American transit systems carried 10.5 billion passenger trips in 2015. This is a 33% increase from 20 years ago, when transit carried 7.9 billion trips, but is 250 million trips less than in 2014. 11% of American adults reported taking public transportation on a daily or weekly basis in 2015.
Buses are the most common form of public transportation, accounting for approximately half of passenger trips in 2015. The 15 heavy rail (subway/metro) systems comprise the majority of non-bus trips, accounting for over a third of total passenger trips. While transit has higher ridership in urban areas, there are nearly 1,400 public transit systems in rural areas, providing paratransit, bus, commuter bus, and vanpool service. These often-forgotten rural transit systems provide vital mobility to people who do not have access to a car or cannot drive themselves, particularly elderly individuals and people with disabilities.
The extent of transit in the U.S. has been increasing: from 2004 to 2014, 26% more urban route miles of rail modes became available, with light rail and commuter rail seeing almost all of the growth, as well as 11% more urban route miles in non-rail modes. This time period also saw a 17% increase in the number of passenger stations. However, many Americans still don’t have access to public transit. Despite 81% of Americans living in urban areas, only 51% of U.S. households reported in 2013 they could get to a grocery store using public transportation.
In order for transit to work well, both the transit vehicles (buses, trains, etc.) and the physical infrastructure (tracks, signals, etc.) must be in good condition. According to the most recent data available, 10% of the nation’s urban bus fleet and 3% of the nation’s rail fleet are not in a “state of good repair.” Transit’s physical infrastructure fairs considerably worse: 15% of facilities (e.g., maintenance facilities), 17% of systems (e.g., power, signal, communications, fare collecting) 35% of guideway elements (e.g., tracks), and 37% of stations are not in a “state of good repair.”
Many transit systems are also experiencing ridership demand beyond what the systems were designed for, creating tension between the ability to expand to meet demand and the need to maintain the existing system. A transit system’s condition closely correlates to ridership and financial strength; when transit becomes unreliable, fewer people continue to use it, creating a chain effect of lost support in fares and, over time, less investment in the system due to lower ridership. Several of the older heavy rail systems, including in Washington, D.C., New York, and San Francisco, are confronting the challenges and consequences of rider demand, years of deferred maintenance, and chronic funding problems.Back to Transit