Driving, even in San Francisco.

Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Cars Are Still Beating Public Transit

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One day last fall I showed up just after 6 a.m. at the Bay Area Rapid Transit station in Lafayette, California -- the town where I grew up -- to catch a train to Bloomberg’s office in San Francisco. It was packed standing-room-only for the whole 30-minute ride into the city. I remember thinking that if BART was that crowded before 7 a.m. something really remarkable must be happening. The sprawling, car-centric Bay Area I knew was being transformed, and maybe the nation with it.

OK, yeah, I can get a little delirious before I’ve eaten breakfast.

Upon reflection, I determined that a major reason the train was so crowded so early was because you have to get to BART’s suburban stations that early to snag a parking spot.  And when I looked into the data I saw that even in the crowded, progressive, willing-to-vote-tax-hikes-on-itself-to-fund-transit Bay Area, public transportation isn't exactly taking over. For one thing, while transit use has been on the rise lately in the Bay Area, overall ridership is actually still below the level in 2001, due mainly to a big drop in bus use. Also, according to the Census Bureau, while the San Francisco area  saw the biggest decrease among large metropolitan areas in the percentage of workers commuting by automobile from 2006 to 2013, that still left 69.8 percent driving in 2013. And that doesn’t count all the people driving to BART stations at 6 a.m., or the neighboring San Jose metropolitan area, where car use is much higher.

As large U.S. metropolitan areas go, in fact, San Francisco is the second least auto-intensive, after New York.

Overall, 85.8 percent of Americans traveled to work by automobile in 2013, and 5.2 percent by public transportation. Two pieces of news I stumbled across Wednesday implied that the small transit minority might even be shrinking: "U.S. vehicle-miles traveled surged 4.3% in November 2015 compared with November 2014," the Wall Street Journal reported, while in Los Angeles County transit use fell more than 10 percent from 2006 to 2015, despite big investments in light rail and subways, according to the Los Angeles Times.

As someone who writes occasionally about the resurgence of big cities and the struggles of the suburbs, this makes me wonder: Have I -- a public-transit-reliant city dweller -- been fooling myself into thinking that there’s more of shift occurring than there really is? And more generally, is the whole narrative of the return of the city and the decline of the automotive lifestyle just a fantasy promulgated by journalists and think-tankers concentrated in a few big, transit-friendly cities? 

I’m pretty sure the answers to my questions are yes -- I had to some extent been fooling myself -- and no -- the narrative isn't a total fantasy.

But let me focus on the public transportation angle. Here are the national ridership numbers since 1990:

The overall trend is upward, although there hasn’t been much of an increase over the past decade. And there’s been a clear shift away from buses and toward rail. Now, a longer view:

Here you can see the great collapse in public transit ridership after World War II, followed by a modest resurgence since. Resurgence may be too strong a word, given that transit ridership has only grown about as fast as population since it bottomed out in 1972. But something other than a decline, certainly.

The fact that ridership bottomed out in 1972 is also significant because of the 1973 oil crisis. Since the 1970s, transit ridership has generally risen when gasoline was expensive (the late 1970s, the early 2000s) and fallen when it was cheap (the 1990s, now). So unless you believe low oil prices will be with us forever, there is a cyclical factor currently depressing public transportation use that will eventually reverse.

Then there’s that shift away from buses and toward rail. BART opened for business in 1972 and the Washington Metro in 1976. Since then four other U.S. cities have built similar (if much less expansive) rapid-transit systems, and more than two dozen have launched light-rail lines. Amid all that investment in rail, buses have suffered. According to an analysis by City Observatory’s Daniel Hertz, bus-service expansion trailed that of rail from 2000 to 2009 and has been hit since 2009 by big cutbacks, while rail has been mostly spared. As the headline on his piece reads: “Urban residents aren’t abandoning buses; buses are abandoning them.”

Rail passengers tend to have higher incomes than bus riders, meaning that in recent decades the U.S. has been shifting public transit resources toward the affluent and away from the poor. The affluent appear to have responded by moving back into cities and along rail corridors in the suburbs. A recent Census Bureau working paper showed, for example, that neighborhoods near Metro stations in the Washington area have become magnets for young, high-earning, well-educated white people. Economists Lena Edlund, Cecilia Machado and Maria Micaela Sviatschi found, in a paper that’s already been discussed by my Bloomberg View colleague Leonid Bershidsky, that central-city real estate in the U.S. went from being much cheaper than the suburbs in 1980 to much more expensive in 2010.

So the urban resurgence is real, and public transit investment appears to have played a part in it. People who could afford a couple of cars and a nice house in the suburbs are opting instead for shorter commutes and an urban lifestyle. But on the whole, cars are still the way most Americans get around even in big, crowded metropolitan areas. And people who use public transit because they can’t afford a car may actually be worse off than they were decades ago, because they’re getting priced out of neighborhoods with good rail access while bus service dwindles. Zillow economist Aaron Terrazas reported last month that low-income workers in downtown San Francisco and Seattle now face much longer commutes than they did a decade ago. The nation is being transformed (as it always is, come to think of it), just not in a way that necessarily works for everybody.

  1. Forty-nine percent of BART passengers get to their stations by car, according to a 2008 survey; in Lafayette it was 84 percent, with 68 percent driving alone.

  2. That report calls it the San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward metropolitan statistical area, but in part because the Census Bureau is always changing the cities it includes (in the report referred to in the next footnote it’s the San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont area), I have made the command decision here to name only the principal city of each metro area in the text.

  3. The Census Bureau didn’t include a percentage for San Jose in its most recent report on commuting, but in 2009 among the 50 biggest metro areas it came in 20th (behind Las Vegas) in public transportation usage, while San Francisco came in second.

  4. The charts have different categories because APTA slices things up differently over different time frames. The non-bus, non-rail modes of transportation included in the second chart but not the first (dial-a-ride vans, ferries, aerial tramways) don’t account for enough trips to have any real impact, though.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net