CHARTS: Whites Ride Transit Less Often Than Everyone Else

Wednesday, December 12, 2012 - 05:39 PM

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.


Comments [7]



I agree that the mission of transit agencies should be solely expanding service and their customer base, but the data in this chart show that high-quality transit is not being provided equally to everyone everywhere.

Dec. 14 2012 09:07 AM

Transit consultant Jarrett Walker suggestgs that people should stop fixating so much on the transit and race issue. He argues that transit agencies should simply work to provide good, frequent service along major transit routes and thereby expand the passenger base, of whatever color.

Dec. 13 2012 05:21 PM
please withhold my name

I'm surprised that the DC survey doesn't seem to have included all of the partner jurisdictions that comprise WMATA, which would add Fairfax County in Virginia, and Montgomery and Prince George's County in Maryland. That would present a more complete picture of how people commute in the Washington area.

Metrorail is significantly pricier than Metrobus or any of the regional bus systems like ART or Fairfax Connector, with the exception of some longer-distance express bus routes, so that definitely makes a difference in who is willing to ride the train. The mix of riders within both the bus and rail systems varies widely by route. The less meandering bus routes tend to have a pretty even mix of users.

As for the jurisdictions definitely included in the survey, anyone in Arlington who refuses to make use of the county's enviably robust transit support is a fool.

Dec. 13 2012 12:07 PM

@please withhold my name:

I too wonder about the breakdown of rail and bus here. The numbers would be significantly different for DC rail vs bus. Rail prices keep going up while the bus fare remains fairly flat, even for long trips with multiple transfers. Minority neighborhoods are also not as well-served by the rail system.

Dec. 13 2012 11:53 AM
tacony palmyra

@please withhold my name: I'd always thought a big part of this were due to the price difference between DC Metro Bus and Rail. Bus is slower but cheaper, so people who have the money will pick the faster mode while people who are trying to save money will pick the cheaper one. In NYC the bus and subway are the same fare, most regular commuters have a monthly pass that includes both, and people who choose bus over rail are mostly elderly or disabled people who don't want to walk down stairs into the subway.

Dec. 13 2012 10:27 AM
Rob Durchola

One really needs to look at the availability of transit. In general, suburban areas have less available transit (measured both by routes and route frequencies). If these areas are also more predominantly white, these populations will not use transit because it is not available or convenient.

Dec. 12 2012 09:25 PM
please withhold my name

In Washington, I think it would be really interesting to compare bus with metro. In my experience (Arlington, VA) there's a not-even-hidden sense that lower class brown people take the bus, and middle class white people won't ride the bus as a result. This came out quite clearly in the endless debates about the proposed Columbia Pike light rail on various neighborhood listservs.

I suppose I was unfortunately not so surprised that there is this sentiment - but I was quite shocked at how openly people admitted it.

Dec. 12 2012 07:56 PM

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