Who’s on Board? Examining the Changing Characteristics of Transit Riders using Latent Profile Analysis

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Date


Subject Area

place - north america, place - urban, mode - bus, mode - car, mode - rail, land use - impacts, land use - urban density, planning - surveys, ridership - behaviour, ridership - disadvantage, ridership - mode choice


Demographics, Metropolitan, Mobility, Transit riders, Travel surveys


Subsidies of public transit have more than doubled since the late 1980s, with a disproportionate share of funds going to rail services. These investments have important implications, including how they affect both the composition of transit users and their travel behavior. To investigate how transit users and use are changing, we use Latent Profile Analysis and data from the 2009 and 2017 National Household Travel Surveys to examine changes in transit users in the U.S. and in five major metropolitan areas. Nationwide, we find that the share of Transit Dependents grew by 17% to account for two-thirds of all transit users in 2017. These least advantaged riders were more likely over time to reside in very poor households and to be carless. There was a corresponding decline in Occasional Transit Users, for whom transit is part of a multi-modal travel profile. Higher-income, mostly car-owning Choice Transit Riders increased slightly over time but accounted for less than one in ten transit riders in 2017. Their growth was concentrated in a few large metropolitan areas where densities and land use are most transit-supportive. While increased rail transit service has shifted riders away from buses, transit’s role as a redistributive social service that provides mobility to disadvantaged travelers has grown over time. Efforts to draw more multi-modal and car-owning travelers onto transit have been less successful. As transit systems struggle to recover riders following the pandemic, transit’s waxing role of providing mobility for those without will likely become even more prominent.


Permission to publish the abstract has been given by SAGE, copyright remains with them.