Missouri Commuting Habits: Public Transportation on the Ascendency?
Is America, and Missouri, becoming a public transportation nation? Just this year, the American Public Transportation Association claimed that transit usage was at an all-time high. Missouri newspapers have reported increasing ridership on both rail and bus routes, in Kansas City and Saint Louis. Stories often focus on the preferences of millennials (claiming they like rail transit) as both a cause for increased transit usage and the raison d’être for plans to expand existing transit systems. This idea is pervasive in regional planning and transportation departments in Missouri and nationally, and they push for increased transit spending, which has been quickly rising in Missouri cities.
Unfortunately, the most recent commuting data on the national and Missouri levels show no such nascent transformation. In fact, on the national level a higher percentage (73.6 percent) of commuters drove alone to work in 2013 than they did in 2010. Transit usage has shown some increase, but only from 7.9 percent to 8.1 percent of commuters. Given the increasing resources going to transit agencies nationally, along with high fuel prices and an anemic economic recovery, a 0.2 percent increase in commuting mode share for transit is unimpressive.
In Missouri, the story is much the same. At the state level, a slightly smaller percentage of commuters drove alone to work in 2013 than in 2010, but it only fell less than 0.1 percent (to 81.66 percent of commuters). Public transportation did increase its modal share, but only by 0.06 percent (from 1.56 percent to 1.62 percent of commuters). In Missouri as a whole and every major Missouri city other than Saint Louis, more commuters walk to work than use public transportation.
A longer time horizon makes the situation look even worse. Transit’s share of commutes in Missouri and its major cities has slowly decreased over the last few decades; a lower percentage use transit now than in 1990. Taking 2000 as our baseline year, the nadir of public transportation use in the United States as a whole, 1.49 percent of Missourians used transit for their commutes. After 13 years and well over a billion dollars of investments, transit’s share of commuters has remained essentially flat. The same is true of Kansas City and Saint Louis.
While total transit usage may be increasing in aggregate, in Missouri and virtually everywhere else in the country, driving alone is still the undisputed king of commuting. As for public transportation, Missouri spends more than $400 million per year on average on transit, but less than 2 percent of the population use it to get to work.
It may be time to reconsider both the idea that transit usage is sweeping America and that increasing resources to transit (without some serious rethinking of how the money is spent) will propel a transportation revolution.