In 1960, when most of the nation’s transit was private (and profitable), 7.81 million people took transit to work. By 2015, the nation’s working population had grown by nearly 130 percent, and taxpayers had spent well over a trillion dollars improving and operating urban transit systems. Yet the number of people taking transit to work had declined to 7.76 million.
The share of households that owns no vehicles has declined from 22 percent in 1960 to 9 percent today, while the share owning three or more vehicles has grown from 3 percent to 20 percent.
Although 7.76 million isn’t a few, commuting is only a small share of the travel people do. In 2014, Americans drove 5.1 billion miles a day in urban areas, which (at 1.67 people per car) works out to 3.1 trillion passenger miles per year. The 57 billion passenger miles carried by urban transit was just 1.8 percent of the total. Add walking, cycling, motorcycles, and other forms of travel, and transit’s share is even smaller.
In 1960, 22 percent of American households did not own a car and transit municipalization was partly justified on the social obligation to provide mobility to people who couldn’t afford a car. Since 2000, only 9 percent of American households don’t own a car, and it is likely that almost everyone who wants to own one (and is physically able to drive) has at least one car in their household. As a result, the market of transit-dependent people has dramatically declined.
Half the households with no cars also have no employed workers in the households. Of the 4.5 percent of workers who live in households with no vehicles, 41 percent take transit to work, 32 percent carpool or drive alone to work (presumably in a borrowed vehicle, probably provided by their employer), 23 percent walk, bicycle, or use other means, and 4 percent work at home. In other words, transit doesn’t even work for most people who don’t have cars.
American Community Survey data for 2015 show there are fifty urban areas in which more than half the workers who live in households with no cars nevertheless drive alone to work, while there are fewer than ten in which most take transit to work (though, since one of them is New York, that’s still a lot of people). (Column AN shows the percent of workers who live in households with no vehicles, while columns AO through AT show how those people get to work.)
As the market consisting of transit-dependent people has declined, the transit industry has focused instead on attracting people out of their cars–so-called transit-choice riders. But hasn’t done very well with that, as indicated by the declining number of people who take transit to work. In short, few people really need transit and those who choose to use transit are equally small in number.