Transit ridership numbers fluctuate more with gasoline prices and other economic conditions than with the amount of money spent on urban transit. As it happens, transit ridership reached a low point in 1995, when transit carried less than 7.8 million trips, down from 9.0 million in 1985. Eager to claim that Americans are giving up their cars and switching to transit, transit advocates today often compare recent ridership with 1995 numbers. If they had selected 1985 instead, the growth rate would be a lot less impressive.
Since American urban populations have been steadily growing, what counts is not total ridership but per capita ridership. When transit advocates calculate per capita trips, they usually use the entire population of the United States. But the urban areas in which transit ridership takes place are growing faster than the population as a whole, so what really counts is trips per urban resident.
In 1964, most American transit systems were privately owned and they carried the average urban resident about 62 trips per year. In that year, Congress passed the Urban Mass Transit Act promising federal funds to cities that took over private transit systems. By 1972, most systems were publicly owned, but ridership had fallen to about 43 annual trips per urban resident.
Congress began subsidizing urban transit in 1965. Federal, state, and local subsidies since then total to well over half a trillion dollars (in today’s dollars), much of which has gone to build, operate, and maintain new rail transit lines. Despite this spending–or perhaps because of it–transit usage per urban resident has declined from about 60 trips per year to about 41.
Thanks to high gas prices, ridership boomed after that, reaching 51 trips per urban resident in 1979 and staying around that level through 1985. Falling gas prices then caused ridership to decline below 38 trips per urban resident in 1995. Since then, ridership has grown, but mainly because of population growth. Since 1999, ridership has hovered around 42 trips per urban resident, slightly more than 1995 but well below 1985 levels. With gasoline prices falling today, it will be a long time before transit again carries 50 annual trips per resident.
Today, the average urban American travels more than 12,000 miles a year by car and just 225 miles a year by transit. Even if transit were growing faster than driving, it would take many decades for transit to equal even 10 percent of driving’s share of travel.
Chart showing per capita trips