The federal, state, and local governments spend more than $50
billion a year subsidizing public transit, yet transit ridership
has declined in each of the last four years. The reasons for the
subsidies are also declining, as the social, environmental, and
economic benefits that transit supposedly provides are either
fading away or were exaggerated in the first place. In a series of
twelve charts, this paper explains the decline in ridership and its
implications for the future.
Transit Ridership Is Declining
Nationwide transit ridership in the fiscal year ending in June
2018 was 2.7 percent less than in the year ending in June 2017 (the
fiscal year for most transit agencies is from July 1 to June 30).
This follows three years of steady losses in FY14 through FY17,
resulting in a 7.5 percent total decline between FY14 and FY18
(Figure 1).1 Ridership is falling in big cities and
small cities, in cities with decrepit transit infrastructure and
cities with brand-new infrastructure, and it is falling for both
rail and bus. The following charts should help clarify the past,
present, and future of transit in the United States.
The 2008 financial crisis led nationwide transit ridership to
fall through 2010, but it then recovered along with the economy for
a few years. Since 2014, however, ridership has been steadily
falling in almost every urban area despite a strengthening economy.
Figure 1 shows that ridership is declining whether it is bus or
rail and whether it is in large, medium, or small urban
Source: National Transit Database,
“Monthly Module Adjusted Data Release,” Federal Transit
Administration, June 2018,
No type of urban area is immune: the legacy rail regions with
big downtowns — New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington,
Boston, and San Francisco-Oakland — saw ridership fall by 5.4
percent. The 24 urban areas that have introduced commuter, light,
or heavy rail since 1975, ranging from Los Angeles to Buffalo, have
seen ridership fall by 11.2 percent. The 18 largest urban areas
that lack rail transit (or have no more than a tiny streetcar line)
have seen bus ridership decline by 9.3 percent.3
Transit’s Recent Decline Is Nearly Catastrophic in Some Urban
A 7.5 percent drop in ridership between 2014 and 2018 may not
sound catastrophic, but some urban areas have seen much larger
declines. Transit agencies spent $46.9 billion on operations in
2016 and paid for about a third of those operating costs, or $15.8
billion, out of fare revenues.4 For budgeting purposes, agencies
normally expect fares revenues to stay constant or increase, so
large drops in ridership from their most recent peak can produce
serious financial problems. If fares cover a third of operating
costs, then a 30 percent decline means a 10 percent reduction in
operating funds, which in turn forces agencies to either curtail
existing transit service or raise fares, both of which will further
Figure 2 shows that transit ridership in 31 of the nation’s 50
largest urban areas has dropped 15 percent or more since the year
of highest ridership in each region in the last decade. Eleven of
those regions have lost 30 to 47 percent of their
riders.5 The worst was Memphis, and a recent
report prepared by noted transit expert Jarrett Walker for the city
of Memphis observed, “Memphis is experiencing a slow-moving
self-reinforcing decline in transit, which could be called a
vicious cycle of declining ridership and service.”6
Source: National Transit Database,
“Monthly Module Adjusted Data Release,” Federal Transit
Administration, June 2018, tinyurl.com/yatym9t7.
“I call it the transit death spiral,” says Darrell Johnson, the
CEO at California’s Orange County Transportation Authority. “It’s a
never-ending pattern, and pretty soon you’re at a bare-bones
service.”7 Ridership declines of 27 percent in Los
Angeles and 26 percent in Atlanta may not be quite as catastrophic
as declines of 40 percent in Sacramento and St. Louis and more than
45 percent in Cleveland and Memphis, but they are still
Moreover, while transit ridership has declined in the past, as
it did between 1990 and 1995, it recovered due to high gas prices.
Today, moderate gas prices are fueled by America’s resurging oil
industry, and when that resurgence is combined with deteriorating
transit infrastructure and the growth of the ride-hailing industry,
it appears that the most recent decline may be irreversible.
According to the Federal Transit Administration data, transit
carried 255 million fewer riders in calendar year 2017 than in
2016.8 Where did these riders go? A recent
report estimates the number of trips carried by ride-hailing
companies such as Uber and Lyft grew by 710 million in 2017. A
survey of ride-hailing customers found that a third of them would
have otherwise taken transit. If true, ride hailing alone was
responsible for more than 90 percent of the reduction in transit
ridership between 2016 and 2017.9
Ride hailing will soon be even more competitive with transit.
Waymo, General Motors, Ford, Uber, and other companies are in a
race to put driverless ride-hailing services on the streets of
American cities by 2021.10 Driverless vehicles will cut the cost
of ride hailing by at least half, taking even more customers away
from transit. Driverless ride hailing’s cost per passenger mile
might be more than transit fares but is likely to be far less than
the full cost of transit. Because most congestion is caused by slow
human reflexes, autonomous vehicles are also expected to
significantly reduce congestion.
This is not something transit agencies can adapt to by using
driverless buses or partnering with driverless ride hailing in
order to provide the “first and last mile” of a transit trip.
Driverless ride hailing is likely to be an extinction-level event
for most public transit outside New York City and a few other big
cities that have large numbers of downtown jobs, which, as the next
section will show, is the crucial element for transit’s having even
a modest effect on a region’s transportation.
Transit Requires High Downtown Job Concentrations
A major reason for transit’s decline has been the dispersion of
jobs from concentrated job centers to distribution across the urban
landscape. This dispersion has resulted in modern urban areas
becoming increasingly ill-served by transit systems. Many people
assume that transit ridership is heavily influenced by population
density. But when comparing urban areas, residential densities have
only a weak influence on per capita ridership or transit’s share of
The Los Angeles urban area, for example, is more than twice as
dense as the Seattle urban area, yet per capita transit ridership
in Seattle is 30 percent greater than in Los Angeles. Among the
nation’s 100 largest urban areas, the correlation coefficient
between the density of each Census Bureau-defined urbanized area
and transit use in that area is about 0.4, where 1 is perfect and 0
is entirely random. It also takes a huge increase in density to
achieve a small increase in per capita ridership or transit’s share
Much more important to transit is the concentration of downtown
jobs. This is because most transit systems are still hub-and-spoke
systems centered on downtowns. A century ago, most urban jobs were
in downtowns, and people walked or rode transit to those jobs from
dense residential areas. Today, only about 7.5 percent of urban
jobs are located in central city downtowns, and the most commuting
occurs from low-density suburb to low-density suburb.
The dispersion of jobs began in 1913, when Henry Ford developed
the moving assembly line. Before this, most urban work was in
factories and most factories were in city centers. Moving assembly
lines, however, required too much land to fit into downtowns and so
factories moved to the suburbs. Later, the growth of the service
economy dispersed jobs even more.
Transit ridership remains strongly correlated with the number of
downtown jobs. Figure 3 shows the percentage of commuters who took
transit and the number of downtown jobs in the 51 census-defined
urban areas with populations between 1 million and 15 million in
2010. With a near-perfect correlation coefficient of 0.9, the
relationship between downtown jobs and transit ridership is much
stronger than that between population densities and transit. The
only urban areas whose transit systems carried more than 10 percent
of commuters had more than 240,000 downtown jobs.
Sources: Demographia Central
Business Districts (downtown jobs); 2010 American Community Survey
Table B08301 (percentage of transit commuters).
Note: New York City is not included in data; it
has nearly two million jobs in downtown and midtown Manhattan, and
33 percent of New York urban area commuters took transit to work in
2010, which keeps New York City on the trend line shown here but
puts it well beyond the bounds of this chart.
New York data are not included in Figure 3 because, with nearly
2 million downtown jobs and 32.5 percent transit share, it is off
the scale, but it is on the same trend line as the other urban
areas considered. With this concentration of jobs, New York City
may be the only place in America whose job and residential
densities are too high to be served solely by driverless
Seattle is the only major urban area in America that has
experienced consistent growth of transit ridership since 2014, and
this is mainly because it has steadily expanded its number of
downtown jobs from about 216,000 in 2010 to 292,000 in 2017.
Transit’s share of commuters in the Seattle urban area exceeded 10
percent in 2013, which not coincidentally was the year the number
of downtown jobs reached 240,000.12 But few other cities have the
capability of boosting the number of downtown jobs by this amount,
and even if they did, the costs in terms of congestion, high real
estate prices, and subsidies to downtown property owners would be
Houston recently restructured its bus routes from a
hub-and-spoke system to a grid system. Implemented in 2015,
Houston’s redesigned bus system attracted a 4 percent increase in
ridership by 2017. But this increase may only be temporary:
ridership in fiscal year 2018 was 1.6 percent less than in
2017.13 While faster than a hub-and-spoke
system for suburb-to-suburb commuters, gridded bus routes remain
slower and less convenient than driving.
Transit Is Slow
A century ago, transit seemed fast when compared with the only
alternative available to most American urbanites, which was
walking. Today, transit — which is no faster than it was in
1918 — is slow compared with the automobile. Automobiles,
unlike transit, can also take people from door to door. The
automobile’s advantages have made transit increasingly
According to the American Public Transportation Association, the
average speed of transit in the United States is 15.3 miles per
hour (Figure 4). While commuter trains and commuter buses average
around 30 miles per hour, heavy rail (subways and elevated trains)
averages just 20 miles per hour. Light rail is only 16, local buses
12, and streetcars move at a thrilling 7.4 miles per
hour.14 Of course, these speeds do not include
the time it takes for a rider to get to and from transit stops or
Sources: Calculations based on data
from Infinite Monkey Corps (average automobile speed for 50 largest
cities); National Transit Database, “Service” spreadsheet (average
transit speed for 50 largest urban areas); and 2016 American
Community Survey (average commute in minutes for 50 largest urban
areas). Job accessibility is from Andrew Owen, Brendan Murphy, and
David Levinson, Access Across America: Auto 2015, pp. 2 ,
4, and 6.
Notes: If suburbs had been included, average
automobile speeds would be higher. Job accessibility is for the 50
largest metropolitan areas minus Memphis, as transit data were
unavailable for that region. The figure shows the percentage of a
region’s jobs accessible within 20 minutes by auto and 60 minutes
By comparison, a 2009 study found that driving speeds in
America’s 50 largest cities average about 27 miles per hour,
ranging from 18 in New York and San Francisco to more than 40 in
Kansas City and Tulsa. These are the speeds in the central cities,
not the entire urban areas, and suburban speeds tend to be faster.
For example, while San Francisco averages 18 miles per hour, the
average in San Jose is 28 and in Oakland is more than 32 miles per
hour; similarly, Phoenix averages 28 miles per hour while suburban
Mesa averages 32.15 Thus, the average for urban areas as a
whole is probably well over 30 miles per hour, and for
suburb-to-suburb commuters, the dominant type today, speeds are
probably even higher.
Because transit is so slow, the average commuter who travels by
car takes 25 minutes to get to or from work, while commuters who
travel by transit require 50 minutes. This disparity exists almost
everywhere. In New York City, for example, transit riders take 46
percent more time to get to work than auto users. Only Manhattan is
so congested that transit commutes take slightly less time than
Transit’s slow speeds are worsened by the fact that transit
doesn’t always go where people need to go. Most transit lines head
to or from downtowns, so people taking transit from suburb to
suburb often have to go well out of their way.
As a result, far more jobs are accessible by car than by
transit. Research published by the University of Minnesota Center
for Transportation Studies in 2015 found that, in the nation’s
largest metropolitan areas, the average resident could reach more
than three times as many jobs in a 20-minute auto trip as a
60-minute transit trip. New York was the only region where the
number of jobs within a 60-minute transit trip rivaled those within
a 20-minute auto trip, and even there the number within a 30-minute
auto trip was more than twice as many as within an hour-long
transit trip.17 For this reason, studies show that
someone needing a job is far more likely to find and keep one if
they have access to a car than if they have a free transit
Nearly Everyone Has a Car
Americans have responded to the automobile’s advantages over
transit by steadily increasing automobile ownership, leaving
Americans increasingly disinclined to accept the slow speeds and
inconvenience of transit. In 1960, Americans owned about 400
private motor vehicles per thousand people.19 Today that
number has more than doubled to well over 800 private motor
vehicles per thousand people.20 In 1960, fewer than 3 percent of
American households had three or more cars, while nearly 22 percent
had no cars. Today it is almost the reverse: 21 percent have three
or more cars, but fewer than 9 percent have no cars (Figure
Making matters even more difficult for transit, about half the
households with no cars also have no workers: only 4.3 percent of
American workers live in households that have no cars. Moreover,
more than 20 percent of workers in carless households nevertheless
drive alone to work (probably in employer-supplied cars) while
fewer than 42 percent take transit to work.22 This
suggests that transit doesn’t even work for the majority of people
with no cars.
Source: Stacy Davis, Susan
Williams, and Robert Boundy, Transportation Energy Data Book:
Edition 36 (Oak Ridge: Department of Energy, 2017), Table 8.3,
The growth of vehicle ownership has slowed since 1980, but today
there are so few people who don’t have access to a car that even a
small increase in vehicle ownership can have a big impact on
transit. One California study concluded that “the most significant
factor” in recent declines in transit ridership “was increased
motor vehicle access, particularly among low-income
households.”23 While ride hailing has played a larger
role in the last two or three years, increasing auto ownership has
also been a factor.
Transit Is Expensive
Another factor contributing to transit’s decline is its high
cost. It costs far more to move a person one mile by transit than
by automobile. In 2016, transit agencies spent $46.9 billion on
transit operations carrying 56.5 billion passenger miles, for an
average of 83 cents per passenger mile.24 They spent
another $19.4 billion, or 34 cents per passenger mile, on capital
improvements and maintenance.25 This produced fares of $15.8
billion, or 28 cents per passenger mile. That means the total cost
of transit averaged $1.17 per passenger mile, of which 89 cents was
subsidized (Figure 6).26
By comparison, Americans spent slightly less than $1.1 trillion
buying, operating, repairing, and insuring automobiles in
2016.27 That expenditure allowed them to drive
cars, motorcycles, and light trucks slightly more than 2.8 trillion
miles.28 The 2017 National Household
Transportation Survey found that the average vehicle has 1.67
occupants (more for light trucks, fewer for cars and motorcycles),
for a total of 4.8 trillion passenger miles.29 This means
Americans spent an average of 38 cents per vehicle mile, or 23
cents per passenger mile, on driving.
Sources: 2016 National Transit
Database, “Fare, Operating Cost, Capital Cost, and Service”
spreadsheets (transit fares and subsidies); U.S. Bureau of Economic
Analysis, “National Income and Product Accounts,” Table 2.5.5 (auto
user expenses); “2016 Highway Statistics,” Table VM-1 (auto miles
driven); “2017 National Household Travel Survey” (average auto
occupancies); “2015 Highway Statistics,” Table HF-10 (highway
In 2015, the last year for which data are available, general
funds (income, property, sales taxes) spent on highways totaled
$85.4 billion. This was partly offset by highway user fees (gas
taxes, tolls, vehicle registration fees) diverted to transit and
other non-highway purposes, which totaled to $26.3 billion, for net
subsidies of $59.1 billion.30 At 4.8 trillion passenger miles, that
works out to slightly more than a penny in subsidies per passenger
Per passenger mile, transit costs more than four times as much
as driving, and transit subsidies are more than 70 times as large
as highway subsidies. In fact, the disparity in subsidies is even
greater given that highways also move more than two trillion
ton-miles of freight per year, against which some of these
subsidies should be charged, while transit moves essentially
Not only are the average user costs for driving (23 cents per
passenger mile) lower than for transit (28 cents per passenger
mile) but people can easily reduce the cost of driving further by
buying used cars, driving more than the average number of miles per
year, driving with one or more passengers, and through other means.
Once someone owns a car, the perceived or marginal cost of driving
any particular trip is even lower, typically around 15 cents per
vehicle mile — less than 10 cents per passenger mile at
average occupancies. This puts transit at an even more serious
About Half the Cost of Transit Is Because It Is
Public ownership of transit has significantly increased the cost
of transit, creating another disadvantage for the transit industry
relative to other modes of travel. Before 1964, transit systems in
most American cities were private and profitable, albeit declining.
In 1964, Congress gave cities and states incentives to take over
transit systems, and within a decade nearly all had been
Municipalization was followed by a staggering decline in transit
productivity. In the decade before 1964, transit systems carried an
average of about 59,000 riders per operating employee. This plunged
after 1964 and today averages fewer than 27,000 riders per employee
(Figure 7).33 It is doubtful that any American
industry has suffered a 54 percent decline in worker productivity
over 30 years unless it was another industry taken over by the
government and inflicted with all the inefficiencies associated
with government control and management.
Source: 2017 Public
Transportation Fact Book (Washington: American Public
Transportation Association, 2018), Appendix A, Tables 1, 19,
Transit productivity declined by just about every other measure
as well. For example, from 1970 to 2015, while total ridership grew
at 0.8 percent per year and inflation-adjusted fare revenues grew
at 1.6 percent per year, operating costs grew at 3.5 percent per
year. Since 1988, the earliest year for which data are available,
capital costs have grown at 4 percent per year.34 Each
additional dollar spent on transit returned less and less in terms
of either revenues or riders.
Since 1970, Subsidies Have Exceeded $1.3 Trillion
Government subsidies to transit have grown to truly gargantuan
levels. After adjusting for inflation, transit industry operating
subsidies grew from $1.7 billion in 1970 to more than $31 billion
in 2016 (Figure 8).35 Data on capital funding (including
capital replacement costs) are not available before 1988, but since
then capital funding has grown from about $7 billion to $20 billion
a year.36 That brings total subsidies to more
than $50 billion a year, or an average of more than $150 a year for
every resident of the United States, even though the vast majority
rarely, if ever, use transit.
Source: American Public
Note: Data on operating costs, fares, and capital
funding adjusted for inflation using gross national product price
deflators published by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.
National Transit Database data used for 2016. Operating subsidies
equal operating costs minus fares.
Capital replacement spending should actually have been more,
given that the transit industry had close to a $90
billion maintenance backlog in 2012 ($100 billion in today’s
dollars), most of which is attributable to older rail transit
systems.37 The backlog is probably even greater
today because most transit agencies with legacy rail systems are
spending less than is needed to keep their infrastructure and
vehicles in even their current state of poor repair.38
The sum total of the subsidies shown in Figure 8 is $1.2
trillion. Adding 2017 and 2018 subsidies of $50 billion per year
plus capital subsidies before 1988 would increase the total to well
above $1.3 trillion. With subsidies covering 75 percent of costs
and averaging nearly $5 per passenger trip, transit is one of the
most heavily subsidized consumer-based industries in the
A major problem with transit agencies’ dependence on subsidies
is that such dependence makes them more beholden to politicians and
their backers than to transit riders. Agencies become willing and
eager to approve cushy union contracts and gold-plated
infrastructure projects that do little to improve local or regional
transportation. Meanwhile, politicians neglect the maintenance of
existing systems, leading to the frequent breakdowns that have
recently been experienced in New York, Washington, and other cities
with older rail systems.
Growing Subsidies Haven’t Boosted Transit Ridership
Despite increasing subsidies, transit’s importance to urban
Americans has steadily declined, as measured by the number of trips
taken by the average urban resident each year (Figure 9). In 1920,
transit carried the average urban resident on 287 trips per year.
By 1960, this had dropped to 75 trips per year. After falling
further to 49 trips in 1970, trips per year continued an overall
downward trend but with periodic ups and downs caused by
fluctuations in gasoline prices.39
Source: American Public
Transportation Association (transit trips); decennial census (urban
population from 1960 through 2000), interpolated for years between
censuses; and American Community Survey (urban population from 2005
through 2016). Note: Urban population is estimated for 2017 based
on total population estimate and assuming the same percentage of
the population was urban as in 2016.
In the last two decades, transit trips per urban resident
reached a high of 44 in 2008 but then declined to 38 in 2017 and
are on track to be even lower in 2018. At best, the tens of
billions of dollars of annual subsidies to transit have slowed the
decline in ridership. But merely slowing the decline in transit
ridership does nothing to relieve traffic congestion, clean the
air, or produce any of the other benefits often claimed for
Transit Is Increasingly Used by High-Income People
Supposedly, one of the social benefits of transit is that it
provides mobility to low-income people who don’t have access to
automobiles. But as formerly transit-dependent people have gained
access to cars, transit agencies have shifted to try to attract
“choice riders,” that is, people who can afford to own cars but
might find transit a useful alternative. The result is that the
average income of transit commuters has increased faster than the
average income of all American workers.
The 2010 Census found that people who earned $75,000 or more per
year were more likely to ride transit than any other income class.
Although only 14 percent of American workers earned more than
$75,000 a year, they made up 18 percent of transit commuters. The
average income of transit commuters was about 9 percent more than
the average income of all American workers.40
By 2016, the number of Americans earning less than $15,000 a
year had fallen, but the share of people in that income class who
rode transit to work fell even more. Transit’s main growth was in
the $50,000 and higher income classes, especially $75,000 and
higher (Figure 10). While the total share of workers who earned
$75,000 and more had grown from 14 to 18 percent, they made up 24
percent of transit commuters. This compares with the 22 percent who
earned under $15,000 a year. The average income of transit
commuters had grown to nearly 12 percent more than the average
income of all American workers.41
Sources: 2010 and 2016 American
As of 2017, both the median and average incomes of transit
commuters are greater than the national median/average. This
naturally leads to the question of why taxpayers are spending $50
billion a year subsidizing transit when more than half of all
transit commuters earn more than the nation’s median income and a
quarter earn more than $75,000 a year. The usual answers are that
transit is more environmentally sound than driving and that transit
boosts economic development. But these claims are also
Transit Isn’t Green
Transit was significantly greener than driving in 1970, when
Americans drove gas guzzlers and automobile pollution controls
didn’t exist. Today, outside New York City and a handful of other
urban areas, transit is environmentally no better — and often
much worse — than driving.
Riding transit in the New York urban area uses significantly
less energy than driving a car: about 2,300 British thermal units
per passenger mile vs. 3,000 in the average car.42 The same is
true in only a few other urban areas, notably San
Francisco-Oakland, Portland, and Honolulu. Nearly everywhere else,
transit uses more energy and emits more greenhouse gases per
passenger mile than driving, even for light trucks such as pick-ups
and sport utility vehicles.
Because New York transit carries about 40 percent of the
nation’s transit riders, it makes transit’s nationwide average
energy consumption roughly equal to automobiles (Figure 11). But
this hides the fact that almost everywhere else transit uses more
energy and emits more greenhouse gases than driving.
Sources: Stacy Davis, Susan
Williams, and Robert Boundy, Transportation Energy Data Book:
Edition 36 (Oak Ridge: Department of Energy, 2017), Table 8.3,
and 2016 National Transit Database (transit).
Transit in Washington, D.C., for example, uses 4,100 British
thermal units per passenger mile; Los Angeles more than 4,200;
Phoenix more than 5,000; and Dallas-Ft. Worth around
6,000.43 Greenhouse gas emissions are roughly
proportional. In regions that get most of their electricity from
non-fossil fuel sources — mainly the West Coast —
electric transit may produce fewer greenhouse gases than
gasoline-powered cars, but the same results could be achieved at a
far lower cost by encouraging people to buy electric cars. People
who want to save energy or reduce greenhouse gas emissions could do
so more effectively by buying plug-in hybrid automobiles than by
advocating increases in transit subsidies.
Transit Spending Doesn’t Boost Urban Growth
Transit advocates frequently point to studies showing that
access to heavily used transit lines, such as subways and elevated
trains, increases the value of nearby properties.44 Those
advocates even suggest that taxes collected from such properties
could be used to subsidize transit.45 What
transit advocates don’t point out is that there is no evidence that
spending money on transit boosts a region’s overall economic growth
or total property values. Instead, it appears to be a zero-sum
game: new transit lines may increase the values of properties along
those lines, but at the expense of values elsewhere in the same
city or urban area.
As Robert Cervero and Samuel Seskin, both strong transit
advocates, wrote in a paper sponsored by the Federal Transit
Administration, “Urban rail transit investments rarely ‘create’ new
growth, but more typically redistribute growth that would have
taken place without the investment.” Most of that redistribution,
they add, has favored downtowns at the expense of other parts of
cities and their suburbs.46
Figure 12 compares per capita transit capital expenses from 1992
through 2000 with population growth from 2000 through 2010 for 161
of the nation’s largest urbanized areas. If transit expansions
fueled urban growth, rather than just redistributed it, then areas
that spent more on transit in the 1990s should have seen faster
growth in the 2000s. Instead, the chart shows that the
fastest-growing urban areas in the 2000s were ones that spent the
least on transit improvements in the 1990s, while the urban areas
that spent the most on transit improvements were among the
slowest-growing regions. While this doesn’t prove that spending
less on transit will cause a region to grow faster, it does
undermine the claim that spending more on transit boosts urban
Sources: National Transit Database
(capital expenses); 2000 and 2010 censuses (population growth of
Transit carries fewer than 3 percent of commuters to work in
half of the nation’s 50 largest urban areas (as well as the vast
majority of smaller urban areas). In 2016, transit carried only 2.2
percent of commuters in the Charlotte, Houston, and Phoenix urban
areas; 1.7 percent in Dallas-Ft. Worth; 1.6 percent in Tampa-St.
Petersburg and Riverside-San Bernardino; 1.5 percent in Nashville
and Raleigh; 1.2 percent in Kansas City; and fewer than 1 percent
in Indianapolis.47 These urban areas all are economically
thriving and rapidly growing without transit’s playing a large role
in their passenger transport systems.
With the exception of the period of gas rationing during World
War II and periodic gas crises since the 1970s, both total and per
capita transit ridership have been on a downward trend since 1920.
While urban and economic growth allowed nationwide transit
ridership to grow between 2008 and 2014, it has steadily declined
since 2014, and even in 2014 per capita transit ridership was
Rapidly improving technologies have left Americans familiar with
the replacement of old technologies with new ones. Word processors
replaced typewriters; pocket calculators replaced slide rules; cell
phones are replacing landline phones, which replaced the telegraph;
online movie streaming replaced video stores; and so forth. Only in
passenger transportation — urban transit and intercity
passenger trains — is the government trying to halt such
technology replacement through government ownership and subsidies.
Yet those efforts are failing, which calls into question why they
were needed in the first place.
To deal with declining revenues, many transit agencies are
asking legislators and voters for increased subsidies. But growing
subsidies have already failed to counter the forces causing transit
decline: moderate fuel prices; dispersion of jobs; increasing auto
ownership; and most recently, competition from ride-hailing
Transit is not going to relieve traffic congestion, save energy,
or reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions if ridership
is declining. Nor is transit needed to help most low-income
workers, as nearly all of them have access to cars, while people
who can’t drive can use ride hailing or other alternatives.
Transit advocates often argue that all transportation is
subsidized, so transit shouldn’t be judged by the subsidies it
receives. It is true that some other forms of transportation are
subsidized, and the case for those subsidies is usually just as
weak as the case for transit subsidies. But no other form of
transportation is as heavily subsidized as transit, which gets more
than 70 times the subsidies per passenger mile as highways, roads,
and streets. Rather than dump tens of billions of dollars a year on
transit, it would make more sense to end subsidies to other forms
The recent decline in transit ridership despite steadily
increasing subsidies only shows that transit is obsolete and
irrelevant in all but a handful of urban areas. Without subsidies,
private transit will spring up in areas that really need it. But
the subsidies are merely a drain on the national and local
economies without providing any social, environmental, or economic
benefits. In short, all of the justifications that have been used
for subsidizing transit have disappeared, and those subsidies
should be terminated or phased out.
1 National Transit Database,
“Monthly Module Adjusted Data Release,” Federal Transit
Administration, June 2018, http://tinyurl.com/yatym9t7.
2 In this paper, “urban areas”
refers to urbanized areas of more than 50,000 people as defined by
the U.S. Census Bureau in the decennial census. Each urban area
generally includes a central city, such as New York or Los Angeles,
along with contiguous suburbs and unincorporated areas with more
than about 1,000 people per square mile or related industrial,
retail, or commercial development.
3 National Transit Database,
“Monthly Module Adjusted Data Release,” Federal Transit
4 2016 National Transit Database,
“Operating Expenses” and “Fare Revenues” spreadsheets, Federal
Transit Administration, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/ycxmg48l,
5 2016 National Transit Database,
“Operating Expense” and “Fare Revenues” spreadsheets, 2017.
6 Jarrett Walker, Memphis 3.0 Transit Vision Choices
Report (Memphis: City of Memphis, 2017), p. 6.
7 David Harrison, “America’s
Buses Lose Riders, Imperiling Their Future,” Wall Street Journal, August 12, 2017,
8 National Transit Database,
“Monthly Module Adjusted Data Release,” June 2018.
9 Susan Shaheen, Nelson Chan, and
Lisa Rayle, “Ridesourcing’s Impact and Role in Urban
Transportation,” Access 51
(Spring 2017), http://tinyurl.com/y9y97dkk.
10 John Rosevear, “What Investors
Need to Know About Driverless Cars,” Motley Fool, June 14, 2018, http://tinyurl.com/yd3rp447.
11 Correlation calculated by
comparing urban area densities measured by the 2010 Census with
transit’s share of commuting in Table B08301 of the 2010 American
Community Survey for the nation’s 100 largest urbanized areas.
12 “Downtown Leads the Region in
Job Growth,” Downtown Seattle Association, Seattle, 2018, http://tinyurl.com/ybpo7cjh.
13 National Transit Database,
“Monthly Module Adjusted Data Release,” June 2018.
14 2016 Public Transportation Fact Book
(Washington: American Public Transportation Association, 2017), pp.
9, 38, 43, http://tinyurl.com/yddc4qye.
15 “How Fast Is Your City?”
Infinitemonkeycorps, 2009, http://tinyurl.com/j8y6jlb.
16 2016 American Community
Survey, Tables B08136 and B08301, U.S. Bureau of the Census,
17 Andrew Owen, Brendan Murphy,
and David Levinson, Access Across
America: Auto 2015 (Minneapolis: Center for Transportation
Studies, 2016), pp. 2, 4, 6.
18 Kerri Sullivan,
“Transportation and Work: Exploring Car Usage and Employment
Outcomes,” National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and
Literacy Occasional Paper, Harvard Graduate School of Education,
19 “Highway Statistics Summary to
1995,” Table MV-200, Federal Highway Administration, 1996, http://tinyurl.com/ycxl9xz3; and
“Historical National Population Estimates: July 1, 1900 to July 1,
1999,” Population Estimates Program, Population Division, U.S.
Bureau of the Census, 2000, http://tinyurl.com/ljvvpd2.
20 “Highway Statistics 2016,”
Table MV-1, Federal Highway Administration, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/y82nzunb; and
State Population Totals and
Components of Change: 2010-2016, Table 1: “Annual Estimates of
the Resident Population for the United States, Regions, States, and
Puerto Rico: April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2016,” (Washington: U.S.
Bureau of the Census, Population Division, 2017), http://tinyurl.com/y8tzootf.
21 Stacy Davis, Susan Williams,
and Robert Boundy, Transportation
Energy Data Book: Edition 36 (Oak Ridge: Department of Energy,
2017), Table 8.3, http://tinyurl.com/y7gxcyye.
22 2016 American Community
Survey, Table B08141, 2017.
23 Michael Manville, Brian D.
Taylor, and Evelyn Blumenberg, Falling Transit Ridership: California and
Southern California (Los Angeles: Institute of Transportation
Studies, 2018), pp. 4, 9-10, http://tinyurl.com/ychocfw3.
24 Calculated from 2016 National
Transit Database, “Operating Expenses” and “Service” spreadsheets,
25 Calculated from 2016 NTD,
“Capital Use” and “Service” spreadsheets, http://tinyurl.com/yaefxoz2.
26 Calculated from 2016 NTD “Fare
Revenue” and “Service” spreadsheets.
27 “National Income and Products
Accounts,” Table 2.5.5, lines 54, 57, 116, U.S. Bureau of Economic
28 “Highway Statistics 2016,”
Table VM-1, http://tinyurl.com/y7nxxe7w.
29 2017 National Household
Transportation Survey, Federal Highway Administration, 2018,
30 “Highway Statistics 2015,”
Table HF-10, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/y9tp8yqh.
31 “National Transportation
Statistics,” Table 1-50, Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 2017,
32 Charles Lave, “It Wasn’t
Supposed to Turn Out Like This: Federal Subsidies and Declining
Transit Productivity,” Access
5 (Fall 1994): 21-22.
33 2017 Public Transportation Fact Book
(Washington: American Public Transportation Association, 2018),
Appendix A, Tables 1, 19, http://tinyurl.com/y7qjpexo.
34 2017 Public Transportation Fact Book,
Appendix A, Tables 1 (ridership), 68 (operating costs), 80 (capital
costs), 92 (fare revenues), 2018. Tables adjusted for inflation
using gross domestic product price deflators published by the
Bureau of Economic Analysis. Capital costs extend back only to 1988
but have grown by 4 percent per year since then.
35 2017 Public Transportation Fact Book,
Tables 68 and 80, 2018. Dollars adjusted for inflation using gross
domestic product price deflators, Bureau of Economic Analysis,
36 2017 Public Transportation Fact Book,
Table 87, 2018.
37 2015 Status of the Nation’s Highways,
Bridges, and Transit: Conditions and Performance (Washington:
Department of Transportation, 2016), p. l (Roman numeral L),
38 More information about the
backlog and how transit agencies aren’t spending enough on
maintenance to keep it from growing further can be found in Randal
O’Toole, “The Coming Transit Apocalypse,” Cato Institute Policy
Analysis no. 824, October 24, 2017, pp. 7-9.
39 2017 Public Transportation Fact Book,
Appendix A, Table 1, 2018; urban population for 1960, 1970, 1980,
and 1990 from “Population: 1790 to 1990,” Table 4, U.S. Bureau of
the Census, .com/ya7vbm7n”>http://tinyurl.com/ya7vbm7n
(interpolated for non-census years); for 2000 and 2005-2016 from
American Community Survey, Table B01003, “United States Urban”
(interpolated for 2001 through 2004).
40 2010 American Community Survey
(2011), Table B08119.
41 2016 American Community
Survey, Table B08119, 2017.
42 Transit energy figures
calculated from 2016 National Transit Database, “Energy
Consumption” (http://tinyurl.com/ya5tyrap) and
“Service” spreadsheets; auto energy figures from Davis, Williams,
and Boundy, Transportation Energy
Data Book, Table 2-15, 2017.
43 More information on transit’s
energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions can be found in
Randal O’Toole, “Does Rail Transit Save Energy or Reduce Greenhouse
Gas Emission?” Cato Institute Policy Analysis no. 615, April 14,
44 “Why Metro Matters,”
Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/yaoxvfgj.
45 “Value Capture for Public
Transportation Projects: Examples,” American Public Transportation
Association, 2015, http://tinyurl.com/y8j2rvp3.
46 Robert Cervero and Samuel
Seskin, An Evaluation of the
Relationships Between Transit and Urban Form (Washington:
Transit Cooperative Research Program, 1995), p. 3.
47 2016 American Community
Survey, Table B08301 for urbanized areas, 2017.