Tag: transit

Census Data Detail Transit’s Decline

Transit ridership has been declining now for four years, and the latest census data, released last week, reveal that the biggest declines are among the groups that you might least expect: young people and low-income people. These results come from the American Community Survey, a survey of more than 3 million households a year conducted by the Census Bureau. Here are some of the key findings revealed by the data.

Young People Are Deserting Transit

Those who subscribe to the popular belief that Millennials and other young people prefer to  transit over owning and driving a car were shocked last week when the Washington Post published an article indicating that “a Millennial exodus” was “behind [Washington] Metro’s diving ridership.” This was based on a study that found that, from 2016 to 2018, young people had reduced their use of transit for commuting by 20 percent, while older people had reduced it by smaller amounts or not at all. The study used cell phone records from one of the nation’s largest wireless carriers, probably Verizon or AT&T.

Young people seem to be deserting transit more than older commuters.

Although the census data only go as far as 2017, they seem to confirm this finding. As shown in the above chart, the largest declines in transit commuting, both nationally and in the Washington DC urban area, are among younger people. Commuting forms only a part of transit ridership, but to the extent that declining ridership is due to ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft, those services disproportionately used by people the age of 35. For more information about transit declines by age class, including links to data files for 2017 going back to 2005, see my longer post on the subject. In addition to national data, the files show how people in various age classes commuted to work in each state and each major county, city, and urban area.

2. Low-Income People Are Deserting Transit

Although transit subsidies are often justified by the need to provide mobility to low-income people, the reality is that transit commuting by people in the lowest income classes is shrinking while transit commuting is growing fastest among people in the highest income classes.

Transit commuting in the lowest income classes is shrinking faster than the total size of those classes while in the highest classes it is growing faster than the total size of those classes.

Transit commuting is increasingly skewed to people who earn more than $75,000 a year. Even though only 19 percent of American workers were in this income class in 2017, they made up 26 percent of transit commuters, an increase from just 14 percent in 2005. Both the average and the median income of transit commuters are higher than those of all workers. For more information on transit commuting and income, including links to data files from 2006 through 2017, see my more detailed post on the subject.

3. Vehicle Ownership Continues to Rise

While ride hailing is probably responsible for much of the decline in transit ridership among young people, increasing auto ownership is responsible for much of the decline among low-income people. Between 2014 and 2017, the share of households that lacked access to a motor vehicle declined from 9.1 to 8.6 percent. Moreover, the share of workers who live in households with no vehicles declined from 4.6 to 4.2 percent.

In 1960, more than 20 percent of American households had no motor vehicles while only a small percentage owned three or more, figures that have practically reversed themselves today.

While a few tenths of a percent may not sound like much, remember that in all but a handful of urban areas more than 90 percent of commuters get to work by car while less than 2 percent take transit. Thus, a small increase in auto ownership can lead to a large percentage decrease in transit usage.

Curiously, most American workers who live in households without cars don’t take transit to work. In fact, in most states and urban areas, more workers who live in households without cars nevertheless drive alone to work than take transit to work. How do they drive alone if they don’t have a car? Probably in employer-supplied vehicles. In any case, this is just one more indicator of transit’s declining relevance. For more information on increasing auto ownership, including data files, see my detailed post on the subject.

4. Transit Is Increasingly Irrelevant

Transit agencies and their supporters act as though transit is somehow vital to the national and local economies. That may still be true in New York City, but it is only marginally true in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington, and not at all true elsewhere. The decline in transit ridership among young people who were supposed to love transit the most, and among low-income people who were supposed to need transit the most just reinforces this declining relevance and argues against any further subsidies to this obsolete industry.

Commuting in 2017

The total number of American workers who usually commute by transit declined from 7.65 million in 2016 to 7.64 million in 2017. This continues a downward trend from 2015, when there were 7.76 million transit commuters. Meanwhile, the number of people who drove alone to work grew by nearly 2 million, from 114.77 million in 2016 to 116.74 million in 2017.

These figures are from table B08301 of the 2017 American Community Survey, which the Census Bureau posted on line on September 13. According to the table, the total number of workers in America grew from 150.4 million in 2016 to 152.8 million in 2017. Virtually all new workers drove to work, took a taxi-ride hailing service, or worked at home, as most other forms of commuting, including walking and bicycling as well as transit, declined.

Transit commuting has fallen so low that more people work at home now than take transit to work. Work-at-homes reported for 2017 total to nearly 8.0 million, up from just under 7.6 million in 2016. 

Two other tables, B08119 and B08121, reveal incomes and median incomes of American workers by how they get to work. A decade ago, the average income of transit riders was almost exactly the same as the average for all workers. Today it is 5 percent more as the number of low-income transit riders has declined but the number of high-income – $60,000 or more – has rapidly grown. Median incomes are usually a little lower than average incomes as very high-income people increase the average. In 2017, the median income of transit riders exceeded the median income of all workers for the first time.

For those interested in commuting numbers in their states, cities, or regions, I’ve posted a file showing commute data for every state, about 390 counties, 259 major cities, and 220 urbanized areas. The Census Bureau didn’t report data from smaller counties, cities, and urbanized areas because it deemed the results for those areas to be less statistically reliable. 

The file includes the raw numbers plus calculations showing the percentage of commuters (leaving out people who work at home) who drive alone, carpooled, took transit, (with rail and bus transit broken out separately), bicycled, and walked to work. A separate column shows the percentage of the total who worked at home. The last column estimates the number of cars used for commuting including drive alones and carpoolers.

For comparison, you can download similar files for 2016, 2015, 2014, 2010, 2007 and 2006. The formats of these files may differ slightly as I’ve posted them at various times in the past. Soon, I’ll post similar files for commuting by income and other pertinent topics.

Commuting in 2017

The total number of American workers who usually commute by transit declined from 7.65 million in 2016 to 7.64 million in 2017. This continues a downward trend from 2015, when there were 7.76 million transit commuters. Meanwhile, the number of people who drove alone to work grew by nearly 2 million, from 114.77 million in 2016 to 116.74 million in 2017.

These figures are from table B08301 of the 2017 American Community Survey, which the Census Bureau posted on line on September 13. According to the table, the total number of workers in America grew from 150.4 million in 2016 to 152.8 million in 2017. Virtually all new workers drove to work, took a taxi-ride hailing service, or worked at home, as most other forms of commuting, including walking and bicycling as well as transit, declined.

Transit commuting has fallen so low that more people work at home now than take transit to work. Work-at-homes reported for 2017 total to nearly 8.0 million, up from just under 7.6 million in 2016. 

Two other tables, B08119 and B08121, reveal incomes and median incomes of American workers by how they get to work. A decade ago, the average income of transit riders was almost exactly the same as the average for all workers. Today it is 5 percent more as the number of low-income transit riders has declined but the number of high-income – $60,000 or more – has rapidly grown. Median incomes are usually a little lower than average incomes as very high-income people increase the average. In 2017, the median income of transit riders exceeded the median income of all workers for the first time.

For those interested in commuting numbers in their states, cities, or regions, I’ve posted a file showing commute data for every state, about 390 counties, 259 major cities, and 220 urbanized areas. The Census Bureau didn’t report data from smaller counties, cities, and urbanized areas because it deemed the results for those areas to be less statistically reliable. 

The file includes the raw numbers plus calculations showing the percentage of commuters (leaving out people who work at home) who drive alone, carpooled, took transit, (with rail and bus transit broken out separately), bicycled, and walked to work. A separate column shows the percentage of the total who worked at home. The last column estimates the number of cars used for commuting including drive alones and carpoolers.

For comparison, you can download similar files for 20162015201420102007 and 2006. The formats of these files may differ slightly as I’ve posted them at various times in the past. Soon, I’ll post similar files for commuting by income and other pertinent topics.

Commuting in 2017

The total number of American workers who usually commute by transit declined from 7.65 million in 2016 to 7.64 million in 2017. This continues a downward trend from 2015, when there were 7.76 million transit commuters. Meanwhile, the number of people who drove alone to work grew by nearly 2 million, from 114.77 million in 2016 to 116.74 million in 2017.

These figures are from table B08301 of the 2017 American Community Survey, which the Census Bureau posted on line on September 13. According to the table, the total number of workers in America grew from 150.4 million in 2016 to 152.8 million in 2017. Virtually all new workers drove to work, took a taxi-ride hailing service, or worked at home, as most other forms of commuting, including walking and bicycling as well as transit, declined.

Transit commuting has fallen so low that more people work at home now than take transit to work. Work-at-homes reported for 2017 total to nearly 8.0 million, up from just under 7.6 million in 2016. 

Two other tables, B08119 and B08121, reveal incomes and median incomes of American workers by how they get to work. A decade ago, the average income of transit riders was almost exactly the same as the average for all workers. Today it is 5 percent more as the number of low-income transit riders has declined but the number of high-income – $60,000 or more – has rapidly grown. Median incomes are usually a little lower than average incomes as very high-income people increase the average. In 2017, the median income of transit riders exceeded the median income of all workers for the first time.

For those interested in commuting numbers in their states, cities, or regions, I’ve posted a file showing commute data for every state, about 390 counties, 259 major cities, and 220 urbanized areas. The Census Bureau didn’t report data from smaller counties, cities, and urbanized areas because it deemed the results for those areas to be less statistically reliable. 

The file includes the raw numbers plus calculations showing the percentage of commuters (leaving out people who work at home) who drive alone, carpooled, took transit, (with rail and bus transit broken out separately), bicycled, and walked to work. A separate column shows the percentage of the total who worked at home. The last column estimates the number of cars used for commuting including drive alones and carpoolers.

I’ve also posted similar files for 20162015201420102007 and 2006. The formats of these files may differ slightly as I’ve posted them at various times in the past. Soon, I’ll post more files for commuting by income and other pertinent topics. 

Transit Industry Claims That Correlation Proves Causation

A new report from the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) comes out firmly in support of the belief that correlation proves causation. The report observes that traffic fatality rates are lower in urban areas with high rates of transit ridership, and claims that this proves “that modest increases in public transit mode share can provide disproportionally larger traffic safety benefits.”


Here is one of the charts that APTA claims proves that modest increases in transit ridership will reduce traffic fatalities. Note that, in urban areas with fewer than 25 annual transit trips per capita – which is the vast majority of them – the relationship between transit and traffic fatalities is virtually nil. You can click the image for a larger view or go to APTA’s document from which this chart was taken.

In fact, APTA’s data show no such thing. New York has the nation’s highest per capita transit ridership and a low traffic fatality rate. But there are urban areas with very low ridership rates that had even lower fatality rates in 2012, while there are other urban areas with fairly high ridership rates that also had high fatality rates. APTA claims the correlation between transit and traffic fatalities is a high 0.71 (where 1.0 is a perfect correlation), but that’s only when you include New York and a few other large urban areas: among urban areas of 2 million people or less, APTA admits the correlation is a low 0.28.

The United States has two kinds of urban areas: New York and everything else. Including New York in any analysis of urban areas will always bias any statistical correlations in ways that have no application to other urban areas.

In most urban areas outside of New York, transit ridership is so low that it has no real impact on urban travel. Among major urban areas other than New York, APTA’s data show 2012 ridership ranging from 55 trips per person per year in Los Angeles to 105 in Washington DC to 133 in San Francisco-Oakland. From the 2012 National Transit Database, transit passenger miles per capita ranged from 287 in Los Angeles to 544 in Washington to 817 in San Francisco.

Since these urban areas typically see around 14,000 passenger miles of per capita travel on highways and streets per year, the 530-mile difference in transit usage between Los Angeles and San Francisco is pretty much irrelevant. Thus, even if there is a weak correlation between transit ridership and traffic fatalities, transit isn’t the cause of that correlation.

San Francisco and Washington actually saw slightly more per capita driving than Los Angeles in 2012, yet APTA says they had significantly lower fatality rates (3.7 fatalities per 100,000 residents in San Francisco and 3.6 in Washington vs. 6.4 in Los Angeles). Clearly, some other factor must be influencing both transit ridership and traffic fatalities.

With transit ridership declining almost everywhere, this is just a desperate attempt by APTA to make transit appear more relevant than it really is. In reality, contrary to APTA’s unsupported conclusion, modest rates in transit ridership will have zero measurable effect on traffic fatality rates.

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Demonizing Ride Hailing

Last week, a transportation consultant named Bruce Schaller published a report claiming that ride hailing was increasing traffic congestion. Since then, we’ve been innundated with wild claims Uber and Lyft were increasing traffic by 180 percent, and these claims are used to support arguments that that cities should tax companies like Uber and Lyft and use the revenues to compensate transit agencies for the riders lost to ride sharing.

Yet the congestion claims are completely inaccurate. Schaller concluded that, because well under half of ride-hailing trips would otherwise have used private automobiles, ride hailing put “2.8 new vehicle miles on the road for each mile of personal driving removed.” He went on to say that this is “an overall 180 percent increase in driving on city streets,” but that would be true only if ride hailing removed 100 percent of private driving from the streets.

The report also said that ride hailing added “5.7 billion miles of driving annually in the Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington DC metro areas.” That sounds like a lot, but Federal Highway Administration data show that it is only about 1 percent of driving in those metro areas. Since, by Schaller’s estimation, about a third of ride-sharing travel displaced private auto travel, ride hailing added a net of just two-thirds of a percent of driving in those metro areas.

Nor does even that two-thirds of a percent necessarily add to congestion. A disproportionate share of ride hailing takes place during off-peak hours, so only a small portion of that two-thirds of a percent actually contributed to rush-hour congestion.

Aside from being arithmetically challenged, Schaller is an unabashed opponent of auto driving. “Cities need less driving, not more,” he says, claiming that cities that allow too much auto driving will be “drained of the density and diversity which are indispensable to their economic and social well-being.” The reality is that low-density cities that emphasize driving, such as Dallas and Houston, tend to be more affordable and more socially and economically diverse than high-density cities that emphasize transit such as New York and San Francisco.

To promote transit and limit driving, Schaller advocates imposing fees on Uber and Lyft of as much as $50 per hour. Cities that are already charging such fees (though less than $50 an hour) are using them to compensate transit agencies that have lost riders to ride sharing, a policy Schaller would applaud but one that makes as much sense as taxing pocket calculators to save the slide rule industry.

Only transit, says the report, can “make possible dense urban centers with lively, walkable downtowns; a rich selection of jobs, restaurants, entertainment and other activities; diversity of population; and intensive and inventive face-to-face interactions that make cities fertile grounds for business and artistic innovation.” Has New York City resident Schaller ever been to Silicon Valley? It doesn’t have a dense urban center and it’s transit system carries less than 5 percent of commuters to work and only about 1 percent of local passenger travel. Yet it is one of the most creative and innovative places on earth.

The reality is that the ride-hailing industry is threatening the transit industry, and transit advocates are demonizing Uber and Lyft in order to protect their $50 billion in annual subsidies. Schaller’s report estimates that ride-hailing grew by 710 million trips in 2017, the same year that transit ridership declined by 255 million trips. If just 36 percent of ride-hailing trips would otherwise have taken transit–a number Schaller’s report would seem to support–then ride hailing is responsible for 100 percent of the decline in transit.

The truth is that transit was obsolete before Uber and Lyft were invented. Nearly 96 percent of American workers have cars and most of the 4 percent who do not don’t take transit to work. Outside of New York City, transit plays a minor role in urban transport, and outside of New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, Boston, and San Francisco, its role shrinks to insignificance. Given a choice between automobiles and transit, Americans have overwhelmingly chosen the former. Given a choice between ride hailing and transit, policy makers should also side with the mode that is faster, more convenient, and least subsidized.

Transit Death Spiral Continues

Transit ridership has been dropping for four years and increased subsidies won’t fix the problem. Data released by the Federal Transit Administration yesterday show that nationwide ridership was 3.1 percent less in June 2018 than it had been in June 2017. Ridership fell for all major modes of transit, including commuter rail (-2.6%), heavy rail (-2.5%), light rail (-3.3%), and buses (-3.8%). 

June 2018 had one fewer work day than June 2017, which may account for part of the ridership decline. But ridership in the first six months of 2018 was 3.0 percent less than the same months of 2017, and again ridership declined for all major modes of transit.

As in previous months, I’ve posted an enhanced spreadsheet that has all of the raw monthly data from the FTA spreadsheet but includes annual totals from 2002 through 2018 in columns GZ through HP, modal totals in rows 2125 through 2131, transit agency totals in rows 2140 through 3139, and urban area totals for the nation’s 200 largest urban areas in rows 3141 through 3340. The same enhancements are included on the “VRM” or vehicle-revenue miles worksheet.

June 30 is the end of the fiscal year for many if not most transit agencies, so now we can compare transit’s 2018 fiscal year performance against 2017 (see columns HU to HW in the spreadsheet). Nationwide ridership in FY 2018 declined 2.7 percent from 2017 and of course it fell for hundreds of transit agencies.

Of the nation’s 50 largest urban areas, June ridership grew in eleven, January through June ridership grew in ten, and fiscal year ridership grew in just six. Seattle is one of the six, having grown by 1.4 percent, the others being Pittsburgh (0.2%), Providence (1.1%), Nashville (3.5%), Hartford (3.3%), and Raleigh (6.1%). Except Seattle, these urban areas have seen declines in other recent years so this increase is not a great victory and probably won’t be sustained for long in the future. 

As I’ve noted elsewhere, Seattle has enjoyed steady growth in transit ridership not because it built light rail but because it has increased downtown jobs from 216,000 in 2010 to 292,000 in 2017. Downtown jobs are the key to transit ridership because most transit agencies run hub-and-spoke systems focused on central city downtowns. But replicating Seattle’s downtown growth is impossible in most regions, as all but six American cities have far fewer downtown jobs; nor would most people agree to accept the costs Seattle is paying in terms of subsidies to new employers, traffic congestion, and high housing prices resulting from land-use restrictions that prevent jobs and housing from moving to the suburbs.

Fiscal year ridership declines in many urban areas were larger than the increases in the few regions where ridership grew. The worst were Charlotte (-15.1%), Cleveland (-11.7%), Miami (-10.3%), St. Louis (-8.2%), Memphis (-7.7%), Jacksonville (-7.0%), Baltimore (-6.6%), Richmond (-6.6%), Philadelphia (-6.5%), Cincinnati (-6.2%), Virginia Beach (-6.1%), Dallas-Ft. Worth (-5.9%), Phoenix (-5.6%), and Boston (-5.2%). This is in addition to significant declines in all of these urban areas between 2014 and 2017.

Officials at the Charlotte Area Transit System must be proud that the light-rail expansion they opened in March led to a 65 percent increase in June light-rail ridership over June 2017. Yet this was a hollow victory as the agency lost 36,000 more bus riders than it gained in rail riders.

Transit agencies get about a third of their operating funds from fare revenues, and the decline in ridership has forced many to reduce service. The vehicle-revenue miles page shows that nationwide transit service declined by 5.1 percent in June 2018 vs. 2017. While some people blame the ridership declines on the service reductions, at least one study says it is the other way around: service has declined because riders abandoned transit, forcing agencies to cut back on spending.

Transit ridership has declined in many urban areas despite increasing service. Among many others, Phoenix increased 2018 service by 11.0 percent yet lost 5.6 percent of its riders; San Jose increased service by 3.1 percent but lost 4.2 percent of its riders; Indianapolis increased service by 4.3 percent yet lost 3.9 percent of its riders; Austin increased service by 6.5 percent yet lost 1.1 percent of its riders.

It appears that ride hailing is the principal factor in ridership declines. A recent study estimates that ride hailing grew by 710 million trips in 2017. If just 36 percent of those trips were people who would otherwise would have taken transit, then ride hailing is responsible for all of the decline in 2017. Declining ridership leads to service reductions, which results in more ridership declines, producing a death spiral of revenue shortfalls followed by service reductions followed by more revenue shortfalls.

Some cities are supplementing transit revenues by taxing ride-hailing companies, which I’ve noted elsewhere is a little like taxing word processors to protect the typewriter industry or pocket calculators to protect the slide rule industry. At least one city is looking at taxing marijuana to subsidize transit.

It doesn’t really matter. The decline in transit ridership is beyond the control of transit agencies, and increasing subsidies to what is already the nation’s most-heavily-subsidized form of transportation won’t make much difference. The only question is when will appropriators realize that it is pointless to continue subsidizing a dying industry and start winding down those subsidies.

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