Public transportation objectives and rider demographics: are transit’s priorities poor public policy?

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Date


Subject Area

place - north america, mode - bus, mode - rail, policy - congestion, policy - environment, policy - social exclusion, policy - sustainable, ridership - disadvantage, planning - surveys


Goal ambiguity, Transit goals, Transit subsidies, Transit patronage, Transit rider demographics


Strong public and political support for mass transit in the U.S. is based on lofty goals, including congestion reduction, economic development, aesthetics, sustainability, and much more. Yet, as is the case in many areas of public policy, the pursuit of multiple and broad objectives, however worthy, can diffuse efforts and fail to achieve desired results. Moreover, these goals suggest a lack of focus on the needs of transit riders themselves, particularly the poor and transit dependent. We examine this by combining data from the National Household Travel Survey, the National Transit Database, the American Public Transportation Association, and a survey we conducted of 50 U.S. transit operators. First, we find that while rail transit riders in the aggregate are approximately as wealthy as private vehicle travelers, bus patrons have far lower incomes, and this disparity is growing over time. Second, few transit agencies publicly identify serving the poor or minorities as a goal, instead focusing on objectives that appeal to more affluent riders and voters as a whole. Finally, in recent decades transit spending priorities have been slanted away from bus service and towards commuter-oriented rail services favored by the wealthier general voting public, although most members of this group rarely if ever ride transit. We contend that efforts to secure popular support for transit subsidies stifle agencies’ ability to acknowledge transit’s critical social service function and serve the needs of its core demographic. While such strategies make sense politically, underserving the poor may be poor public policy.


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