Reason #1 Why Americans Don’t Ride Transit:
Transit Is Slow

Most transit is much slower than driving, and a lot of transit is slower than cycling.

There’s a myth that Americans have some kind of irrational love affair with their cars, and they don’t ride transit because of that irrationality. In fact, there are very good reasons why autos provide well over 95 percent of mechanized travel in urban areas while transit provides less than two percent.

One of the most important reasons is that transit is slow. According to the American Public Transportation Association’s Public Transportation Fact Book, the average speed of rail transit is 21.5 miles per hour, while the average speed of bus transit is 14.1 mph (see page 7). So-called rapid transit, known to the Federal Transit Administration as heavy rail, averages just 21.1 mph, while light rail is 15.6 mph and streetcars are a pathetic 7.7 mph (see page 40).

Among forms of rail transit, commuter rail is fastest at 32.5 mph, while hybrid rail (a form of commuter rail) is 28.0 mph. But commuter rail typically operates only during rush hours, while hybrid rail exists only in special limited circumstances. Monorails and other automated guideways average 8.8 mph, which helps explain why monorails never became popular.

Commuters buses, averaging 26.0 mph, are the fastest form of bus transit, while ordinary buses are just 12.5 mph and trolley buses (which, like streetcars, tend to be limited to urban centers) are just 7.1 mph. So-called bus-rapid transit lines in this country average 10.5 mph, 2 mph less than ordinary buses, which suggests that most cities’ implementation of bus-rapid transit leaves a lot to be desired. The only really rapid transit is the form of transit that’s closest to cars: vanpools, which average more than 40 mph (see page 35 for bus and highway transit modes).

By comparison, the average speed of auto travel in most American cities is more than 30 mph. The slowest city is New York, at 17.6 mph, which helps explain why New York also has the highest rate of transit usage. The only others under 20 mph are San Francisco and Washington. At the other extreme, average speeds in Kansas City and Tulsa are more than 40 mph, probably because those cities, unlike so many others, haven’t actively tried to discourage driving in a doomed effort to get people to ride transit.

Taken as a whole, urban transit averages 14.1 mph, less than half the speed of driving in most cities (and slower than many cyclists). This doesn’t count the time spent getting to and from transit stops, waiting for transit vehicles, or transferring from one to another, all of which make transit even slower. But slow speed is only the first reason why Americans don’t ride transit. The Antiplanner will be reviewing more reasons in the next several days.

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9 thoughts on “Reason #1 Why Americans Don’t Ride Transit:
Transit Is Slow

  1. Sandy Teal

    I am surprised the Antiplanner downplayed the worst part of transit — first and last steps, getting to transit and getting from transit to your destination. I guess he just wants to emphasize the slow speed.

    I think most people would take the slower speed of transit during rush hour if the total trip wasn’t twice as long or more on transit, door to door. Especially because some transit allows the rider to read or zone out rather than frustrating rush hour driving.

    Non-rush hour transit can be a nightmare if any transfers are needed as it can easily be a half hour or more for even major routes to transfer outside of peak time.

  2. OFP2003

    My experience has been that during rush hour the subway train can be faster, especially if something happens above ground to snarl traffic. But if you avoid rush hour, the car can get me to work in almost half the time of the subway. Because, of course, the subway’s speed doesn’t change (much) between peak and off peak.

  3. Henry Porter

    There is now a way to compare travel times by car vs. transit that is available to anybody with a laptop or smart phone. Apps like Google Maps and Waze will calculate most likely travel times, based on traffic, between any two points. Waze (free phone app from Google) even has a trip planning mode that tells you what time you need to leave, depending on when you want to arrive.

    Users/travelers can now compare travel times and departure times by both modes depending on desired arrival times. Predicted car travel times are based on real accumulated crowd sourced data. Transit times are based on posted schedules.

    I did this for 15-minute arrival times for a hypothetical commute, from station to station, during morning peak commute times (Boston area). For example, if you want to arrive at your destination STATION at 7:15 am, you would need to leave your departure STATION by 6:25 am by car or you would have to be on the scheduled 6:15 am train. The car is 10 minutes faster so you could leave the STATION 10 minutes later and arrive at the same time.

    I found that the private car beats the train in 13 out of 16 hypothetical peak hour scenarios. In the 3 cases where the train is faster than the car, the train was faster by 4, 8 and 10 minutes.

    Remember that these are station to station times. Like the Antiplanner says, once you account for “the time spent getting to and from transit stops, waiting for transit vehicles, or transferring from one to another, … transit (is) even slower.” For *almost everybody*, driving is faster than the train, even during peak hours of congestion. Maybe that explains why *almost everybody* drives.

    Anybody with a laptop or a smart phone can prove or disprove on a case by case basis that transit is slow.

    The only justification for commuter rail is to provide a taxpayer subsidized playground for rail fans and foamers.

  4. Builder

    Top Gear used to be a tremendous amount of fun, but it isn’t research. It is a scripted show. Even if the show is a fairly close approximation of what would really happen all it shows is that a pretty fit and expert bike rider can go about as fast as a car in a tremendously congested urban area under ideal conditions. It does not change the fact that in most everyday conditions a bicycle is a lot slower than a car.

  5. CapitalistRoader

    Thanks for that Top Gear link. As a bike rider I found it entertaining:

    I’ve got 19 miles-per-hour on my little speedo here, I’ve got to keep that up. I feel sick.

    If I tried to average 19mph on flat ground I’d be dead. Averaging 10mph I’d be sweating profusely. I’d need a shower and a change of clothes. Not conducive to commuting.

  6. Henry Porter

    “…in most everyday conditions a bicycle is a lot slower than a car.”

    When I lived in CA, I commuted 12 miles by bike when the weather was good and by bus when it wasn’t. My neighbor was a bus commuter every day. On the days when I cycled, we played a little game that I called “Beat the Bus”. We would often leave at the same time and I beat him to the office almost every single time. I was not a racer, by any means. I stopped at all traffic signals but the bus had to stop not only at traffic signals but also at every bus stop–while I kept moving at 12-15 mph. Based on that experiment, at least, a bicycle is faster than a bus. YMMV.

  7. scatcatpdx

    This is true I do not have a car, but a drivers license. I regularly used TriMet but one day I drove a rental car home. What I discovered was it took me 37 minutes to drive home compared to 100 minutes by transit.

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