Transit advocates like to claim that transit is somehow crucial to urban vitality, even in cities where only a few people use it. The reality is that lower taxes play a bigger role in urban growth–and spending more on transit means higher taxes.
Transit almost certainly is crucial to New York City, where 58 percent of commuters take transit to work. It also is important in Washington, DC (40%), San Francisco (37%), Boston (34%), Philadelphia and Chicago (28% each). It is somewhat important in Baltimore, Hartford, Pittsburgh, and Seattle (all about 18%-19%). These numbers apply to the cities; transit is far less important in most of their suburbs. There are only a few more cities in which transit has a double-digit share of commuters: Buffalo, Honolulu, and Minneapolis (14%), Portland (13%), Atlanta, Cleveland, and Los Angeles (12%), and St. Louis (11%), but these percentages are hardly crucial.
These numbers are for commuting, but transit’s share of other travel is much smaller. New York is the only urban area in which transit carries more than 10 percent of urban passenger travel; in fact, it was 11.5% in 2014. San Francisco-Oakland is a distant second at 7.6%. No other area comes close: Honolulu is 4.4%, Washington 3.9%, Chicago 3.8%, Seattle 3.3%, and Boston 3.1%. Every other urban area is under 3 percent. Such small percentages are hardly crucial to the future of those regions.
Everywhere else, including nearly all of the suburbs of these cities other than New York, transit is effectively irrelevant. In fact, if anything has revitalized cities in the last couple of decades, it has been microbrew pubs, not urban transit. And microbrew pubs require no subsidies.
The above chart shows a negative correlation between urban growth and transit capital spending. The chart shows that cities that spent the most on transit capital improvements in the 1990s grew the slowest in the 2000s. The cities that grew the fastest in the 2000s were among those that spent the least on transit capital improvements. Correlation is not causation, and spending less on transit doesn’t guarantee faster growth, but spending ore on transit appears to slow growth. A lot of other factors affect urban growth, but the below chart indicates that the correlations between spending on transit operations and urban growth are even a bit stronger.