Increasing Transit Usage Means Understanding Transit Riders
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Increasing Transit Usage Means Understanding Transit Riders

Report analyzing transit user surveys collected over the course of eight years can provide useful insights for cities like Toronto.


Photo by Nick Kernick via Torontoist’s Flickr pool

What makes a person choose public transit over the convenience of a car?

In January of this year, the American Public Transportation Association put out a new report, “Who Rides Public Transportation.” It’s a follow-up to a similar report published in 2007, and the product of a massive data-gathering exercise over seven years, with 211 distinct passenger survey reports, based on responses from 695,748 passengers, from 163 different transit systems from across the United States which collectively serve more than three-quarters of the country’s riders.

Despite the differences between American and Canadian cities, there are quite a number of similarities, and there are some useful lessons in the APTA report for Toronto. As a big city, Toronto’s mobility dynamics are not so different from American cities of the same scale.

One of the report’s purposes was to study the differences in transit use in cities of different sizes. The results are thus broken down into three groups: (1) big cities with a population of over a million, (2) medium-sized, between 200,000 and 999,999, and (3) smaller cities with less than 200,000.

It turns out there are some things about big-city transit riders that are distinctive. These are valuable insights for a city the size of Toronto to reflect upon.

To the extent that there is such a person, the typical American transit rider is a well-educated woman with a good income, living in a city of over 1,000,000. She takes transit not because she has no choice, but because it is her preference. She rides every day, and has been a regular transit rider for several years. Not surprisingly, this resembles a typical TTC rider.

U.S. transit riders are almost twice as likely to hold a bachelor’s degree (or more) than the general population: 51 per cent vs. 27 per cent. The high figure is due to highly educated people’s greater presence on rail service, where 70 per cent of riders hold that level of education. But still, 42 per cent of bus riders hold a degree, which is higher than the general population. Those with higher education are more likely to be riding in the biggest cities, too.

The representation of income groups in the overall population is very close to the proportion using public transit, with the exception of the lowest income group (less than $15,000/year) whose use is disproportionately greater (13 per cent vs. 21 per cent). There are two significant differences between income groups: first, those at the lower end are much more likely to take the bus, and those at the higher end are more likely to take a train; second, in small and mid-sized cities, those in the lowest income group constitute almost half of riders, and the richest group are only about five per cent.

However, the upper-income groups’ use of transit increases in big cities, where the richest and poorest fill approximately the same number of seats (22 per cent and 20 per cent). As the report says, “The incomes of rider households in the largest cities follow a pattern very much like that of the general population nationally” (p. 37).

This education and income profile is significant, because it is the context for the most important insight: the majority of riders take transit because they have chosen to, not because they have no alternative. A minority of 40 per cent of respondents to an open question on their reason for taking transit indicated it was their only choice; the other 60 per cent said it was their choice; 16 per cent specifically said it was because it was a wise economic decision (e.g. “cheaper than parking”); the rest (44 per cent) indicated a variety of reasons that boiled down to a matter of preference.

Indeed, a majority of riders have options: 65 per cent have a driver’s license, 54 per cent have at least one car at home, and 39 per cent had a vehicle available for the particular trip they were taking when surveyed.

Most importantly, these figures for cities over 1,000,000 are even more emphatic. Average income and car ownership rates are higher. These riders are the most likely to have a car, but the most likely to choose transit anyway. They are the most likely to credit helping the environment, avoiding car traffic, and saving time as their reason for choosing transit. “Cheaper than parking” is the only economic incentive they cite of any significance.

“Need” accounts for 56 per cent of small-city riders and 52 per cent of mid-sized-city riders, but only 25 per cent of big-city riders. By and large, big-city riders have the money and the vehicle to drive, but they choose not to because transit has given them a good alternative in a way they value, whether it concerns the environment, their time, or their comfort.

Big-city riders are also the most committed transit users. Sixty-two per cent ride five or more days per week, and 55 per cent have been taking transit for five years or more—which is at least double the percentage of riders in smaller cities. 

In sum, with the possible exception of parking, big-city transit riders are not so sensitive to economic disincentives around driving. They have a car and they have the money for gas. They are responding to other things that matter to them. The more we meet those needs, the more likely they are to choose transit and stay with it.

Interestingly, there is a different “need” question that arises for big-city riders. They were the most likely to say that if the current mode of transportation were not available to them, they would not make the trip at all.

This confirms other research that has noted that one of the most significant impacts of transit systems is that they increase economic participation. Good transit makes new trips possible. More people do more things when they can get there easily. A convenient, accessible, fast, reliable, and affordable transit option makes all kinds of trips more attractive, more doable. There is economic and social activity that just does not happen without transit in big cities.

The APTA report is another contribution to the growing mountain of evidence that, particularly in big cities, people choose transit over driving when a good option is available to them. We need to think in terms of carrots, not sticks. More focus on making transit better, rather than shaming or punishing drivers, will have the biggest and longest-lasting impact.

If we build more and better transit, and work to improve the accessibility and reliability of existing systems, more people will take transit and make it their default. That’s the way we want to go.