Thursday, February 01, 2007

Is public transit usage in Allegheny County high or low?

It seems a basic question to ask. Not anything new, but I put together a list of the largest 100 counties in the US ranked by the proportion of commuters who use public transit. I will paste the top 20 below. Commuters are just part of the users of public transit, especially here in Allegheny County, but it gives some perspective. Allegheny County ranks 20th with 10.5% of the commuters using public transit. Low? High? At first look it seems rather low. Consider that of the 19 counties ahead of us, 4 are counties within New York City, and 5 others are immediate suburbs of NYC. So somewhere between the NY Subway, the LIRR, NJ Transit, Metro North and impracticality of having a car in the City you get numbers like 59% public transit usage in Manhattan (#1 in the US). 3 counties are in the Washington DC metro area. 2 each in Boston and San Fransicso. Also Philadelphia, Cook County (Chicago), San Francisco County, Multnomah County (Portland) and Alameda County, CA. (correction: as an astute reader pointed out, I am west coast geography challenged, Alameda County is part of SF)

So there are only 8 7 metro areas with counties showing higher public transit ridership than Allegheny County. I suppose one could argue that is nothing noteworthy, but in the big list of metro areas that puts us near the top. Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) is at 6.2%. Hamilton County (Cinci) is at 5.0%. Milwaukee County 6.9%, Frankllin County (Columbus) 3.1% and Erie County (Buffalo) 4.1%. I suspect that if one controlled for the fact that poverty rates and recent immigration rates into Allegheny County are relatively low, thus pushing down some of the normal sources of demand for public transit, we compare even higher in terms of providing a competitive public transit option.

Here is the thing. There is a clear tradeoff in the scope of public transit and how efficient you are by whatever metric you want to use to quantify efficiency. The only way you can really get higher transit usage is to provide more and more coverage for populations that otherwise wouldn’t use transit. If you disenfranchise those without cars, they will either fall out of the labor force or move to be close to public transit. So higher rates of public transit usage among workers can only come from providing service to ever more inefficient subareas…. It’s almost an immutable law sometimes called the law of diminishing marginal returns for the record. For whatever reason, we have chosen to this point to be on the higher cost, but higher utilization end of that tradeoff.

Thus the only way I can really make sense of the current debate (or lack of debate it appears) over the fate of public transit in the region is that the public consensus has decided that on that big tradeoff of public transit utilization vs. efficiency.. we want to be more on the end of that curve that says let's me more efficient, but offer services to a more typical (lower) percentage of the population. With that in mind, PAT could cut just a lot more and still be above average. It’s unfortunate for a lot of reasons that most reading this probably agree with or know the arguments without me repeating them. But the belief that it’s all about some vast inefficiency within PAT is just too simplistic to be meaningful. Its about the fundamental choice of whether public transit exists as a public service and whether public funding is worth pushing up that utilization rate. Better routes are a great idea, but they are at best a marginal part of this debate in any circumstance.

How low is the low end of where public transit could end up? For the top 100 counties (which I stipulate is an arbitrary but quick attempt at capturing comparable urban areas) the average utilization rate for public transit is actually 9.1%, not far below where we are now. But if you ignore just the top 10 counties which include most of atypical New York City, I get an average rate of public transit usage of 5.4%. It is a little scary to think what public transit usage would look like if that is where we are headed. But if the debate remains centered around rightsizing the route structure I don’t see how we could be heading anywhere else.

Anyway, here is the list which has the county name followed by the percentage of workers who commute via public transit – Census 2000.

NY, New York County 59.6%
NY, Kings County 57.4%
NY, Bronx County 53.7%
NY, Queens County 47.4%
NJ, Hudson County 33.6%
DC, District of Columbia 33.2%
CA, San Francisco County 31.1%
MA, Suffolk County 30.9%
PA, Philadelphia County 25.4%
NY, Westchester County 20.4%
NJ, Essex County 18.6%
IL, Cook County 17.3%
NY, Nassau County 15.7%
MD, Montgomery County 12.6%
MA, Norfolk County 12.3%
MD, Prince George's County 11.9%
OR, Multnomah County 11.1%
NJ, Bergen County 11.0%
CA, Alameda County 10.6%
PA, Allegheny County 10.5%


Blogger Adam said...

Fascinating post.
But, isn't Alameda County in the Bay Area? That would make only 7 (C)MSA's ahead of us, not 8. Unless I've counted wrong.

Friday, February 02, 2007 5:08:00 PM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

noted and corrected. thanks.

Friday, February 02, 2007 6:27:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I just stumbled across a strange factoid in the Birmingham (AL) News. In an editorial titled "Lessons from city similar to our own: Eight suggestions from Pittsburgh," the paper talks about a Birmingham delegation that traveled to Pennsylvania to see what Birmingham can learn from us. Transit is one of the eight lessons. Check this out:

"The city of Pittsburgh pioneered the technology known as ''Bus rapid transit.'' Each day, 48 percent of Pittsburgh commuters use these exclusive bus routes to get to and from work."

Wow. 48 percent? Where did they get a number like that?

The whole article is interesting, but you would have to Lexis/Nexis it. It appeared on October 8, 2006.

Saturday, February 03, 2007 10:37:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I understand that the number they use is city versus county. I was just wondering if it was as high as 48 percent inside city limits.

Saturday, February 03, 2007 10:40:00 AM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

Someone taking public transit lessons FROM Pittsburgh?! How can that possibly be?

Thanks for that. Will look at it next week. But on 48%.. I do not know what they are measuring. If they meant commuting alone, that number is too high even for the city I am sure. There are some neighborhoods that reach that high but not overall. In my June 16th post I put up this map of public transit utilization in the county:

but remember, commuting is just one piece of who uses public transit. Elderly, students and those out of the workforce are usually much more dependent on public transportation. I would not be shocked if half of the city population actually used or depended on public transit regularly.

Saturday, February 03, 2007 12:53:00 PM  
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