Key takeaways:

  • Public transit ridership across the US increased by 11% from 2010 to 2017, compared to a rise of 6% for car driving.
  • Some cities experienced large upswings in public transit usage during this period – San Jose leads the way with an increase of 46.7%.
  • Between 2010 and 2017, the top 10 US cities for public transit – for example Washington, DC, New York, Chicago and Philadelphia – overall saw an improvement in public transit commute times compared to car commute times of more than a minute.

Driving a car is still America’s favorite way to get to work, but public transit use has been increasing across the nation at almost twice the rate. Congestion and commute times for car riders have increased, making public transport more appealing, while also providing an environmentally and economically-friendly solution.

Increased Ridership across the US – San Jose First for Growth in Public Transit Use

There were approx. 127 million people who drove to work in 2017, a 6% increase from 2010. While Americans’ preference for driving is undeniable, recent trends indicate that public transit is gaining serious ground in America’s largest cities. In fact, more than 7.5 million commuters used public transit across the US in 2017, an 11% increase in ridership compared to 2010.

We looked at the US’s 30 largest cities and ranked them according to increases in numbers of commuters using public transport between 2010 and 2017. San Jose leads our list of these with a 46.7% increase, and Jacksonville, Nashville, Columbus and Dallas also score well, with increases of 35.8%, 26.0%, 17.3% and 14.1% respectively.

New York had the largest increase in numbers of new public transport users with 238,995, while Chicago was in a distant 2nd place with 38,902 and San Francisco was in third place with 27,345.

Greater Coverage & Shorter Commutes Take These Cities to the Top

We analyzed commute times broken down by car ridership and public transportation. In all 30 cities, commuting by car is faster than commuting by public transportation. In places like Washington, D.C. the difference is not much more than 9 minutes, while in others, such as Las Vegas and Detroit, it can be over half an hour. The cost, as a proportion of median earnings, ranges from 1.3% for Austin, TX to 3.9% for Los Angeles, CA.

Many cities have very limited public transportation, so we identified the 10 with the largest share of people who use it. We then ranked this list by combining the scores for the share of people who use public transit, the mean time to get to work, the difference in minutes between car travel and public transport, and public transport cost as a proportion of median income. This gave us an overall measure for ranking the 10 cities, as seen in the graphic below – the larger the circle the better the city is for public transport.

Washington, D.C. is at the top of our list of 10 cities. It sees 35.4% of its commuters using public transit, the second largest share in our study, and scores highest in terms of the difference between how long it takes to travel to work by car and public transportation, just 9.6 minutes. The nation’s capital has indeed often been lauded for its public transportation, and although its transit system is one the costliest in the US, because of the city’s high salaries, using it requires just 2.2% of median earnings.

On average, you need 11.1 extra minutes commute time in San Francisco if you want to use public transportation. Congestion has increased in San Francisco, attributed by some to the increased use of ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft, and this has negatively affected both car and public transport commuters. Of the cities in our study, San Francisco has the third-highest share of people using public transit, at 34.0%. The cost of public transport here is only 1.7% of median earnings, making it the most affordable on our list of 10.

Boston is the third city in our top 10, with commuting by public transportation taking only 11.3 minutes longer than driving. It has the fourth-highest take-up of public transit in the list at 33.6%, and these commuters pay on average 2.4% of their salaries to use it. Boston’s traffic congestion is sometimes said to be the worst in the country, and in 2017 it took 10% longer to drive to work than it did in 2010, not far behind San Francisco’s 13% increase.

Seattle is in fourth place partly thanks to having the lowest average public transit commute, 37.7 minutes. Chicago lands fifth place thanks to a difference between car and public transport commutes of just 10.4 minutes. New York City, in sixth place, scores highest in terms of what proportion of commuters use public transport, 56.5%. Philadelphia, Portland, Baltimore, and Los Angeles complete the top 10.

Public Transit Increasingly Preferable in Several Large Cities

Providing public transit is an uphill struggle for most large US cities as, with a few exceptions, they experience population growth – sometimes in double digits for the period 2010-2018. This means both increasing congestion and larger outlying communities that now require transportation, and the 6% increase in car drivers on an already large number will make itself felt. Improving public transit also requires planning and legislation, which can take time.

The graphic below shows how the difference between commuting by public transportation and car has changed from 2010 to 2017. Washington made a 1.4 minute improvement, while Boston and Chicago reduced the difference in car and public transit commute times by 0.7 minutes and 2.2 minutes respectively. New York reduced its commute time difference by almost two minutes, while Philadelphia was the most successful of all, shaving 2.6 minutes of the difference. San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Baltimore and Los Angeles have some infrastructure in place but have not managed to make public transport a more preferred option. We then weighted the scores by city population and found that the average for all these 10 top cities over this time period was an improvement of 1.07 minutes.

Why Public Transport Is Good: Health, Lifestyle & Ecology

Car ownership is part of the American way, and the convenience and comfort associated with driving to work is undeniable. However, it’s also true that there are many benefits that can be derived from good public transit. For one thing, public transit provides travel that is ten times safer than driving a car. And public transportation uses up less fuel per passenger than cars ever can, meaning cleaner air for city residents.

It can also be claimed that a good public transportation system enhances the lifestyles of its users. Driving a car in town can be fraught with stress, and it’s always worthwhile to consider avoiding this. Also, letting public transport take the strain frees you up for other activities. In a recent study about the mobility of Millennials, the APTA found that they like to work as they travel and can socialize online then as well.

Public transportation has a big part to play in the battle against the pollution of the environment, as vehicle emissions account for a sizeable amount of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, which are reckoned to cause global warming. The U.S. Department of Transportation states that public transit produces 95% less carbon monoxide than private vehicles and significantly lower emissions of other gases as well. In addition, prioritizing public transit over car ownership frees up land that would otherwise be used for parking.

Who & What Drives Public Transit Usage: $75K+ Earners Are the Surprise

Our study discovered some interesting statistics regarding the income brackets of public transit users: 23.3% of them earn more than $75,000 annually, and this figure represents a big increase from 17.6% in 2010. The finding chimes with a Seattle study last year which discovered that college professors and computer programmers were among those most likely to take public transportation to work—it’s possible they live and work in places with good transit connections, or they may just be better attuned to their environment.

Economics is a big factor in whether people use public transit as it is much cheaper than driving a car. The cost of gasoline doubled from 1997 to 2017 and the value of a car only depreciates, meaning that driving will always eat up money, helping to make public transportation preferable. Gas prices have been falling in the last few years, but maybe commuters got into the habit of using public transit when they were at their maximum levels.

Infrastructure improvements, different fare schemes, more vehicles, better maintenance and of course worsening congestion for car drivers all have a positive effect on ridership numbers. Seattle, in particular, has been praised for expanding its transit infrastructure, and Washington, D.C. keeps its riders happy by addressing repair issues efficiently. Meanwhile, Boston is one of the cities that have been successfully experimenting with ‘tactical transit lanes’ whereby buses can travel faster by avoiding other traffic. Regarding cost initiatives, multi-tier pricing systems can encourage ridership.

Conclusions

Clearly, where there’s a will there’s a way, and where there is already substantial public transit infrastructure in place there is more momentum. Large cities such as Washington D.C., New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia demonstrate that even with increasing populations and road congestion – not to mention the problems of getting legislation passed – public transportation can be improved and can tempt people away from driving their cars. Smaller cities are often competing to attract a talented workforce, so they would do well to learn from their larger neighbors.

Cities attract young people, and young people drive future trends, which in turn can change the attitude of city officials towards public transit. The APTA study about Millennials and mobility states that this age group prefers bus and train travel—and even cycling and walking—to driving by car, which bodes well for the future of public city transit.

It has been said that the American Dream relies on how good the nation’s public transportation is, freeing up money a family can use to invest in their aspirations and their children. Better public transit can make and shape a neighborhood and improve the character of a city. It can provide for the whole range of workers that are needed from refuse collectors to college professors, not to mention addressing environmental concerns. The US’s largest and most rider-friendly cities are showing how this can be done.

Public Transit in the 30 Most Populous US Cities

CityPopu-
lation
(M)
% of People
Using
Transit
Mean Time
to Work
(Minutes)
Transit - Car Driving (Minutes)Transit Cost:
% of Median
Earnings
Changes in RidershipChanges in Car Driving
New York 8.5656.5%48.7-14.83.8%11.9%2.3%
Los Angeles 3.959.8%49.1-19.73.9%-3.5%8.6%
Chicago 2.7228.2%43.3-10.43.4%12.0%-1.1%
Houston 2.273.9%46.4-20.41.8%-7.2%12.8%
Phoenix 1.573.3%49.5-25.42.4%3.7%8.8%
Philadelphia 1.5725.3%44.5-143.4%3.8%6.4%
San Antonio 1.463.1%51.2-28.21.5%9.4%15.6%
San Diego 1.394%47.2-24.32.1%10.9%10.3%
Dallas 1.304.2%51.9-26.73%14.1%13.3%
San Jose 1.024.5%56.9-292.1%46.7%14.6%
Austin 0.923.9%39.5-16.51.3%2.1%24.5%
Jacksonville 0.872%50.7-26.81.8%35.8%3.4%
San Francisco 0.8634%41.6-11.11.7%19.4%2.0%
Indianapolis 0.852%44.8-22.52.3%6.8%5.4%
Columbus 0.853.1%42.5-21.61.6%17.3%13.2%
Fort Worth 0.840.9%53.8-27.32.7%-21.3%21.9%
Charlotte 0.833.5%47.9-23.82.9%13.2%16.4%
Seattle 0.6921.4%37.7-12.52.3%35.2%6.4%
Detroit 0.687.6%54.3-30.32.4%-7.8%-5.3%
Denver 0.686.8%41.2-16.83.4%8.7%22.1%
El Paso 0.681.7%44.6-23.42.1%-6.0%13.4%
Washington 0.6735.4%37.8-9.62.2%14.1%12.5%
Boston 0.6733.6%39.8-11.32.4%18.3%11.9%
Memphis 0.651.9%44.6-23.82.1%-22.1%3.3%
Nashville0.652.2%40.5-16.61.6%26.0%15.6%
Portland 0.6312.3%42.3-18.63.2%17.6%9.5%
Oklahoma  0.630.6%47.2-27.51.6%-12.9%11.5%
Las Vegas 0.624.2%57.4-33.52.4%0.5%5.2%
Baltimore 0.6218.2%50-22.82.3%1.0%0.9%
Louisville0.623%39.1-18.11.8%-15.3%7.4%

Methodology

This research was conducted by STORAGECafé, an online listings portal where people can easily find self-storage units for rent across the United States.

The purpose of this research was to provide an overview of the evolution of public transportation in the US in the last decade by looking at the top 30 largest cities by population. To make sure we compared transportation systems that are roughly similar in overall offerings, we narrowed down the list to the 10 cities that had the largest share of commuters using public transit.

The ranking of the 10 top public transportation cities was determined with the following metrics and weightings:

  • The share of people who use public transit (30%);
  • The mean time to get to work (20%);
  • The time difference between car travel and public transport (30%);
  • Public transport cost as a share of median income (20%).

In the analysis of income brackets, we used data from the last 12 months about workers aged 16 years and over.

Public transport and car data is from the U.S. Census; transport price data is from Numbeo. Most of the current data comes from 2017, though for some cities we were required to use slightly older figures.

Public transportation includes buses, streetcars, subways, railways, and ferryboats, but not taxicabs; driving to work included using a car, truck or a van and car-pooling; people who walked, cycled, rode a motorcycle or took another means of transport were not included in the statistics.

Fair Use and Distribution:

This study serves as a resource for the general public on issues of common interest and should not be regarded as investment advice. The data is true to the best of our knowledge but may change if amendments to it are made. We agree to the distribution of this content but we do require a mention in return for attribution purposes.

Author

Francis writes and edits articles for the STORAGECafé portal. His education includes a master’s degree in artificial intelligence from Edinburgh University and he gained his doctorate studying linguistic ambiguity. In addition, his work compiling corpora and writing technical manuals have proved to be a great background for his current work. Francis can be reached at [email protected]

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