Image by Andrew used with permission.

Transit can take a number of different forms, and the ways major American cities use transit varies immensely. Washington, DC focuses mainly on metro rail and bus transit, but this is far from universal in other areas:

All data from the FTA. Image by the author.

How cities across the US use different transit

The Federal Transit Administration keeps data on the annual number of unlinked passenger trips by transit mode. An “unlinked trip” refers to any time someone boards or transfers on any type of public transit. Using these data, we can form a good picture of what types of transit people use by metropolitan area.

I decided to look at metropolitan areas that have a high number of transit commuters for this analysis. The graphic above shows the breakdown of unlinked transit trips by mode. It includes the following categories of transit:

  • Bus – includes metrobuses, commuter buses, trolley buses, and bus rapid transit systems
  • Commuter Rail – fixed-schedule rail services such as MARC and VRE
  • Other – demand response, demand taxi, vanpool, and other less common modes of transit
  • Ferry Boats
  • Heavy Rail – systems such as subways, metros, etc.
  • Light Rail/Streetcar – lower volume, urban rail systems such as Baltimore’s light rail or DC’s streetcar

Of these nine metropolitan areas, buses are the most heavily use mode of transit in six of the areas, while heavy rail are most popular only in New York, Washington, and Boston. Heavy rail dominates the modal share in particular in New York and DC, comprising approximately 60 percent of unlinked transit trips in either metropolitan area.

Conversely, buses are particularly predominant in a few cities such as Los Angeles, Seattle, and Baltimore. The rest of the cities – San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia – are much more ‘multi-modal,’ meaning no one mode makes up much more than half of the total transit share, and two or more other modes make up at least 10 percent of trips each.

A few other interesting characteristics of several metro areas stand out. Seattle is the only city to have a large number of ferry users, amounting to around 12 percent of all transit trips. Seattle also has the highest number of ‘other’ transit trips, largely due to a heavily-used vanpool system and the city’s infamous monorail.

Seattle is also the only one of these cities that does not have some form of heavy rail system, while heavy rail systems in Baltimore and Los Angeles make up relatively few trips due to their smaller size. San Francisco’s cable car, though mainly a tourist attraction, also boosts its share of unconventional transit usage.

Greater Washington: A City of Two Modes?

In all of these metropolitan areas, a handful of modes of transit dominate the total share, but the case in Washington is particularly striking. In the other cities, the top two modes of transit make up 75-92 percent of the total share, but in our area the metro and bus make up a whopping 98 percent of unlinked trips.

This is not necessarily a bad thing – in New York, the subway and bus make up 92 percent of trips, and the metropolitan area still has by far the most transit trips per capita. On the other hand, DC is not New York, and the design of our transit system is very different

All data from the FTA. Image by the author.

Metrorail has high ridership, but does it also have gaps?

Based off of the FTA data, Washington has the second-highest per capita heavy rail trips of any metropolitan area in the country. This is a good testament to the Metrorail system’s successes, but it also demonstrates some shortcomings.

For one, the design of New York’s subway (and other heavy rail systems, such as PATH) is fundamentally different from Washington’s metro. Whereas the subway is a more traditional urban rapid transit system, Metro has many components that are more similar to a commuter rail system, such as longer headways and longer distances between stations in suburban areas.

It is also worth noting that unlinked trips may exaggerate New York’s heavy rail numbers, since its extensive subway network encourages transfers far more than our Metrorail.

Nonetheless, Metrorail may not be filling certain needs that a more traditional subway system would provide in an urban core, or what a commuter rail system could provide to outlying areas.

Notably, only one percent of unlinked transit trips in the Washington area are on commuter rail (Note: the FTA database includes the MARC system as being in the Baltimore metropolitan area, so the Washington figures only include the Virginia Rail Express.)

All data from the FTA. Image by the author.

Washington’s bus usage is lower than a number of regions

When it comes to per capita unlinked bus trips, the Washington region is in the middle of the pack among high transit cities. This is not necessarily a sign of failings within our bus system, especially since declining Metrorail ridership has hurt the bus system.

On the other hand, considering that bus ridership makes up a very large chunk of our region’s transit share, being in the middle of the pack among peer cities may indicate there is room to improve. In particular, Metrobus’s fare system penalizes transfers, which likely reduces the number of unlinked trips within the system.

All data from the FTA. Image by the author.

Light rail: A mode with potential for our region?

Currently, the Washington region has very few trips on light rail or streetcars. This is unsurprising since the only existing infrastructure is new and only two miles long.

In contrast, light rail systems form an important part of the transit networks of other metropolitan areas. In the case of Portland, for instance, the city’s light rail and streetcar systems form nearly 40 percent of unlinked trips.

All data from the FTA. Image by the author.

Notably, even Portland’s 24 unlinked trips per capita is not very high in comparison to better-performing heavy rail or bus systems. Nonetheless, these forms of transit form an important supplement to the transportation infrastructure in several American cities.

Perhaps with the construction of the Purple Line and the expansion of the DC Streetcar, the Washington region can improve its transit ridership.

What else did you notice about these graphics?

Stephen Hudson resides in Southwest DC — the fourth quadrant he has lived in. He works for a government relations firm and has previous experience with transportation policy at a trade association. His professional interests include transportation and infrastructure, foreign languages, and comparative international politics. The views expressed are his own.