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Transportation

The Complex 50-Year Collapse of U.S. Public Transit

A new analysis of a half-century of transportation patterns in U.S. cities shows how the share of transit commuters has plunged in most — but not all — metro regions since 1970. 

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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%. 

That historic shift reflects several broad trends in U.S. life, including suburbanization patterns and urban highway expansion, the growth of the car-friendly Sunbelt, and the depopulation of once-robust industrial cities. But fundamentally, the fading usefulness of public transit is a result of the fundamental lack of integration between federal transportation and land-use authorities, says Yonah Freemark, a senior research associate with the Urban Institute.

“In a number of other countries, the Department of Transportation and the Department of Housing and Urban Development are combined in one entity,” he says. “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.