Community Voices features opinion pieces from a wide variety of authors and perspectives. (Submission Guidelines)

There is no renaissance in U.S. public-transit use

Courtesy of MnDOT
Except for commuting in a handful of dense cities, transit is generally “slower or less convenient than the car.”

Are we seeing a renaissance in public transit use by Americans? The answer is yes, if you believe a new report from the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), the transit industry’s lobby group.

MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Katherine Kersten

In fact, APTA’s report is a textbook example of how deceiving statistics can be.

The report states that in 2013, the number of transit trips was nearly 10.7 billion nationally — the highest since 1956, according to APTA. Michael Melaniphy, APTA’s CEO, hailed what he called “a fundamental shift” in how Americans choose to get around.

But even strong supporters of public transit like Michael Manville, David King and Michael Smart, of Cornell, Columbia and Rutgers Universities, respectively, label APTA’s numbers “deceptive.” Most transit use occurs in a “handful of dense cities”; New York City alone accounts for a third of all transit travel, they say.

Though U.S. transit trips increased by 115 million in 2013, they add, trips in New York City rose by 123 million. Their conclusion? Transit use outside New York actually “declined in absolute terms last year.”

’13 rail ridership down in Minneapolis

Randal O’Toole of the Cato Institute takes a closer look at the APTA data here and here. According to O’Toole, while rail ridership increased in Seattle and a few other places in 2013, it declined in Minneapolis, Albuquerque, Baltimore and other cities. Moreover, 

[L]ight-rail and bus ridership both declined in Portland, which is often considered the model for new transit investments. Light-rail ridership grew in Dallas by about 300,000 trips, but bus ridership declined by 1.7 million trips. Charlotte light rail gained 27,000 new rides in 2013, but Charlotte buses lost 476,000 rides. Declines in bus ridership offset part or all of the gains in rail ridership in Chicago, Denver, Salt Lake City, and other cities.

Such declines in bus ridership are nothing new, O’Toole points out. Bus use often drops in cities that spend heavily on rail transit. In part, that’s because rail’s high operating costs frequently compel transit agencies to cut bus service, he says. Low-income citizens are harmed most by such cuts.

Manville, King and Smart acknowledge that—contrary to APTA’s claims — transit is actually “a small and stagnant part” of the U.S. transportation system.

Demographer Wendell Cox puts this fact in perspective. APTA’s numbers show that transit’s share of commuting increased by only 0.1 percentage point between 2007 and 2012, he says.  This rate of annual increase is so small that if it “were sustained for 50 years, transit’s commute market share would edge up only 6 percent, approximately transit’s 1980 market share (doubling to 10 percent would require 130 years.)”

The proportion of people working at home is growing more quickly, Cox points out. Between 2007 and 2012, he notes, “working at home added 1.9 times the increase in transit commuting.”  Its change in market share was greater than that of transit in 42 of the nation’s 52 major metropolitan areas.

Contrary to APTA’s suggestion, building new rail lines does not necessarily lead to an increase in rail ridership.

Transit’s market share has dropped in Portland

In Portland, the nirvana of transit advocates, transit’s market share has dropped from 8.4 percent to 6.0 percent since 1980, according to Cox. That year was the last (with data) before the opening of the first of five light rail lines and one commuter rail line there. Portland has spent billions on rail in the last 30 years, only to see transit’s market share decline. At the same time, working at home — which involves little or no public expenditure — has increased by three times the number of people attracted to transit, Cox says.

Cox makes two additional points that the APTA report does not highlight. First, the bulk of U.S. transit use takes place in just six cities — what Cox calls the transit “legacy cities” of New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston and Washington, D.C.

Between 2007 and 2012, 68 percent of additional U.S. transit commuting to employment locations occurred in these cities. This is higher than the 55 percent of national transit commuting the six cities accounted for in 2012, Cox notes. In other words, “transit ridership, already highly concentrated in just a few places, is becoming even more concentrated,” he says.

Looking at APTA’s calculations

Cox also points out that the way APTA calculates transit use artificially inflates transit figures. Specifically,

Each time someone steps on a transit vehicle, they are counted (as a boarding). A person who transfers between two or three buses to make a trip counts as two or three boardings, which is what the APTA data reports.

When rail is added to a transit system, bus services are reconfigured to serve the rail system. This can mean many more boardings from transfers without more passenger trips. This potential inflation of ridership is likely to have occurred … in all metropolitan systems that added rail systems.

Cox says that people who choose cars over public transit for most trips in all U.S. metropolitan areas are exhibiting “rational consumer behavior.” The reason is that, except for commuting in a handful of dense cities, transit is generally “slower or less convenient than the car.”

That’s why not one major U.S. or Western European metro area has a comprehensive, auto-competitive transit system, Cox suggests. A transit system that could compete with the mobility and flexibility of auto travel would require annual expenditures rivaling the total personal income of the metro area in question, he says

In 2014, Congress will vote on new federal funding for highways and transit. Melaniphy,  APTA’s CEO, cites his organization’s report as evidence that “the federal investment in public transit is paying off,” and that a major new infusion of tax dollars is needed.

The real funding problem

In fact, APTA wants as large a chunk of federal transportation funds as possible siphoned off for transit, counters O’Toole. Transit carries just 1 percent or so of urban travel, but already receives more than 20 percent of federal surface transportation dollars, he says.

America does have a transportation funding problem. But it’s misallocation of the transportation dollars we already spend — with too little going to roadways that almost everyone uses — not a lack of spending on transit.

Katherine Kersten, a writer and attorney, is a senior fellow at the Center of the American Experiment. She was a founding director of the center, and was its chairman from 1996 to 1998. This commentary originally appeared as a blog item on the center’s website. 


If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (21)

  1. Submitted by Wayne Coppock on 04/09/2014 - 08:33 am.

    this is trolling right?

    Are there seriously still people out there so deluded that they think everyone can and should drive a car? And that we can somehow pave everything until there’s enough lanes?

    Ps- most people drive because we’ve spent so much public money on making it the most convenient and affordable option for way too long. In the grand scheme of things it costs way more for everyone to drive. If you treated road funding the same way as transit and tolled all the highways you’d see a huge shift in behavior.

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 04/09/2014 - 09:54 am.

      I missed the part

      where Katherine Kersten was suggesting that everyone can and should drive a car, unlike the mass transit obsessives who believe that everyone can and should take mass transit.

      Most people understand that young urban males have the autonomy and physical ability to jump on and off light rail trains, but much of our citizenry are older, less physically able or have children and cargo involved with their trips outside the home.

      Having a car gives you the freedom to move whenever and wherever you wish to go, on your schedule and not someone else’s. It’s analogous to the feeling of freedom and self-reliance. The individualist’s sense of not being reliant on someone else for your needs, transportation or otherwise.

      We understand that not everyone in our society thinks that way, and that’s ok. As taxpayers, we just wish that when collectivists pursue their need to mingle with others on their collective journey to apparently the same location, that somewhere along the way they would have settled for a bus system with the routing and deployment flexibility and less propensity for killing people that’s clearly lacking in these expensive fixed-rail systems. That’s all.

      • Submitted by Wayne Coppock on 04/09/2014 - 11:08 am.

        Can we young people stop collectively financing your social security, medicare and the roads you hold so dear then? No one is suggesting everyone use public transit but the article is essentially suggesting defunding it. So why not stop subsidizing private automobile use too and pay for it exclusively with user fees? Because you like when things you use are paid for with public money but not when things you don’t use are? Well I doubt I’ll ever see a penny from social security so I’d rather not pay into that then. It doesn’t work that way. Go live in Galt’s Gulch if you can’t stomach paying for shared resources.

      • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 04/09/2014 - 11:44 am.

        Found It

        “I missed the part where Katherine Kersten was suggesting that everyone can and should drive a car, unlike the mass transit obsessives who believe that everyone can and should take mass transit.”

        I found the passage that you missed.

        “America does have a transportation funding problem. But it’s misallocation of the transportation dollars we already spend — with too little going to roadways that almost everyone uses — not a lack of spending on transit.”

  2. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 04/09/2014 - 09:13 am.

    tolled all the highways?

    Really? That is not a serious response. The huge shift in behavior would be in the form of open revolution. I’m just betting that you, like I, drive to work every day. Our urban areas have grown up around cars and, as a guess, 90% of daily commuters couldn’t be served by the available routes.

    Not saying “can and should”, just saying that’s the way it is and transit nirvana is a long, long way away. You set up a straw man and easily knock him down but reality is way more complicated.

    I would like to see more transit but in the form of buses and other small scale, flexible means. While I support the goal of helping people on the north side of Minneapolis get to EP where so many jobs are, I think that light rail line is the wrong way to do it. The cost is huge for probably a few hundred people a day riding west. It would be way cheaper to offer free transporton those small buses they use for metro mobility, to have some convenient pick up spots on the north side and then drop people at their place of work.

    I have probably never been on the same side of a debate as Katherine Kersten but I’m afraid I am in this circumstance.

    • Submitted by Wayne Coppock on 04/09/2014 - 11:16 am.

      I too think the current SW alignment is a boondoggle but it’s not fair to impugn all public transit funding along with a terrible route choice. And buses are not suitable once a certain level of ridership is reached. Try taking a 5 or 21 during rush hour and tell me buses are adequate. The recent snow also demonstrated why buses are not as useful: (personal anecdote) two 4 buses in a row got stuck and were unable to continue on the route. This resulted in waiting over an hour to be able to get downtown. That’s not OK when you’re only a few miles away.

      Also the city proper grew up around street car routes. But it’s silly to pretend the swlrt was meant to serve the city in any way.

      You’re wrong about one thing, though. I don’t drive to work. I take a bus and the blue line and don’t even own a car.

  3. Submitted by Nathaniel Finch on 04/09/2014 - 09:23 am.

    Consider the source

    Katherine Kersten is not known for honest and above-board use of statistics or any other kind of information. Trusting her viewpoint on this issue would be irrational. I’m disappointed to see MinnPost giving her ink. She’s way over her lifetime quota already, considering the quality of her contributions.

  4. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 04/09/2014 - 09:25 am.

    Fighting the last war….


    According to the National Household Travel Survey, from 2001 to 2009, the annual number of vehicle-miles traveled by young people (16 to 34-year-olds) decreased from 10,300 miles to 7,900 miles per capita – a drop of 23 percent.
    In 2009, 16 to 34-year-olds as a whole took 24 percent more bike trips than they took in 2001, despite the age group actually shrinking in size by 2 percent.
    In 2009, 16 to 34-year-olds walked to destinations 16 percent more frequently than did 16 to 34-year-olds living in 2001.
    From 2001 to 2009, the number of passenger-miles traveled by 16 to 34-year-olds on public transit increased by 40 percent per capita*.
    According to Federal Highway Administration, from 2000 to 2010, the share of 14 to 34-year-olds without a driver’s license increased from 21 percent to 26 percent.

    (end quote)

    The right builds a county with ever-lower wages and fewer opportunities, crunched tight against the barriers of energy cost s and consequences –what do they think will happen with the private automobile?

    Dinosours like Kersten, fighting the last war.

  5. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 04/09/2014 - 09:26 am.

    Ms. Kersten omits the central point of the Post column…

    …in the typically obfuscatory manner of those folks at the Center of the American Experiment.

    Ms. Kersten misrepresents the point of the Post column by those 3 authors. I guess she hopes you won’t actually follow that link and read it. See the quotes below from that article to understand better what the authors were trying to get across.

    The fundamental point of the Post column is that hidden subsidies of auto usage are the real culprit in modest transit systems’ performance, and that these subsidies make auto usage appear less expensive than it actually is by false accounting.

    “Increased subsidies for public transportation have neither reduced driving nor increased transit use. But ending subsidies to driving probably would do both.”

    “Resting our hopes on a transit comeback distracts from our real transportation problem, which can be summarized in four words: Driving is too cheap. Drivers impose costs on society — in delay, in pollution, in carbon, in wear and tear on our roads — that they don’t pay for. As a result, many of us drive more than we otherwise would. Ending this underpriced driving — through higher fuel taxes, parking and congestion charges and insurance premiums based on miles driven — is a central challenge for local, state and federal transportation officials.”

    “Ending these subsidies will be hard work, politically. Yet we will have no incentive to do this work if Americans continue to believe that transit is making a comeback on its own. It isn’t. Transit, like the rest of our transportation system, is in trouble. We need to act quickly to save it.”

  6. Submitted by Brendon Slotterback on 04/09/2014 - 09:38 am.

    Some more statistics for you

    Total US vehicle miles traveled has been falling since 2007.!ctype=l&strail=false&bcs=d&nselm=h&met_y=VMT&scale_y=lin&ind_y=false&rdim=state&ifdim=state&tdim=true&hl=en_US&dl=en_US&ind=false At this rate, in 50 years, we’ll only be driving as much as we did in 1969, or about 36% of 2011 levels!

  7. Submitted by Joe Laha on 04/09/2014 - 09:48 am.

    Look at the sources she sites, The Cato Institute. I’m shocked, shocked to see a conservative think tank come out against public spending for transit. And while she is correct that LRT use was down in the Twin Cities last year, she neglects to point out that commuter rail and bus use were both up.

    I’d be interested to see how the numbers on cycle commuting factor into these transit numbers. Is the increase in cycle commuting coming from drivers deciding to bike or are they coming from existing transit riders?

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 04/09/2014 - 11:50 am.


      Well, I drive, bus, and bike in to work, depending on the time of year, temperature, and schedule. Can I sign up for “all of the above”?

  8. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 04/09/2014 - 10:29 am.

    Randall O’Toole and Wendell Cox are familiar names

    They have built their entire careers upon traveling around the country trying to derail (pun intended) any new transit projects. (I’m surprised that Ms. Kersten didn’t quote John Charles, the other member of the unholy trinity of transit bashers.)

    They have been known to lie about transit projects and systems that I have extensive personal experience with, so I don’t trust anything they say.

    Since I read the Portland Oregonian online regularly, I know, for example, that the recent decline in transit usage in Portland came about when a funding shortfall prompted Tri-Met to cut routes and frequency and raise fares. Why should anyone be surprised that cutting quality while raising the price turned people off? However, Tri-Met is restoring many of these cuts, so we shall see what happens then.

  9. Submitted by jody rooney on 04/09/2014 - 11:21 am.

    Wow meaningless stats flying every where

    and not a causal link between them.

    Really Mr. Rovick 16 -34 and 14 -34 don’t you think there might be something other than preference effecting an age group that wide. Who on earth would think that was not a cherry picked snap shot. I would also look at some other variables like income, current education status, and let’s not forget the over drugged ADHD folks in the group. There has been a lot going on in those age groups other than “let me chose a healthier life style.”

    Falling vehicle miles may also not be preference it may be aging and economics. In 2009 we owned 4 vehicles in 2014 only 2 did we drive less, sure we retired.

    Preferences are had to measure and this type of data records only what’s happening not why it’s happening. So don’t jump to conclusions or you become no better than the Center for the American Experiment.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 04/09/2014 - 09:00 pm.

      The items cited point to a trend–and those people are going to be the majority in the not-to-distant future.

      Whether it is preference, or economic necessity due to high costs, unemployment or poor paying jobs, or high debt does– it really matter?

      By the way, there are endless references for all of those conditions with the younger generations.

      If you don’t have a car, you need other forms of transportation.

      So do you punish the choice or the need and the just subsidize cars?

      ….and let’s not forget the over drugged ADHD folks in the group………????????

  10. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 04/09/2014 - 01:58 pm.

    Local Transit

    One item conspicuously missing from this opinion piece: not everyone can, should, or wants to drive a car. Over the past 70 years we’ve invested heavily in roads as the ‘one size fits all’ solution, while at the same time not simply ignored mass transit, but actively seeking to defund and dismantle it as Ms. Kersten advocates. The end result is a mass transit system that’s chronically short of funds and doesn’t fully serve the needs of the populace. It’s disingenuous to then cry that it doesn’t work.

    We’ve built highways all over the place, which just encourages people to live farther out and drive more, and then complain when the roads are clogged and they can’t get anywhere fast. The proposed solution then is to take more land, tear down more houses and businesses and build more lanes of freeway, bigger feeder roads, larger cloverleafs, and more bridges, all of which will just be clogged up in six months with more traffic. Just so people can get someone a little faster. It doesn’t do any good though as the highways will still be stop and go from 7 AM – 9 AM and 3 PM – 7 PM. The rest of the day the system is underutilized as it’s been built to handle rush hour traffic. The rest of the day all that space is wasted.

    Is it any wonder that people are looking around for other solutions?

    No one is advocating that we defund roads, but rather that we get a little equity in the system. In fact I’ve been advocating the opposite: we need more funding for all transportation options. We need more bike and walking trails so our overweight society can get out and exercise more as well as encourage people to make their short trips via bike. We need rail because it’s an efficient way to get masses of people from point A to point B. Buses to connect people where the rails don’t go. And yes, roads too for those those buses, rails, and trails don’t reach.

    At the end of the day we need ALL of our transportation options on the table. Take any one out and the system creaks, groans, and collapses under its own weight.

  11. Submitted by John DeWitt on 04/09/2014 - 03:56 pm.

    So, what should we do?

    Since Kersten has no suggestions beyond spending the money wasted on transit on more roads, it’s worth looking at what one of her sources, Wendell Cox, proposed for Atlanta when asked by the Georgia Public Policy Institute. His suggestions were straightforward: double deck all the freeways, add a third deck to freeways with heavy truck traffic, and build 6-8 lane arterials on a one mile grid throughout the region.

    The Atlanta Journal Constitution quickly responded with an editorial pointing out that the plan would turn Atlanta into LA on steroids. (This was before LA started investing heavily in rail.) The editorial went on to ask 1) what the plan would do to air quality, 2) who would pay for it, and 3) who would still want to live in Atlanta.

  12. Submitted by Neal Gendler on 04/09/2014 - 10:50 pm.

    Almost overlooked in the debate is the damage done to air quality by millions of people commuting by automobile — often at the pace of an arthritic snail. Improving mass-transit to enhance commuting has social and environmental values.

    Time spent commuting by transit can be invested in useful activity such as reading — or simply conversing with people. And every commuter who switches to transit lessens the amount of carbon dioxide and other undesirable substances being spewed into the air. Those who switch also reduce consumption of fossil fuels, which will not always remain plentiful.

    Those values don’t seem to figure into the usual cost analyses of rail and bus transit, but they’re mighty important to keeping this planet pleasant or even habitable.

    We need more transit, not less, to encourage greater use. And there’s no surprise in buss rides falling when rail becomes available; people are going to choose the speediest and most-comfortable means of commuting.

  13. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/10/2014 - 09:30 am.

    Count me as dissappointed as well

    Kersten? Kersten has always been a debater pretending to be an intellectual. This piece pretends to be an assault on transit spending with fact and statistics but as usual Kersten is just debating, not investigating. She’s cherry picking “facts trees” instead of looking at the forest.

    I’m surprised no has yet pointed this out but our transportation mix is and must change for a variety of reasons. The problem with these “transit” comparisons is well, we don’t have a lot of “transit” to use. Why would you expect a country with so little transit infrastructure would produce high transit use numbers in the first place? The reason 31% of the trips in the Netherlands are transit compared to 6% in the US is simple… they actually have a decent transit system. When and if we ever see and “explosion” in transit development in the US, we would see an “explosion” in transit use.

    As for de-subsidizing autos, that would be great, it would lead to less reliance on cars, more planning, and an increased demand for transit… but that’s not an argument for cutting transit spending.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 04/10/2014 - 12:03 pm.

      Transit Numbers

      Paul, I was thinking along the same lines. Looking specifically at the Twin Cities, we would post better transit numbers if we had a mature mass transit system. Instead we have a single line with a second line about to come into service. That would be like building 494 with 35E about to open and 694 and 35W still in the planning stages. I94? That’s for a future expansion that we’re just thinking about. Maybe we’ll get to that in another thirty years.

      Also missing from Ms. Kersten’s narrative is is that Minnesota needs an additional one billion dollars a year on top of the money it already receives–just to maintain the roads we already have. If you want more lanes, then that figure needs to be tacked on to existing funding requests.

      What we need is a metro-wide tax to fund mass transit and a state-wide tax to supplement roads. Then we’ll see some real progress on both fronts as projects get planned and built in a timely manner.

  14. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/12/2014 - 10:37 am.

    $3.6 Trillion for existing infrastructure…

    Of course it’s always funny when Kersten et al pretend to “critique” transit spending. Their primary approach to transportation issues is to let stuff collapse and then replace it. We need $3.6 trillion to just to bring our existing systems up to grade. all the republicans have been doing for over a decade is creating serial budget crises followed by cuts to transportation spending of any kind. Remember that scheme back in the Pawlenty years? Instead of bonding or raising the necessary revenue they tried to get the contractors to finance the 35W Crosstown rebuild? I don’t know who Kersten thinks she fooling when she tries to pretend she’s advocating some OTHER kind of government spending on transportation when in fact all they want to do is privatize it or let crumble.

Leave a Reply