.

4. Lack of privacy and security.

Compared with the aura of security offered by riding inside of an automobile, many people avoid transit because they feel vulnerable and threatened by other riders. Teenagers swarm onto San Francisco BART trains to rob passengers. One person was killed and three injured in an Atlanta train shooting. Transit crime is up in New York despite a drop in the city overall. Even if these highly visible crimes had never taken place, sexual harassment of women is a constant problem with transit.

5. Our cities aren’t built for it.

Housing, jobs, and other destinations are so diffused throughout American urban areas that they don’t generate the large numbers of people moving from one point to another that mass transit systems need to work. One hundred years ago, when transit was at its peak, half of urban jobs were concentrated in factory districts. Today, most urban employment is in service jobs in such fields as health care, education, wholesale and retail trade, and utilities, and these jobs are diffused throughout urban areas. This makes it almost impossible for transit to serve commuters, much less anyone else.

6. Transit infrastructure is crumbling.

Rather than maintain transit systems in a state of good repair, the transit industry has chosen to build more transit lines that it can’t afford to maintain. Transit riders respond to delays and dilapidated transit by finding other methods of travel. The Department of Transportation’s latest assessment estimates that transit has a $90 billion maintenance backlog. Yet rather than address this backlog, transit agencies spent $6.4 billion building new rail transit lines in 2015.

7. It doesn’t carry freight.

Carrying large packages, suitcases, or shopping bags on transit is awkward at best and impossible at worst. Anyone who expects to travel with such cargo, even if only some of the time, will do best with a car.

8. Life is complicated.

Transit works best going from point A to point B if you happen to be near point A and want to get to point B. Transit doesn’t work well for trip chaining, going from point A to point B via points C, D, and E. Because life is complicated and people don’t want to spend all their time traveling, trip chaining works best in an independent vehicle such as a car.

9. It’s demeaning.

“Exact change only.” “Carry proof of fare with you at all times.” “No food or beverages.” “No playing music aloud.” “Take off your backpack and put it between your legs so we can cram more people onto your transit vehicle.” Some of these rules are for the convenience of other passengers, but most of them are for the convenience of the transit agencies themselves. Owning your own car means you can throw your bag in the back, drink your morning coffee, and play your favorite music as loud as you want. 

Bonus 10. Europeans don’t use transit much either

Europe is supposed to be a transit mecca, and transit there works for American tourists who are content to see only the major sights in big cities. But it doesn’t work for most Europeans much better than American transit works for most Americans. Example: According to the European Union, the average American rode light- or heavy-rail transit (known in Europe as trams and metros) 34 miles in 2006, while the average European rode them 89 miles. Yes, that’s more than twice as much, but that extra 55 miles is insignificant compared with the 12,600 miles the average American travels by car each year.

For all these reasons, just 5 percent of American commuting is by transit while 86 percent is by car. When all travel is counted, transit represents less than 1 percent of the total. Yet transit subsidies per passenger mile are 50 to 100 times as great as subsidies to driving. The solution is not to increase subsidies for one form of travel or another but to end all transportation subsidies and let people choose how to get around based on the real costs of travel.