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Public transportation objectives and rider demographics: are transit’s priorities poor public policy?

Abstract

Strong public and political support for mass transit in the U.S. is based on lofty goals, including congestion reduction, economic development, aesthetics, sustainability, and much more. Yet, as is the case in many areas of public policy, the pursuit of multiple and broad objectives, however worthy, can diffuse efforts and fail to achieve desired results. Moreover, these goals suggest a lack of focus on the needs of transit riders themselves, particularly the poor and transit dependent. We examine this by combining data from the National Household Travel Survey, the National Transit Database, the American Public Transportation Association, and a survey we conducted of 50 U.S. transit operators. First, we find that while rail transit riders in the aggregate are approximately as wealthy as private vehicle travelers, bus patrons have far lower incomes, and this disparity is growing over time. Second, few transit agencies publicly identify serving the poor or minorities as a goal, instead focusing on objectives that appeal to more affluent riders and voters as a whole. Finally, in recent decades transit spending priorities have been slanted away from bus service and towards commuter-oriented rail services favored by the wealthier general voting public, although most members of this group rarely if ever ride transit. We contend that efforts to secure popular support for transit subsidies stifle agencies’ ability to acknowledge transit’s critical social service function and serve the needs of its core demographic. While such strategies make sense politically, underserving the poor may be poor public policy.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The Census Bureau categorizes Asians, blacks, and whites as either Hispanic or non-Hispanic. So a Census-consistent term for a white person of European ancestry is “Non-Hispanic white.” To avoid such cumbersome terminology, we refer to both Hispanic and non-Hispanic Asians as “Asian,” Hispanic and non-Hispanic blacks as “African-American” or “black,” non-Hispanic whites as “white,” and Hispanic whites as “Hispanic” or “Latino.”

  2. 2.

    Premium bus service, such as express buses and bus rapid transit, can be expected to be more similar to rail in terms of service level and ridership. We are unable to disaggregate these services from local bus, as data are not available. However, American Public Transportation Association’s 2012 Fact Book (2012c) reports there are only 4,300 directional route miles of bus service on exclusive or controlled rights-of-way, versus 232,000 miles of buses traveling in mixed traffic, a share of 1.8 %; moreover, only 6.7 % of buses in 2012 were equipped with traffic signal preemption. Since these are (along with wider stop spacing) the primary components of premium bus service, we can safely disregard premium bus for making broad generalizations about bus service and ridership. In any event, the low incomes of bus riders attest to the fact that bus is luring few choice riders in the aggregate based on its service quality.

  3. 3.

    Because these data display categorical median income data instead of mean income data, the data can show significant year-to-year changes when the median moves from one income category to another.

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Acknowledgments

The authors thank Kendra Breiland, Sandra O'Flaherty, John Gahbauer, and Michelle Go for their research assistance, and Joseph Issa and Nikki Navio for editorial assistance.

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Correspondence to Eric A. Morris.

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Taylor, B.D., Morris, E.A. Public transportation objectives and rider demographics: are transit’s priorities poor public policy?. Transportation 42, 347–367 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11116-014-9547-0

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Keywords

  • Goal ambiguity
  • Transit goals
  • Transit subsidies
  • Transit patronage
  • Transit rider demographics