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:

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.