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Will Billions from Washington Bring Transit Riders Back? Not Necessarily.

The new infrastructure bill could make buses and trains faster, cleaner and more reliable. But it will take bold local policies to fill them with passengers.

A Minneapolis Metro Transit bus in a dedicated bus lane.
(Leila Navidi, Star Tribune/Star)
The $1 trillion infrastructure bill that won Senate passage Tuesday includes $39 billion for public transit systems through 2026. This is in addition to the $70 billion Congress already allocated to transit agencies in the three COVID-19 relief packages.

In the end, this new federal spending on transit could mean faster, cleaner, more reliable and more numerous buses and trains. But unless state and local governments pair new transit spending with a bolder agenda — encompassing such steps as ensuring that lower-income residents can afford to live in central cities, removing parking from many urban streets, and reducing or eliminating transit fares — those buses and trains could be running even emptier than they have been.

“Quality matters, but people make decisions in context,” says Kate Lowe, an associate professor of urban planning and policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “When it’s so easy to drive and park, transit commutes become much less competitive.”

With public-opinion surveys on infrastructure spending finding a comfortable margin of support that includes a majority of Republicans, passing the infrastructure bill would seem to be a win for President Biden. But it might also place state and local policymakers in a precarious position: To make the federal spending on transit work, they will need to make decisions around land use and affordable housing that will be far less popular.

Going Where the Riders Are

Lowe breaks the transit market into two categories: “choice” and “dependent” riders. Notably and perhaps not surprisingly, only a quarter of riders with annual incomes above $100,000 fall into the latter category.

Two trends are now working against Washington’s plans to push more urban residents into public transit. First, choice riders are not likely to welcome a focused effort on making transit more efficient by removing parking spaces near their grocery stores, playgrounds, houses of worship and, most importantly, their workplaces.

The second counterforce is that dependent riders are moving to the suburbs. With the benefit of census data, we can see that the growth of cities that characterized the early 2010s proved to be only temporary. The growth of suburbs began to outpace urban centers in the middle of the decade, and that trend has only accelerated. In 2020, suburbs of the 55 U.S. cities with metropolitan populations above 1 million grew at five times the pace of urban centers, according to data analyzed by the Brookings Institution’s William Frey. In short, the “return to the cities” movement has ended and appears to be reversing itself.

Most understand this trend to be, at least in part, a product of city residents being priced out of urban housing. A 2018 Pew Research Center study found that poverty in the suburbs had increased more than 50 percent from 2000 levels. If lower-income residents are more likely to be dependent riders of public transit and those residents are migrating out of regions served by public transit, the result should be obvious. Perhaps not coincidentally, transit ridership in the United States has fallen every year since 2014.

If there indeed is a direct relationship between lower-income residents moving away from urban centers and the decline in transit ridership, local officials will need to work harder to ensure sufficient affordable housing near public transit. Yet efforts to encourage “transit-oriented development” — strategies that support commercial and residential use of land near transit hubs — can spawn a range of unintended consequences if dependent riders are forced from their homes, something critics call “transit-oriented displacement.”

A Toolkit to Ramp Up Ridership

There is more reason to doubt that simply pumping federal dollars into public transit would seamlessly boost ridership. American transit — in particular, rail transit — requires buy-in from all stakeholders. But “vetocracy” continues to delay rail-extension projects in localities including Boston, Montgomery County, Md., and Buffalo, N.Y., and litigation has proven a way of leaving massive cost overruns.

Rather than fight uphill battles, policymakers too often have instead turned to more achievable plans that can be counterproductive in getting residents off the road. Building more and wider highways, always intended to relieve traffic congestion, has instead lured more commuters onto highways, exacerbating congestion, and pulled passengers off commuter rail lines.

Yet an available toolkit of effective measures does exist.

Designating lanes to allow bus rapid transit service to race by other traffic, for example, has the benefits of lower capital costs, little if any public opposition and the ability to quickly respond to demographic movements. If dependent riders move, BRT can quickly move with them.

Another way to potentially ramp up ridership is to rip out the farebox. Around the country, cities have been experimenting with free transit during the pandemic, and some have seen ridership gains. The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority is moving toward providing free rides for lower-income riders beginning in January and then expanding the free service to students later in the year. Boston is piloting limited free transit, and in Virginia state lawmakers are providing $40 million to support local free-fare initiatives.

Lowe cautions, however, that evidence of the effectiveness of free transit is mixed: While it clearly can benefit low-income riders whose trips are typically shorter, it has not proven effective in attracting more commuters making longer-duration trips. “I think free transit would be great, but in and of itself, it’s not enough to address congestion and climate change unless it’s a part of a suite of policies,” she says.

Such a policy suite might target what Todd Litman, executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, calls “the cycle of automobile dependency,” wherein urban development plans that increase parking supply ultimately increase private car ownership, decreasing demand for transit. Breaking the cycle, Litman notes, could involve a host of unpopular options: additional fuel taxes, congestion pricing and reducing parking supply while increasing fees for parking spots that remain.

Litman and others have found that reducing free parking eases traffic by as much as 30 percent. But are local elected officials and transportation administrators prepared to couple investments in transit with land use decisions designed to make parking inconvenient?

If, however, urban leaders are willing to move forward with policies that have a real chance of luring riders back to transit, the new infrastructure spending package could transform American cities and dramatically reduce carbon emissions. If not, the legacy of the Biden infrastructure bill will be measured in empty seats — a wasted opportunity that’s not likely to come again in our lifetimes.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
Thomas Day is a senior consultant with Intueor Consulting and an adjunct lecturer at the University of Chicago. He can be reached at
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