Number of public transport trips in the US by mode (billions). Source data: APTA

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) says Americans made 10,654 million trips by public transport in 2013, up 1.1% compared to 2012. Travel by cars went up just 0.3% over the same period and population by 0.7%.

Public transport patronage in the US has been growing in absolute terms for two decades: APTA says it’s increased 37% since 1995. Over the same period, the US population grew 20% and car use (VMT) increased 23%.

According to the Chair of APTA, Peter Varga, the rising mode share of public transport indicates there’s a “fundamental shift going on in the way we move about our communities”. Mr Varga says:

People in record numbers are demanding more public transit services and communities are benefiting with strong economic growth. Access to public transportation matters. Community leaders know that public transportation investment drives community growth and economic revitalization.

APTA’s media release highlights a welcome and important improvement, but it might give a misleading impression. It tends to obscure the enormous challenge still facing public transport policy in the US.

It should be clear that 10,654 million transit trips relative to a 2013 population of 317 million is not as compelling as almost the same number of trips against a 1956 population of 169 million. Urbanisation has also increased substantially over the last 57 years, which should favour transit.

Another issue is APTA’s focus on percentage increases doesn’t show that public transport still only accounts for a very small proportion of all travel.

The journey to work is the purpose where public transport does best, but according to another study, Commuting in America 2013, only around 4.9% of Americans currently commute by transit (up from 4.6% ten years ago) compared to 86% who drive to work.

While the use of public transport for commuting grew three times faster than car use over 2000 to 2010, the absolute increase in car trips was nevertheless much larger. Car commutes increased by 5.4 million trips over the ten years whereas journeys to work by transit increased by 0.9 million.

Mode shift to public transport from cars is part of the explanation for the relatively slow growth rate of car use over the last decade, but it’s not the primary reason. The authors of Commuting in America 2013 say it’s predominantly due to slower growth in the total level of commuting.

It’s likely wider economic and social changes explain most of this slowing (e.g. see here, here, here and here), but strong growth in working at home was also a factor. The number of home-based workers grew by 1.7 million over the last decade, almost double the increase in commuting by public transport. (1)

It’s also worth looking more closely at APTA’s figures for 2012 and 2013, since they measure all public transport use, not just work trips. They show the story of public transport growth in the US is mostly about rail and a handful of old cities, especially New York.

The national 1.1% increase in patronage over 2012-13 reported by APTA is almost entirely due to a single mode. Of the total 117.2 million increase in trips over the year, almost all of them (113.2 million) were made on heavy and commuter rail.

Light rail trips increased by a much smaller amount (7.9 million) and bus trips fell marginally (-5.2 million). Nonetheless, buses are easily the largest transit mode, carrying 25% more travellers than heavy and commuter rail in 2013 and ten times as many as light rail.

Turning to cities, New York’s MTA is the dominant agency. It carried 3,648 million of the nation’s 10,654 million public transport trips in 2013, well ahead of Chicago with 602 million trips.

Heavy and commuter rail passenger trips in New York totalled 2,836 million and accounted for 66% of all rail trips in the US.  The next largest city for rail was Washington DC, with a comparatively small 273 million trips.

The MTA was also the largest bus operator, carrying 812 million bus passengers in 2013 and accounting for 15% of all bus trips in the country. The next biggest cities for buses were Los Angeles (363 million), Chicago (300 million) and Philadelphia (161 million).

Without New York’s MTA, there would’ve been no increase in public transport patronage in the US between 2012 and 2013. The agency carried an extra 123 million passengers by rail and bus combined; more than the total national net increase in patronage of 117.2 million trips over the period.

Outside of New York, there was no net growth in public transport. A number of other cities certainly experienced some growth, but their increases in aggregate were offset by those cities that suffered falls in patronage.

Eight cities increased patronage on heavy rail and seven lost passengers. APTA draws attention to Miami’s impressive 10.6% increase in heavy rail patronage but the increase was from a very small base i.e. from 19.2 million trips to 21.3 million.

Light rail systems in ten cities (out of 27) and bus systems in 17 cities (of 37) lost patronage over 2012-13. More cities gained than lost, as would be expected with population growth, but the absolute increases were not large.

For example, APTA highlights the impressive performance of New Orleans’ light rail system, which increased patronage by an impressive 28.6%; numbers went from 5.5 million to 7.1 million. The number of passengers using the Los Angeles light rail, the second largest system in the country, increased 6.0% from 60.2 million to 63.8 million. (2)

These are impressive growth rates but in the context of the total travel task in the US, and especially compared to the proportion of travel carried by car, the absolute increases are very small beer. (3) An added problem is that too many new rail-based public transport projects are boondoggles (e.g. see How cost-effective are new rail transit projects?).

As I’ve noted before many times (e.g. see here, here and here) getting travellers to shift out of their cars in significant numbers will only occur if cars are made less attractive compared to public transport. Making public transport more attractive is very important, but policy-makers also need to give much more attention to taming cars.


  1. Other than school trips, public transport achieves its highest mode share on the journey to work. However commuting accounts for less than 20% of all trip purposes in the US. Public transport’s share of non-work trips is much lower, probably less than half what it is for work trips.
  2. Patronage on the largest light rail system in the US, Boston, fell from 76 million to 72.3 million.
  3. Update: in an article published on 21 March in the Washington Post, Use of public transit isn’t surging, academics David King, Michael Manville and Michael Martin point out that transit only carries 2-3% of all trips, for all purposes, in the US.