Maryland Governor Larry Hogan says that Maryland should shift its focus away from transit toward building more roads because (he says) less than 10% of people use transit. But the real number is far more.

Bethesda. Photo by ehpien on Flickr.

Hogan’s mistaken assertion comes from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS), which estimates that 9.1% of Maryland’s 2.9 million workers over the age of 16 used transit as their primary mode for commuting in 2013.

But that’s not a measure of the number of people who use transit. Lots of people who live and work in Maryland cannot take transit to work, but use Metro whenever they venture into DC. And most people who drive to work in the District use Metro at least sometimes.

Even some daily users of transit do not show up as transit users in the ACS, because if you drive 20 miles and ride Metro the last 12 miles, the survey counts you as a driver.

National Census data can help estimate Maryland’s transit use

No survey has estimated the number of Marylanders who use transit. But Census surveys show that nationwide, total transit users are about two to three times the number of transit commuters. There is no proof these patterns hold in Maryland, but let’s assume that they do.

The American Housing Survey (Table 1) showed that about 6.6% of US households have at least one person who uses transit most of the time to get to work, that people in 17.4% of all households use transit in some way, or more than 2½ times the number of households. If we apply this ratio to Maryland, then 24% (2.64 times 9.1%) of Marylanders would use transit.

Table 1: Comparing the share of people who use transit with the share of people for whom transit is the primary mode for traveling to work
Percent of Households1 Percent of Employees2
USA Northeast USA Northeast Maryland
Transit Users 17.4 32.5 - - -
Use Transit for Traveling to Work
Most of the time 6.6 15.3 5.0 14.3 9.1
Sometimes 3.6 6.0 - - -
Never 7.1 11.1 - - -
1 US Census Bureau, 2013 American Housing Survey

2 US Census Bureau, 2013 American Community Survey

That’s not the only way to interpret the data. As Table 1 shows, the transit mode share for Maryland, 9%, is 1.8 times the national average of 5%. If the proportion of Maryland households using transit is also 1.8 times the national average of 17.4%, then 31.3% of Maryland households use transit.

Which of these two above estimates, 24% or 32%, is more defensible? It’s hard to say. But there are two reasons to think that applying these nationwide relationships understates transit use in Maryland.

First, using household data inherently shows a smaller ratio of all transit users to daily transit users than a comparable survey of individuals would. (If you want to explore this point in detail, here are a few numerical examples).

Second, occasional users tend to outnumber daily users on rail lines but not on bus lines, according to Census data. So in states like Maryland with a lot of rail, occasional transit users will tend to outnumber regular users significantly compared to the national average. Assuming the national average ratio of occasional to regular transit users might then underestimate the number of occasional users and the total.

A Washington Post poll also shows high transit use

A few years ago, the Washington Post pollled area residents on how they get to work. The poll found that 20% of area residents used transit to get to work, which is similar to the county-level data from the American Community Survey. 88% of respondents said they use Metrorail at least sometimes.

To be conservative, let’s assume that all of the non-transit users are outside DC and Arlington. That means 85% of residents use Metrorail in the rest of the region. Let’s also assume that transit use is no higher in Prince George’s and Montgomery than the rest of the region — a conservative estimate because Census data show these two Maryland counties have a higher transit mode share than Fairfax or Loudoun.

Because Prince George’s and Montgomery counties alone account for 32% of the Maryland population, if 85% of those residents use transit, then that’s 27% of the state’s population right there.

Table 2: Number of Marylanders who use transit as the primary mode for traveling to work
County Total Percent of all workers
Montgomery 83,706 15.6
Prince George’s 78,685 17.4
Baltimore city 50,519 18.8
Baltimore County 19,610 4.8
Anne Arundel 13,157 4.6
Howard 5,271 3.3
Charles 4,041 5.2
Frederick 3,211 2.6
Harford 2,437 1.9
Rest of Maryland 7,923 1.6
Total 268,560 9.1
Source: US Census Bureau, 2013 American Community Survey

As Table 2 shows, Montgomery and Prince George’s account for about 60% of the transit mode share. If they also represent 60% of the transit users in Maryland, then we could conclude from the Post poll that fully 45% of Maryland residents use transit at least sometimes.

Admittedly, some of those people use it infrequently, but even occasional users get value from transit, particularly since they use it most when traffic is heaviest.

As a newly elected governor, Mr. Hogan is reasonably trying to both discern his mandate and articulate it. He may be correct that statewide, more people in Maryland are worried about roads than improving transit. But the number of people who use transit is far greater than he acknowledges, and in the Washington area, probably a majority.

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Jim Titus lived aboard a 75-foot coast guard cutter at Buzzards Point boatyard in southwest Washington until he was 2. Since then he has lived in Prince George’s County, going to school in Ft. Washington, Accokeek, and College Park before moving to Glenn Dale. He represents Prince George’s on the state of Maryland’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, and is on the board of directors of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. Professionally, he works for a federal agency, which asks not to be identified.