Why Do Public Transportation Commuters Outearn Car Commuters in Some American Cities?

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
New York 9,821,147 31% $44,978 $48,812 $45,150
Chicago 4,653,591 12.2% $46,796 $41,817 $41,232
Philadelphia 3,320,895 9% $37,213 $46,638 $43,472
Washington 2,915,178 12.8% $60,420 $53,390 $52,350
Boston 2,572,454 13.4% $50,593 $51,295 $50,201
San Francisco 2,371,803 17.4% $62,500 $54,923 $54,105
Seattle 1,997,545 10.1% $51,635 $50,183 $41,190

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.

Why?

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.

Metro area Workers $40,000+ City Workers $40,000+ CBD Workers $40,000+
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.

39 comments

  1. jonahbliss

    While the downtown SF transfers are indeed terrible, they don’t actually involve going to the street. A BART rider would have to come up two floors to the mezzanine, and then back down one level to MUNI.

    • Mike

      Going to the street is about the only thing that would make the SF transfers worse, outside of abolishing Clipper and reinstituting separate fare collection systems. Connecting through the mezzanine is annoying; doubly so when you watch a connecting Muni tram leave from behind BART’s bars as you’re heading up the stairs.

      True regional transit integration like Zurich (ZVV) and the Netherlands can’t come fast enough to the Bay Area, if it ever happens.

  2. RossB

    In many American cities, there are two types of transit users: those that commute downtown, and those that are poor. The latter is often why many American cities saw ridership go down as the economy recovered. Those that used to take the bus can now afford a car. At the same time, only a fool drives downtown, when the train (or the express bus, or the bus that has even a tiny bit of transit priority) can get you right there.

    In general, this is the way that transit systems evolved over time. Those that want to go downtown during rush hour take the bus (from anywhere), while the cities provide a decent level of transit inside them so that city residents can get anywhere within it.

    But as America has gotten rid of its inner city ghettos (at least in the cities that are prospering — sorry Detroit) this means that the poor have moved out. San Fransisco, Seattle, even D. C. doesn’t have the huge numbers of poor (largely African American) residents within the urban core, ready to ride the buses (or trains). Instead, they have largely been pushed to the suburbs. People who used to take the bus inside the city to a hospital, or a store, no longer do so. They live in the suburbs, and drive *within that suburb* to their job. If you are a nurses aid, and live in Richmond California, chances are you don’t work at UCSF. It is just too far, and you are just an aid. On the other hand, if you are a nurse practitioner or doctor, it is quite possible you work in San Fransisco, where your specialty is in demand. Even if you can’t afford to live in San Fransisco, you live in Oakland, or Berkeley, and find your way to the train, where you can quickly cross the bay. It is a long commute, with each end taking way longer than it should — but it sure beats the alternative (driving during rush hour).

    I agree with all of your suggestions, but I think for a lot of cities, what they lack is a good suburban transit network. Even for the outskirts of town — within the city limits — they lack that grid. This means the poor people that would use transit — who work in the local hospital, the clinic, the restaurant — simply drive. Even if it is a huge financial hardship, they drive. Yeah, buses can be really slow, but for a lot of Americans, they would love it if they had a bus (or a couple buses) that could get them to work in a reasonable amount of time, instead of standing on the corner, looking at their watch, for what seems like an eternity.

      • RossB

        Well, my guess is that European suburbs still have more of a transit grid than American suburbs. Correct me if I’m wrong here, but it sure looks like Vienna has a rather extensive bus/tram network extending fairly far outside the core city: https://viennamap360.com/carte/pdf/en/vienna-bus-map.pdf. It definitely places a lot of importance on getting to a train station, but a lot of trips — many of which don’t involve the train — look quite easy. It isn’t exactly a grid, but it is much more a grid than you would see outside the city in most American cities. I would assume that the level of service in the suburbs is higher, partly because European suburbs tend to have higher density than American suburbs. New York is pretty much the only city with high density suburbs — or, to put it another way — New York is the only American city with a density profile that looks European.

        It also helps if you have an extensive commuter rail system to begin with. Most American cities lack that. They compensate by running commuter buses. This works out well if you are going downtown, but it is terrible if you aren’t. In Seattle, the number of people who drive to work downtown has gone way done, while transit ridership is basically flat or declining. My guess is San Fransisco is similar. You could improve the train connections in the Bay Area, but I doubt you would see much of a change (my guess is the bus to train connections in the suburbs are relatively good).

        I think urban gentrification could explain the numbers in a lot of those cities. In some suburban areas, there is also value in being close to the station (Arlington Virginia). A similar suburb not well served by the rail system is going to be lower income.

        The suburbanization of poverty in the U. S. creates big challenges. The suburbs tend to sprawl, retaining their low density. Serving them with good transit is expensive for the number of riders. With increasing number of poor people, they tend to have other problems more important than transit (the mayor of East Saint Louis or Ferguson is not that concerned about the transit system). It would require a state or national effort, but doing so would help a lot of people.

        • fjod

          90% of that map isn’t Vienna or its suburbs. It mostly shows low-frequency (in many cases, very low frequency) rural bus services.

      • adirondacker12800

        They have expensive cars, expensive fuel and lousy parking at both ends.

        • Alon Levy

          Okay, but car ownership in New York is lower than in Berlin and yet the subway doesn’t get nearly as much non-commute ridership.

          • RossB

            My guess is that in New York they ride the bus. Anywhere to anywhere trips are relatively easy on a train in Berlin, and a pain in the ass in New York. Buses also move better outside of rush hour. If it is a flip of the coin (two seat train trip, with several stops or a one seat bus ride) a train makes sense during rush hour, and a bus outside of it. Non commute trips are far more likely to be trips like this: https://goo.gl/maps/sWuLzWMCwsNDLmEW7 then this: https://goo.gl/maps/sWuLzWMCwsNDLmEW7.

            More to the point, do you have evidence that people in New York are driving a lot outside of rush hour?

          • Alon Levy

            I think a majority of bus trips in New York connect to the subway, judging by how the NTD imputes fare revenue.

  3. Hugh B

    Where are the data for % of transit commuters? Also, is there more granular data easily accessible?

    • Alon Levy

      Means of transportation to work by selected characteristics. And OnTheMap has infinitely granular data on incomes by place of work or place of residence (or both), but not on modal split.

  4. Dan

    Could, with PTC or ETCS, could we make all commuter rail autonomous or is their something else that has to be done?

    • Alon Levy

      It’s possible, and a few places in the world are very slowly experimenting with that, like JR East and (maybe?) SNCF. But there are unresolved issues with track-sharing on a complex system, unlike the back-and-forth segregated lines that run in metro service.

      • Luke

        The ShinBundang Line between Suwon, Seongnam, and Seoul would seem to be a good example of this, albeit with with metro-like headways and stop spacing. I guess that brings up another question in my mind: how does one differentiate between a high-frequency commuter rail and a metro line that goes between the primary city and its suburbs? East Asia and western Europe seem to have a lot of lines that could qualify as either. Maybe I’m just a novice for not knowing, but then, I know that divying up rail services into categories X, Y, and Z is one of the troubles when discussing them.

  5. Martin

    Something not touched upon is that with rail transit being faster and hard to come by, workers who can afford it, will choose to live closer to it. There’s some evidence of that given that latest concerns with light rail in LA being gentrification.
    https://la.curbed.com/2019/9/30/20885553/gentrification-south-la-crenshaw-subway-coalition

    As a few data points, I earn enough to ensure that I can live close to Caltrain in SF which gives me access to high paying jobs in SF and down on the Peninsula. Proximity to rail was primary driver for where I chose to live. I know friends who seek housing in cheaper Oakland, also make sure they are not far from a BART station, else being committed to a car commute.

    • Alon Levy

      I mean, in Los Angeles solo drivers outearn transit commuters nearly 2 to 1. In the cities of the US that actually have public transit, there’s a wealth of relatively cheap neighborhoods on rapid transit: Dorchester, the entire South Side of Chicago, East Oakland and Richmond, just about the entire Bronx, Southeast DC. If you look at the level of where people live, Chicago and Boston aren’t different from Philadelphia. The difference is that Philadelphia has a weaker city center than Chicago and Boston, with a much lower share of area jobs as well as somewhat lower wages.

      • RossB

        I still think gentrification plays a part. San Fransisco, Washington, Seattle have all gentrified — they all now have more high income transit users than low income ones. Richmond California may have a BART station, but it’s overall transit system is terrible compared to that found inside San Fransisco.

        Chicago is a little tougher to figure out. The city itself has seen incomes rise, but there are still a lot of poor people within it. My guess is the relatively high commuter rail numbers tip the balance. People in places like Naperville have a lot of money. In contrast, people in Gary, Indiana do not. The BNSF Metra line (which includes Naperville) carries about six times the number of riders than the South Shore Line (which includes Gary and East Chicago — extremely poor areas). My guess is if you took out the commuter rail numbers, Chicago would look fairly flat, like Boston.

        New York seems like an oddball as well. But the relatively low income numbers suggest that simply more poor people are taking transit. New York is the only real city in America (to borrow your phrase) which means that everyone rides transit. There is no question that there are extremely rich people taking the train in to Manhattan every day, but there are a lot of lower income people taking the subway as well.

        Philadelphia is the only city listed where the average transit user makes significantly less than the average person. It also has the lowest level of transit use. My guess is that it is like a lot of U. S. cities — mainly the poor take transit, everyone else just drives.

        • Alon Levy

          Yeah, that’s the explanation for Chicago, but the point is that the same explanation applies everywhere else in the US with public transit, because public transit in the US is really bad if you work outside the CBD.

  6. Lee Ratner

    Nearly every American transit system was designed with the idea of getting people to and from the city center. This seems to be true for the systems that were created before World War II and after World War II. You even have that batty plan for a Baltimore in the 1960s, never built, that only had one transfer station at Charles Center, which seems like a bad idea. Naturally, the post-war and still continuing tendency towards job and residential sprawl does not make getting to work or anything else outside a partiuclar area easy. Crosstown public transit would be a great idea but it isn’t something that will happen without push.

  7. SB

    I think part of the problem is that people who run public transportation agencies look at the data and see that peak service to CBD has highest demand and most crowded as a result. So they focus on improving peak service which is very expensive and ignore more low-hanging stuff like improving off-peak service. Until such mentality goes away, most of US will have bad transit.

  8. adirondacker12800

    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.

    I live in Northeastern Queens where the train runs through to Trenton. And I find a really really good job in Paterson because if it’s a mediocre job I can find an equally mediocre job in Flushing. Whoppee! the train runs through to someplace I don’t want to go! Or I live in Southeastern Queens where the trains run through to Suffern. And get a really good job in Elizabeth. Whoppee! the train runs through to someplace I don’t want to go! If I want to get to Newark the trains run every few minutes on NJTransit or PATH. It makes Brooklynites break out in hives for some reason, they can change to PATH at the World Trade Center. This isn’t a red line, blue line and green line. Through running helps a few people but most people will be changing trains anyway.

    • Eric

      It helps everyone, because dwell times are less at Penn Station, because some people aren’t getting on/off the train.

      • Martin

        It does, but I’d imagine that some of the dwell time savings would be lost due to limited number of exits from a platform that might result in passengers waiting to board to wait up on Mezzanine level vs on the platform.

        • adirondacker12800

          There will be 40-ish trains an hour and there are 21 tracks. Dedicate 5 islands or ten tracks to through running there’s a train arriving and departing every 15 minutes. Plenty of time to get on and off the train. Which most people are going to do because the train they are on isn’t going to where they want to go.

    • fjod

      When done well, through-running also gives you a choice of downtown stations so you can choose the one with the quickest/easiest transfer to your destination, and possibly avoid a 3-seat ride.

      • Eric

        Not in NYC without some major construction, though. Penn Station is the only stop on the east-west route. I wonder if it would be practical to add an infill regional rail station at 33rd St/Park Ave…

    • Alon Levy

      You kid, but it’s pretty common in the working class today to commute to a low-income retail job in a different part of the region, and through-running expands access to these jobs with 1-seat and relatively easy 2-seat rides.

      • adirondacker12800

        There are retail jobs closer to home. With a cheaper, shorter commute. Or pink collar jobs.

        • fjod

          This ignores that for low-skilled workers, it’s hard to get a job. So if you’re in a position where you’re taking any work you can get, commuting time might not figure so highly. Such workers also often have family or relationship commitments which limit the areas in which they can live, and their living situation is vulnerable to rent rises and evictions, forcing them to move house, and potentially move across town, when these events happen.

      • RossB

        it’s pretty common in the working class today to commute to a low-income retail job in a different part of the region

        Yeah, but the higher up the income scale you go, the more likely it is your job is in another part of town. If you are a nurses aid, or a low end mechanic, or work at a 7-Eleven, then you can pretty much get a job anywhere. But if you are neurologist, the regional manager for 7-Eleven, or a certified Acura mechanic, you are going to have a limited number of places you can work. Furthermore, you are more likely to switch to a job farther away, just because it is more rewarding. With low wage work, it is the opposite — you might start with a long commute, but as new jobs open up that are closer, you work there.

        If anything, my guess is improved long distance transit seems more likely to benefit high end workers. There will be some low wage worker who will benefit, but a lot more high wage workers will.

  9. Gok

    Certainly tests that trope about developed nations being where rich people use transit.

  10. adam

    one other factor is employment permanence. it’s easy to become a transit commuter if your job continues for year after year after year after year in the same place, and employment permanence is highest for upper middle class and highest in city centers. Places like los angeles have a substantial freelance economy for its middle class, and having three well paying jobs in one year is much more common than a long term job that might last fourteen or fifteen months. But for those having no employment permanence means the flexibility of owning a car is crucial because employment changes so frequently you can’t rely on it being in a city center or in a transit served area. That actually gives them more in common with low income workers, who might shuffle jobs more frequently simply because of the higher volatility inherent to the bottom of the pay scale (most people will try to arbitrage for a better paying option at some point in their lives, if not frequently)

  11. smooth indian

    Have we considered the fact that income levels vary with metro area? It is possible that people with higher income are more likely to be found in the bigger cities even though they may be barely making it to the middle class. The price of congestion may also factor in people of all classes choosing public transit in major cities. In smaller metros and mid-size cities people might not be earning a whole lot in absolute terms but pretty much every one might be driving since it is convenient and easily affordable. Can we define a affluence index which factors in the cost of living? Is it also possible that specific class behaviors might also be attributed to specific occupations/education levels?

  12. RossB

    I agree, that is definitely the root of the problem — public transit outside the CBD is bad. At the same time, though, Chicago has a very different transit/demographic pattern than say, Seattle. Chicago has a lot of wealthy people commuting in from the suburbs — Seattle does not. The commuter train in Seattle (there is only one) serves largely working class regions. Not areas as poor as Gary Indiana, but slightly less than regional average. Commuter buses to suburban locations are wide spread, with no preference for particular wealthy suburbs (if anything, it is the opposite). Wealthy suburbs in Seattle tend to be farther away from the freeway, and farther away from the one rail line, making them less convenient for transit. Seattle’s numbers are completely due to urban gentrification, while Chicago’s are due to a little bit urban gentrification and a fair amount of suburban gentrification along transit corridors.

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, Seattle is the one where I don’t know commuter dynamics as well as in the other cities, so it’s possible that there, residential neighborhoods with light rail service are a luxury amenity. But in the Bay Area this isn’t really the case – BART serves a number of working-class areas, like East Oakland and Richmond. The same is true of the T, the L, and Metro.

      Often the commuter trains go through working-class areas as well, such as the South Side on Metra Electric, the Gateway Cities on the MBTA, Yonkers and Mount Vernon on Metro-North, Hempstead on the LIRR, Elizabeth on NJ Transit, and North Philly on SEPTA. However, in all of these cases, commuter rail riders still average very high incomes, because the timetables and stopping patterns are designed for people who work 9-to-5 in the CBD, who in these suburban areas tend to be middle-class white flighters.

      • RossB

        The light rail in Seattle does serve working class areas. It is just that those areas are slowly gentrifying and light rail in general never had the ridership that the buses had. Right now it is about a five to one ratio (bus to train) and for the working class area (Rainier Valley) there are no real feeder buses. Instead there is a parallel bus that serves just about as many people.

        That being said, I completely forgot about the ferries. The ferries are a lot more like the commuter trains in Chicago: they tend to serve the well to do. Way more people take the ferry than ride commuter trains in the Seattle area. Enough to skew the numbers the same way that Naperville, etc. skew the Chicago numbers. As with all the areas, it is a combination, but there are certain patterns that emerge: A transit system designed mostly around 9-5 commuters in the city, gentrification, underfunded service in the areas where the poor now reside (typically the near suburbs). Some of that underfunding is in the form of poor midday train service, but in my opinion, most of it is simply bad bus service.

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