A third of New Orleans residents who commute via public transportation live in poverty, compared to only 9 percent of those who drive cars. San Diego residents taking public transportation to work earn less than half as much as other city workers. A similarly large disparity exists in Louisville, Ky.; Tucson, Ariz.; and scores of other urban centers.

Step onto a bus in any American city and you’ll find riders who are poorer and more likely to be minorities than those traveling by car. It’s a socioeconomic gap that’s persisted across most of the nation’s cities for decades.

Historically, public transportation systems functioned largely as a key strand in the social safety net for those with no other means of getting around. That’s slowly beginning to change, though, as transit agencies seek to broaden their ridership base and meet the growing demand among city dwellers wanting to go carless.

“Transit systems across the country are making themselves a more mainstream option for the community as a whole,” said Art Guzzetti, the American Public Transportation Association’s (APTA) vice president of policy.

A review of Census Bureau survey estimates shows just how large the demographic divide remains, with public transportation commuters disproportionately poorer in nearly every city with a significant number of riders, outside of a few large mid-Atlantic transit systems. Nationally, commuters driving alone to work report median earnings $4,314 higher than those taking public transportation. Figures compiled by Governing, listed below, depict the disparity for 100 U.S. cities. 

To a certain degree, rider demographics are tied to what the system offers. Some systems are designed primarily for transit-dependent riders. APTA’s Guzzetti said systems will continue to provide mobility for these individuals, but he expects the demographics to shift. “The transit system of the future will be for people across the board,” he said.

Today, many of the nation’s core transit riders have no other choice but to hop on a bus, train or streetcar. An APTA survey reported less than one-half (45 percent) of those using public transportation also had a vehicle available. This percentage tends to be higher for those commuting via rail and lower for bus commuters.

Brian Taylor, a UCLA urban planning professor, conducted research showing differences in income levels of the markets served by various modes of public transportation. People served by commuter rail are wealthier than in years past. Bus riders are poorer. Earnings for light rail riders, who reside in larger areas spanning both inner cities and suburbs, didn’t change much.

How transportation networks are configured and where populations are distributed further shape a public transportation system’s demographics.

The following table shows how far public transportation commuters’ annual median earnings trail that of the entire workforce in select cities:

City Public Transportation Commuters' Median Earnings as % of Median Earnings for All Commuters Median Earnings: All Commuters ($) Margin of Error Median Earnings: Public Transportation Commuters ($) Margin of Error
Louisville, Kentucky 43.5 30,831 +/- 402 13,423 +/- 1701
Tucson, Arizona 46.8 25,717 +/- 575 12,044 +/- 1118
Albany, New York 49.0 30,236 +/- 1610 14,804 +/- 4205
El Paso, Texas 49.1 26,026 +/- 460 12,779 +/- 1245
San Diego, California 49.3 36,765 +/- 478 18,143 +/- 2372
Jacksonville, Florida 49.6 31,829 +/- 408 15,772 +/- 1590
Long Beach, California 50.5 32,067 +/- 527 16,208 +/- 1003
New Orleans, Louisiana 50.7 31,017 +/- 548 15,711 +/- 1195
Kansas City, Missouri 52.1 32,349 +/- 550 16,865 +/- 1509
San Jose, California 52.6 41,635 +/- 535 21,889 +/- 2248
Orlando, Florida 53.3 27,450 +/- 961 14,643 +/- 1657
Atlanta, Georgia 53.4 35,858 +/- 943 19,131 +/- 1320
Cincinnati, Ohio 54.0 29,008 +/- 1143 15,656 +/- 1650
Milwaukee, Wisconsin 54.2 27,019 +/- 432 14,644 +/- 1068
Aurora, Colorado 54.6 31,383 +/- 588 17,126 +/- 4015
Los Angeles, California 54.7 27,952 +/- 347 15,281 +/- 241
Indianapolis, Indiana 54.8 30,349 +/- 357 16,643 +/- 1683
Phoenix, Arizona 55.2 31,325 +/- 336 17,293 +/- 1335
Albuquerque, New Mexico 56.0 31,917 +/- 425 17,866 +/- 4018
Anaheim, California 56.0 29,427 +/- 953 16,481 +/- 1851
San Antonio, Texas 56.2 28,078 +/- 560 15,766 +/- 1013
Columbus, Ohio 57.0 31,415 +/- 306 17,914 +/- 2818
Detroit, Michigan 57.6 23,071 +/- 736 13,293 +/- 1166
Houston, Texas 57.8 29,053 +/- 492 16,795 +/- 804
Rochester, New York 58.1 26,358 +/- 683 15,305 +/- 3215
Nashville, Tennessee 58.8 31,009 +/- 431 18,225 +/- 4210
St. Louis, Missouri 59.2 29,730 +/- 701 17,615 +/- 1206
Memphis, Tennessee 59.8 27,672 +/- 693 16,549 +/- 1433
Austin, Texas 60.4 32,064 +/- 354 19,372 +/- 1686
Buffalo, New York 61.3 26,689 +/- 771 16,361 +/- 1853
Charlotte, North Carolina 62.0 33,816 +/- 826 20,975 +/- 1690
Cleveland, Ohio 62.2 25,345 +/- 506 15,771 +/- 1155
Miami Beach, Florida 64.3 30,954 +/- 1648 19,890 +/- 2908
Miami, Florida 64.5 22,281 +/- 626 14,380 +/- 848
Denver, Colorado 64.8 36,004 +/- 615 23,322 +/- 2176
Las Vegas, Nevada 65.3 31,440 +/- 493 20,526 +/- 1353
Honolulu CDP, Hawaii 65.6 33,625 +/- 1252 22,072 +/- 986
Salt Lake, Utah 65.7 27,053 +/- 778 17,768 +/- 3154
Madison, Wisconsin 66.3 31,260 +/- 563 20,718 +/- 1884
Dallas, Texas 66.8 29,179 +/- 553 19,499 +/- 1238
Minneapolis, Minnesota 67.0 34,001 +/- 1086 22,782 +/- 1591
Paradise CDP, Nevada 69.9 30,254 +/- 563 21,156 +/- 1318
Hartford, Connecticut 70.4 24,877 +/- 1398 17,513 +/- 1512
Baltimore, Maryland 70.5 33,255 +/- 765 23,442 +/- 1585
New Haven, Connecticut 71.8 28,185 +/- 1984 20,239 +/- 3018
Santa Ana, California 72.4 22,376 +/- 442 16,200 +/- 1249
St. Paul, Minnesota 73.6 31,444 +/- 626 23,147 +/- 2802
Elizabeth, New Jersey 73.7 25,381 +/- 876 18,712 +/- 1823
Ann Arbor, Michigan 74.0 30,194 +/- 1250 22,340 +/- 5161
East Los Angeles CDP, California 74.4 20,290 +/- 726 15,105 +/- 1227
Daly, California 74.5 37,283 +/- 1763 27,792 +/- 4638
Bridgeport, Connecticut 76.6 28,214 +/- 1725 21,623 +/- 3246
East Orange, New Jersey 77.8 32,343 +/- 1929 25,154 +/- 2542
Newark, New Jersey 78.0 26,947 +/- 658 21,014 +/- 1024
Mount Vernon, New York 78.3 38,027 +/- 2273 29,775 +/- 3691
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 79.2 30,321 +/- 488 24,015 +/- 1141
Portland, Oregon 79.2 32,432 +/- 574 25,693 +/- 1173
Chillum, Maryland 79.3 29,165 +/- 2945 23,139 +/- 4052
Yonkers, New York 79.3 40,135 +/- 1703 31,843 +/- 2140
Paterson, New Jersey 79.9 26,399 +/- 568 21,094 +/- 2438
Wheaton CDP, Maryland 80.9 29,851 +/- 3146 24,160 +/- 5344
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 83.5 31,565 +/- 322 26,348 +/- 621
Hempstead, New York 83.6 26,976 +/- 1720 22,540 +/- 2602
Boston, Massachusetts 85.0 37,414 +/- 640 31,805 +/- 579
Seattle, Washington 87.7 41,833 +/- 516 36,689 +/- 1177
San Francisco, California 88.1 47,951 +/- 1149 42,230 +/- 1236
Providence, Rhode Island 88.1 25,419 +/- 1095 22,397 +/- 3404
Washington, D.C. 88.9 51,469 +/- 663 45,771 +/- 1424
Union, New Jersey 89.8 24,402 +/- 1711 21,920 +/- 2117
Brookline, Massachusetts 89.8 57,406 +/- 3176 51,570 +/- 7787
Revere, Massachusetts 90.0 32,948 +/- 3109 29,638 +/- 4125
Bellevue, Washington 90.3 56,348 +/- 5245 50,905 +/- 9208
Silver Spring CDP, Maryland 90.5 41,272 +/- 1957 37,354 +/- 5487
Stamford, Connecticut 92.3 41,565 +/- 2034 38,346 +/- 4930
Chicago, Illinois 92.8 33,726 +/- 612 31,299 +/- 425
Sacramento, California 93.0 32,487 +/- 1042 30,227 +/- 5339
Oakland, California 93.5 35,807 +/- 920 33,483 +/- 2584
Alexandria, Virginia 93.8 56,080 +/- 2860 52,592 +/- 9445
Malden, Massachusetts 94.3 31,664 +/- 1754 29,864 +/- 3887
Quincy, Massachusetts 94.7 40,020 +/- 1780 37,896 +/- 2483
White Plains, New York 95.5 41,944 +/- 2649 40,068 +/- 14671
New York, New York 96.1 36,803 +/- 164 35,350 +/- 229
Bayonne, New Jersey 96.1 41,800 +/- 1838 40,159 +/- 5399
Arlington, Virginia 97.0 62,510 +/- 1693 60,640 +/- 3157
Somerville, Massachusetts 102.0 39,709 +/- 2037 40,513 +/- 1804
Richmond, California 104.6 33,201 +/- 2306 34,722 +/- 6397
Alameda, California 105.7 47,696 +/- 2325 50,406 +/- 10891
Jersey City, New Jersey 106.4 40,576 +/- 703 43,179 +/- 2633
Rockville, Maryland 107.1 54,985 +/- 2445 58,864 +/- 10519
Hoboken, New Jersey 107.5 72,166 +/- 2002 77,559 +/- 4501
West New York, New Jersey 107.5 27,394 +/- 1659 29,453 +/- 3420
North Bethesda CDP, Maryland 108.7 63,955 +/- 4498 69,492 +/- 12262
Cambridge, Massachusetts 110.5 43,351 +/- 2269 47,896 +/- 3647
Berkeley, California 114.9 40,602 +/- 2209 46,635 +/- 7323
Oak Park, Illinois 117.5 53,795 +/- 1289 63,191 +/- 5310
New Rochelle, New York 119.7 41,924 +/- 2623 50,171 +/- 6521
Evanston, Illinois 129.0 40,420 +/- 2249 52,144 +/- 9011
Fremont, California 130.9 61,041 +/- 2007 79,888 +/- 11234
Concord, California 139.2 39,041 +/- 2049 54,329 +/- 12043
Naperville, Illinois 174.1 54,543 +/- 2889 94,939 +/- 12959

Source: American Community Survey, 2010-2012 estimates In only a few rare exceptions – typically larger systems serving more transit-oriented areas – are a city’s public transportation riders representative of all commuters.

Riders in New York City – home to the most public transportation users of any U.S. city – reported median incomes of $35,350, just below $36,803 for all commuters. Chicago’s ridership similarly mirrors the city’s demographics, both in terms of income and race. The same is also true of a few smaller cities, such as Oakland, Calif., and Jersey City, N.J.

In Dallas, approximately 22 percent of public transportation commuters live in poverty, more than double the rate for all the city’s workers, according to survey data.

Dallas transit officials emphasize that the system plays a vital role in serving those who can’t afford all the costs associated with owning a vehicle. “When you look at transit in terms of providing mobility for jobs and earning a living, it’s very important for people who are low income,” said Todd Plesko, vice president of planning and development for Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART). Accordingly, a DART ridership survey identified saving money as the top reason people used public transportation, regardless of their income.

One key demographic that DART underserves are Hispanics, who tend to work in agriculture and construction jobs outside of areas covered by transit. “We see [Hispanics] as a great opportunity to grow, and part of that requires changing the nature of our system,” Plesko said. In most other cities, Census estimates indicate Hispanics use public transportation at rates equal to or greater than the rest of the population.

DART has seen its ridership steadily climb since it opened and subsequently expanded commuter and light rail systems beginning in the mid-1990s. Part of DART’s growth strategy also targets potential riders using the system other than for commuting to work. Later this year, DART is slated to open a direct light rail connection to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, a convenient option for business professionals and occasional travelers. 

Attracting more riders presents policymakers with a dilemma, however, as it pits equity values of assisting transit-dependent riders against those who view public transit more in terms of sustainability and reducing traffic congestion. The broader public tends to show more support for the latter, which focuses on getting cars off the road during commuting hours. But commuter-focused systems experience large drop-offs after peak travel periods, making them expensive to operate.

UCLA’s Taylor points out it’s generally more cost-effective to improve existing bus service than establish new transit lines to potentially reach another cohort of commuters. “We need to focus more on how to get bang for the buck investments and not necessarily the next ribbon cutting,” he said.

Perhaps the most significant challenge for systems looking to broaden their demographic bases is winning over the largely underserved segment of potential riders who have other means of getting around – known as “choice riders.”

Michael Terry, president and CEO of Indianapolis Public Transportation Corp. (IndyGo), said attracting such riders will require extending service to revitalized neighborhoods, greater frequency of service and longer operating hours. “We’re not trying to be a social service safety net,” he said. “We’re trying to develop a system that supports economic development focusing on the areas of density.”

In Indianapolis, workers traveling by car reported median earnings about double that of public transportation commuters. 

Already working in favor of transit expansion are multiple demographic shifts. Officials are eyeing millennials as they move into downtown condos in Indianapolis and other cities. A recent APTA study details how millennials are multimodal, selecting the best transportation mode for each individual trip.

Aging baby boomers, Terry said, represent another opportunity. Public transportation could emerge as a key mobility option in metro areas as more decide to give up their car keys.

The bottom line, though, is that when it comes down to how people travel, they’ll choose the most convenient, affordable option available, whether it means swaying in a crowded subway car or sitting in traffic.

And so transit officials will need to fill the vital needs of transit-dependent commuters while at the same time also appealing to new cohorts of travelers.  “As our services are more attractive to the community, you’ll see we’ll probably have the whole socio-economic spectrum riding transit,” Terry said.

  Data: Who Uses Public Transportation in Your City?

Select a city below to display median earnings, poverty and race/ethnicity data for public transportation commuters. The top 100 U.S. cities with the most total public transportation commuters, according to Census Bureau estimates, are shown. (Open data tool in new page)

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Interpreting the Data

Note that survey data shown only considers those who commute to work. For this reason, it's likely income is lower and poverty levels are higher for all public transportation riders than is shown for many cities. In the Census Bureau survey, “public transportation” commuters include those traveling via bus, rail, trolley or ferryboat. Only those taking public transportation for the longest segment of their trip to work count as public transportation commuters. Listed figures are for residents residing within a given city, not a metro area or larger region served by a transit system. Multiple systems may serve a city. Cities with the 100 most public transportation commuters are listed. The Census Bureau does publish estimates for other cities with fewer commuters, but they are subject to higher margins of error.