More than a year ago, I compared Los Angeles with a number of other large American cities. I brought up issues of public transportation ridership, city center job concentration, and income differences, as in the Los Angeles region people who commute by public transit average barely half the earnings of people who drive alone. One of the things noted in that post is that in the secondary transit cities of the United States – Chicago, San Francisco, Washington, Boston – people who commute by transit outearn people who do not. I didn’t delve deeply into that issue in that post, but in this post I will, because it showcases a serious problem in all four cities. New York lacks this pattern as of 2017 – solo drivers outearn transit commuters, though by a small and declining margin, so by 2020 it may join the secondary cities.
The reason this is a problem is that in none of these cities is public transportation so good as to be a luxury good. Rather, the issue is that public transportation is mostly an option for people traveling to city center, where incomes are higher. Crosstown public transportation options are weak – there is rarely direct rapid transit, and transfer trips are inconvenient. There may also be a peak vs. off-peak artifact, but I have no data confirming that richer Americans are likely to commute at rush hour, when transit frequencies are higher and congestion is worse.
Income by mode of transportation to work
From the 2017 American Community Survey, we can grab data about median earnings for workers by their main mode of travel to work:
|Metro area||Workers||PT mode share||PT income||Solo driver income||Median income|
Other modes exist too, most notably carpooling, which has lower median incomes than both solo driving and public transport in all of the cities in the table. Also of note, public transportation user income is more polarized – even though the median is comparable to and usually even higher than the overall median, the poverty rate for transit commuters is higher than the general rate everywhere except in San Francisco, where the poverty rates are within the margin of error.
Car ownership increases with income. In Singapore, the highest-transit use city for which I have this data, the overall mode share is 58.7%, which splits as low 60s for roughly the bottom half of the income distribution and then less in higher categories, bottoming at 43% in the highest income category, covering the top 15%. It’s really weird that in American cities with public transportation we see the opposite pattern – transit usage is higher in higher income brackets.
The explanation has to be about where people work. OnTheMap doesn’t have great income data, but we can still compare the proportion of workers in the highest income category, which is $3,333/month. I’ve used different definitions of city center in different blog posts: the one about Los Angeles used a restricted one, just a few blocks by a few blocks, covering a single-digit percent of the region, whereas more recently I’ve made 100 km^2 blobs, covering one third of workers in some cities, to maintain comparability with Paris. For this post’s purposes, I’m going to use a definition around the center of a radial transit network (as in the LA post), as well as a looser definition corresponding to something like city limits; in Washington and New York the restricted definitions are somewhat looser to take into account the spread of the subway network just outside city center, but in Chicago and San Francisco the LA post’s definition is apt.
|New York||9,408,498||52.1%||City proper||4,367,781||55.4%||South of 60th||2,098,740||65.7%|
|Chicago||4,604,044||47.9%||City proper||1,373,969||53.2%||LA post||401,169||71.7%|
|Washington||2,830,896||55%||DC, Arl.||714,075||63%||Mass., 395, water||270,299||72.2%|
|Philadelphia||2,853,154||49.5%||City proper||684,869||50.9%||Center City||240,665||61.9%|
|Boston||2,682,278||56.3%||Boston, Cam.||787,287||66%||Arl., Stuart, water||228,300||72.1%|
|San Francisco||2,400,290||59.2%||City proper||723,907||65.5%||LA post||231,042||76.8%|
|Seattle||1,919,635||57.8%||City proper||585,480||64.1%||Jackson, I-5, Denny||180,482||71.2%|
In all cities, the proportion of workers earning $40,000 a year or more is higher in the city than in the rest of the region, and higher yet in the CBD. Moreover, this effect is weakest in Philadelphia, which may explain why there, unlike in the other secondary transit cities, drivers still significantly outearn transit commuters.
Crosstown public transportation
In all the cities studied in this post, public transportation carries a high share of trips into city center, especially at rush hour. This props up its usage numbers among the middle class, especially the upper middle class – professional jobs cluster in city center.
The problem is that not everyone works in city center. Midtown and Downtown Manhattan are 22% of metro New York employment going by OnTheMap’s LEHD numbers, and even that is a pretty hefty area. In smaller cities, there are necessarily fewer rapid transit lines and a smaller zone of intersection in which service is good from all directions. Improving transit service to destinations outside city center, and thus for working- and lower middle-class jobs, requires more than just disjointed center-to-bedroom-communities rail lines.
One way to have vigorous crosstown public transportation is with buses. However, buses are slow, almost by definition slower than cars. Chicago has a pretty good bus grid, but it still has the pattern of transit commuters outearning solo drivers. And that’s in the city proper – in the suburbs it’s not really possible to have a bus grid, because distances are too great and street networks are usually too broken.
Instead, a better solution has to involve diagonal trips on rapid transit, with a transfer in or near city center, and trips that stay outside city center. A good recipe includes all of the following:
- Easy downtown and near-downtown transfers, with no missed connections and a minimum of walking. San Francisco deserves especial demerits for forcing people to transfer between Muni and BART via the street, crossing two sets of faregates.
- High frequency on commuter rail in both directions, with timed bus shuttle connections from stations to office parks too far to walk. In some cases, such buses can do double duty ferrying suburban commuters to those stations for trains to city center.
- Complete fare integration, with free transfers and mode-neutral fares, to avoid forcing low-income commuters onto slow buses while richer ones get faster trains.
- Through-running when feasible, since a worker in one neighborhood may end up finding a job at a suburban job site on another line, even the opposite side of the city, e.g. between Brooklyn or Queens and Newark.
Income differences and universal design
The principles for good crosstown service are largely class-neutral. They have to be: the differences between where rich and poor people work in a deindustrialized country are real but not enormous, enough to be noticeable but not enough to play to populist clichés of two Americas. Nonetheless, better public transportation service to non-CBD destinations is especially useful for the working class, because the working class is less likely to work in the CBD than the middle class.
The relevance of class here is twofold. First, every demographic pattern in transportation mode choice has a reason, and provides hints as to how different people travel. This is the case regardless of whether the socially more dominant group commutes by public transport more (the rich, the educated) or less (the native-born, men, whites in Western countries). It remains the case even when there’s no obvious social dominance hierarchy between the groups we compare, for examples professionals versus small business owners.
And second, the people who manage public transportation agencies are drawn from one social class. They are middle-class managers working in city center at traditional peak hours. They may not be aware of how other people commute, regardless of whether those other people are retail workers working two part-time jobs in two different neighborhoods or tech workers who work 12-8. They provide the service that people who are like them can use, and neglect other use cases.