Out of all of the American cities I looked at, DC has the highest per capita bus trips. Image by MW Transit Photos used with permission.

Earlier, I looked at the different types of transit that people in various urban areas use. The visuals below further explore how Americans use transit across different cities, and how Washington, DC ranks in comparison.

Cities with the highest bus share often have low transit use

Most of the cities I looked at in the last analysis have relatively high transit use. For this group of visuals, I expanded the analysis to include every urban area in the country with at least a million residents. Like my last analysis, I used Federal Transit Administration data for unlinked passenger trips (that is, trips using only one mode of transit) in Fiscal Year 2016.

Buses are the most important form of transit in most American cities, as this graph shows. In all but a handful of urban areas, over 60 percent of unlinked transit trips are on buses. In most cases, however, the cities where the largest portion of transit was by bus also have overall lower transit usage.

Conversely, urban areas that have a lower share of bus ridership usually have more trips on buses. In other words, looking at our own region, only 41 percent of transit trips are on buses, but as I showed earlier, we still have among the highest per capita bus trips:

Nationally, only seven urban areas with a population of at least a million people have a predominant mode of transit other than buses. Most of these cities, like DC, rely primarily on heavy rail systems. A couple of exceptions include San Juan, where more informal, taxi-like service – públicos – are the most common form of transit, or Salt Lake City, where the region’s light rail system is the most popular.

A closer look at heavy rail

A total of twelve American cities have heavy rail systems. They vary in modal share from a majority of trips in New York, DC, and Atlanta, but heavy rail systems are more of a supplemental form of transit in some other cities. Chicago, San Francisco, and Philadelphia are in the middle of the pack, with a good mixture of bus and heavy rail usage.

Notably, in a few of these urban areas such as Cleveland, Baltimore, and Los Angeles, the heavy rail system is supplemented with additional light rail lines within the same transit system.

Light rail leads in Sacramento

Washington’s nascent streetcar still has yet to make a major impact on the region’s transit share, as the graph shows. Although it has the lowest share of any large urban area with a light rail or streetcar system, it isn’t far behind other cities with new systems, such as Cincinnati or Atlanta. Washington also has much higher overall transit use than either of these cities, so our streetcar will have to gain a lot more riders to make a bigger impact on the region’s share.

It is also important to note that having a high portion of ridership on one mode versus another is a regional feature of transit rather than an inherent advantage. For instance, Sacramento has a large share of its transit users on light rail, but its overall transit use is small at 7.09 unlinked trips per capita. In contrast, Salt Lake, the number two performer, has a much higher transit usage at 18.82, indicating that this urban area has a stronger transit system outside of light rail alone.

What else did you notice about these visuals?

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.