Alex Goldmark is a senior producer in the newsroom for New Tech City and Transportation Nation.
In America, white workers a lot less likely to take public transportation to the office than other races. That’s according to a review of the latest American Community Survey by the U.S. Census department.
The American adult workforce is 67.7 percent white. Yet, public transportation commuters are just 39.9 percent are white.
We examined the ten largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. and compared the racial mix of the area at-large (specifically of the workforce) with the racial mix of public transportation commuters. Across the nation and in every city, whites are less likely to commute by transit.
But some cities have greater transportation divide than others.
In New York, the metaphorical mix on the bus is pretty close to the city at large, just with fewer whites. The NY metro area workforce is 61.9 percent white, on public transportation it's 47.2 percent, a 15 percentage point drop. Other races are in relatively the same proportions as the city at large.
NYU Professor Mitchell Moss says the big apple stands out on this front. "New York Mass transit has the broadest possible reach of users but geographically, ethnically, racially, and economically. It is a striking culture."
Compare Atlanta, a city where residents sardonically joke that the name of the local transit agency MARTA stands for Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta. Whites are 60 percent of the working population and just 25 percent of the transit commuters. The city is mostly white, transit ridership to work is mostly black.
The other southern cities in our sample have similar, though not so stark, figures. Philadelphia also sees a sharp spike in black ridership to work and white flight from the transit system.
It's a complicated topic with local explanations varying from economic divisions to lingering legacies of entrenched discrimination in urban planning. See our past documentary on race and mass transit, Back of the Bus, for more narrative coverage of this.
The Cause and the Lessons
Cities where there's higher transit ridership see more diverse ridership. If the train or bus is a good option, then everyone takes it. If transit isn't so popular, then the bus becomes the option for those who can't afford a car, and sadly, that's correlated with race.
Still, it’s not only about money. In Chicago, the median income of transit riders is higher than the general population, but the racial gap we see nationwide is present. But much less so than in the southern cities. In Washington, D.C. people earning over $75,000 a year are more likely to ride than their less well off capital region co-workers. That's because the D.C. subway system was designed to serve the suburbs, to reduce car traffic over District bridges and it works.
Washington, D.C. is arguably the most diverse of the cities we look at. The white flight from transit is certainly least. The workforce is 59 percent white in the D.C. metro area, and the public transit commuting pool is 48 percent white. An 11 percentage point drop, less than New York, but also from a lower base.
New York and D.C. along with Chicago's numbers suggest that if transit were available to a wider geographic area, it would be used by a wider racial mix.