In a CityLab article from this summer (which for some reason they put on today's newsletter, and not the one from June 25th), Tony Frangie Mawad examines the decline in American public transit since the late 20th century:
Back in 1970, 77 million Americans commuted to work every day, and 9% of them took a bus or a train. By 2019, the number of U.S. workers had nearly doubled, to more than 150 million. But the vast majority of these new workers chose to drive: The number of public transit riders increased by only around 1 million during those years, and their share of the country’s overall commuters collapsed to 5%.
“In a number of other countries, the Department of Transportation and the Department of Housing and Urban Development are combined in one entity,” [said Yonah Freemark, a senior research associate with the Urban Institute]. “In the United States, we ended up with two different entities.” As a result, housing and mobility needs have been poorly aligned; the landscape is laden with housing that lacks access to public transportation, light rail lines that course through sparsely settled areas, and too many cities whose transit networks can’t connect riders with jobs.
But as Freemark’s new analysis of commuting data shows, based on his database of long-term trends in U.S. metros, regional patterns reveal a more complex story. Some cities have bucked national trends and gained transit commuters over the last 50 years. Coastal cities like New York City, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Seattle, and Boston saw an increase of hundreds of thousands of transit commuters between 1970 and 2019. Pre-pandemic, 3 million New Yorkers commuted by bus, subway and train daily — 500,000 more than in 1970 — and the region’s share of transit commuters held relatively steady.
Cities where transit use has seen massive reductions tend to be those that have endured deindustrialization and suburbanization during the last 50 years, with a concurrent rise in investments in highways designed to shuttle car-driving commuters in and out of town. “These used to be places that had really successful downtowns, but now most of their workforce has suburbanized,” says Freemark.
Here in Chicago, former Illinois Governors Bruce Rauner (R) and James Thompson (R) starved the Regional Transit Authority of funds—Rauner going so far as to halt almost all infrastructure improvements throughout the Chicago transit area.
Declines in transit use, therefore, come from policy decisions that we can reverse. Let's start by adequately funding the existing transit networks, and de-funding highway expansions, for example.