Data Shows Where Workers Relying More on Public Transportation

See which metro areas have the highest share of public transportation commuters, according to new census estimates.
by | September 28, 2012 AT 11:00 PM

New Census data shows some metropolitan areas became noticeably more reliant on public transportation last year, while a smaller number experienced slight declines.

A total of 29 metro areas recorded a statistically-significant yearly increase in the share of total commuters traveling via public transportation, according to a Governing analysis of American Community Survey data. Another 11 metro areas saw a decrease as more drove or found other ways to get to work in 2011.

Nationwide, 5 percent of individuals commuted to work via public transportation last year. Another 86.1 percent of the country’s workforce primarily drove, while 2.8 percent walked, 1.7 percent commuted via other means and 4.3 percent worked from home.

Census survey estimates for public transportation commuting have remained steady in recent years, fluctuating between 4.9 and 5 percent since 2007. Shifts in public transportation usage are typically more noticeable over longer time periods. Estimates for the vast majority of 374 metro areas surveyed were virtually unchanged from 2010 or had variations falling within the Census Bureau’s margin of error.

The American Community Survey asks workers aged 16 and older how they commute. Respondents record only a single mode of transportation for the longest distance traveled, so those walking to bus stations only count as public transportation commuters. This methodology undercounts the number of people who also walk or bike to work, for example, since many employ multiple modes of transportation during their trips to and from work.

By comparison, totals compiled by the American Public Transportation Association indicate a 2.3 percent increase in ridership between 2010 and 2011. Population growth likely accounts for part of this uptick, though.

In the Champaign-Urbana, Ill., metro area, 7.3 percent of workers commuted via public transportation, up from just 4 percent in 2010. The year-over-year increase for the area, home to the University of Illinois, was the largest of any surveyed.

Jan Kijowski, marketing director for the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District, says there are a few possible explanations for this. First, the university’s enrollment continues to expand, with a record-high number of international and out-of-state students. These students are more apt to not drive than others. In addition, she said the transit system reconfigured its routes and boosted service frequency in the 2009-2010 school year, so some of the effect may have carried over to 2011.

Over the past three years, the agency has experienced a 15 to 20 percent annual increase in sales of annual fare passes, Kijowski said.

Another college town, Ann Arbor, Mich., recorded the second-highest yearly increase in the share of public transportation commuters. An estimated 6.5 percent of all commuters there took public transportation in 2011, up from 3.9 percent in 2010.

Other metro areas experiencing slight increases in public transportation commuting include Atlantic City-Hammonton, N.J., Fairbanks, Alaska, and State College, Pa.

Eleven metro areas saw a statistically significant smaller portion of the population rely on public transportation. Estimates for Ithaca, N.Y., dropped from 8.9 to 5 percent of all commuters for the year.

Metro Areas Using Most Public Transportation

Estimates listed in the table below correspond to the percentage of all commuters in a given metro area primarily commuting via public transportation. Some areas not listed may have more public transportation commuters in terms of raw totals, but not percentage.

Public Transportation Across The U.S.

The map below shows 2011 American Community Survey estimates for more than 300 metropolitan statistical areas. Larger icons represent areas with higher percentages of commuters taking public transportation to work. Click the image to open a full-screen interactive map with data for all transportation types in a separate window.

Check back later for figures on biking, walking and other new data from the survey.