April 7, 2016

Who relies on public transit in the U.S.

America’s love affair with the car is well-documented, but many U.S. adults also rely on a bus, train or subway to get around. One-in-ten Americans (11%) say they take public transportation on a daily or weekly basis, according to a new Pew Research Center survey conducted in late 2015, but who is taking public transit varies substantially by region, nativity, and race and ethnicity.

New York leads U.S. in public transit useThe Northeast, home to several of the most traveled transit systems in the country, has the largest share of adults by region (25%) who use public transportation on a regular basis (daily or weekly). City dwellers are also more frequent users of mass transit. Some 21% of urban residents use public transit on a regular basis, compared with 6% of suburban residents and just 3% of rural residents.

Recent headlines on public transit haven’t been flattering. Last week, Washington D.C., transit officials warned that repairs to its subway system – which is one of the most used in the nation – could close entire rail lines for up to six months. This statement came two weeks after the city’s metro rail service was suspended for 29 hours for emergency inspections. 

Public transit use varies by demographic groupThe nation’s capital is not the only city facing public transit issues and changes. A 2013 Federal Transit Administration report estimated that “more than 40% of buses and 25% of rail transit around the U.S. are in marginal or poor condition.” Besides infrastructure concerns, other cities are looking for ways to grow ridership, increase affordability and modernize how commuters pay for fares.

Americans who are lower-income, black or Hispanic, immigrants or under 50 are especially likely to use public transportation on a regular basis, Pew Research Center data show.

While there are few racial and ethnic differences in public transit use among non-urban residents, there are substantial differences when looking at only those living in urban areas. Among urban residents, 34% of blacks and 27% of Hispanics report taking public transit daily or weekly, compared with only 14% of whites. Foreign-born urban residents are more likely than urban dwellers born in the U.S. to regularly use public transportation (38% vs. 18%).

One possible reason that blacks, Hispanics and immigrants might be bigger users of public transit is because they are more likely than Americans overall to live in large metropolitan areas, where there tend to be more public transit options. They are also less likely to have access to an automobile than other groups and are more likely to use public transit for commuting to work. Blacks and Hispanics also tend to live farther away from their jobs, which could make walking or biking to work less common.

Note: Read the full methodology and topline results here (PDF).

Topics: Demographics, Work and Employment

  1. Photo of Monica Anderson

    is a research associate focusing on internet, science and technology at Pew Research Center.


  1. sinnathamby sundaralingam1 year ago

    Public transist need to be modernized and built with more comfort to attract more travelers daily. The Ammerican love for car should be gradually reduced to help the environment and dependent on forein oil. The present public transist in US cities are out dated and reflect as it is specially meant for poor and eathnic groups. If USA want to sign in the latest Paris agreement on reducing the green gas emition, number one on the agenda will be the future public corporation in reducing energy consumption in each house hold. Modernizing and making public transport more comfort so that people will choose for quich,cheap and easy travell will help better world environment.

    1. Bob Goedjen1 year ago

      The point is that income from fares does not really exceed the cost of operation or even 50% of the cost in the majority of urban transit systems. I will consider supporting a new system when the riders pay for the system! Why do we continue to build systems when they do not pay their way. Don’t give up your car, it is the symbol of liberty and freedom!

      1. Anonymous1 year ago

        This sounds like a good idea, let’s not build any more money losing transport systems. First stop, cut road funding & then bus/rail.

        The demand for transport is strong, without subsidized roads we’ll see for-profit transport companies making money just like 100 years ago.

      2. Anonymous1 year ago

        Agree with you 100% .. all hi ways
        should not be funded with public money and should be user pay. Liberty and freedom have their price.

      3. Charles Denison1 year ago

        Taxes collected from drivers directly (gas, excise, etc) only pay about 50% of the cost of our roadway infrastructure. The rest of the money comes from taxes that we all pay. To then expect transit to be 100% self-funded is not only unfair but also unrealistic.