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U.S. Department of Transportation U.S. Department of Transportation Icon United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

Public Transit in the United States

Transit serves many public purposes, among the most important ones are: affordable mobility, congestion management, and supporting neighborhoods served by intensive transit services. These objectives are not mutually exclusive and frequently overlap.

Public Purposes
Affordable Mobility

[Woman exits a bus] Affordable mobility for all is the most fundamental reason for offering transit service. All transit systems provide low cost mobility for people who do not, or cannot, operate a motor vehicle because of personal preference, low income, disability, youth or old age. An important characteristic of low cost affordable mobility service is that regular access is provided to as many destinations as possible. Trip types include, school, medical, business, shopping, recreation, social, etc. It is estimated that these types of trips comprise about 65 percent of total transit ridership.

Congestion Management

Transit services that can compete effectively with the automobile are the most effective in mitigating traffic congestion. When transit provides reliable rapid door-to-door travel times, many automobile owners will choose transit to avoid the unreliability, stress, and delays of roadway congestion. On average, 56 percent of all transit riders have reduced travel time and efficient cost effective travel as their objective. These travelers tend to be served by transit systems in larger cities that have multimodal systems including rail and bus service. A congestion management trip offers travel times competitive with driving times for the same trip. Reduced congestion provides the additional benefits of improving air quality and conserving energy.

Supporting Transit Intensive Neighborhoods

[View of busy Dallas, TX intersection] Transit trips that help support household locations in densely developed neighborhoods served by intensive transit service are typically made where service frequency is high and land use patterns make it easy to reach bus stops and rail stations by walking. These areas served by transit are pedestrian-oriented and multiple-purpose central business districts and communities. On average, 51 percent of transit riders cite community livability for using transit. Pedestrian access to transit allows households and businesses to reduce their use of motor vehicles. In this way, transit helps support “Smart Growth.”

Economic Benefits of Transit

By economic yardsticks, the annual benefits that transit returns to the national economy easily outpace costs (by $26 billion in 1997). During the 1990s transit returned $23 billion per year in affordable mobility for households that prefer not to drive, cannot afford a car, or cannot drive due to age or disability; $19.4 billion per year in reduced congestion delays for rush-hour passengers and motorists; $10 billion per year in reduced auto ownership costs for residents of location efficient neighborhoods; up to $12 billion per year in reduced auto emissions; $2 billion savings per year in local human service agency budgets; and a 2 percent boost in property tax receipts from commercial real estate.

Transit System Usage and Characteristics

Five hundred fifty-six (556) local public transit operators provided transit services in 408 urbanized areas of over 50,000 population. An additional 1,215 organizations provided transit services in nonurbanized (rural) areas and 3,673 organizations provided specialized services to the elderly and to people with disabilities. Over 9 billion trips representing 46 billion passenger miles of transit services were provided in 2001.

Transit Finance

[Photo: US Currency] Almost all public transit systems need financial assistance. Fare box revenues on average account for only 40 percent of system operating costs. Transit systems receive funds from the Federal, state, and local levels, and private sector sources, and it remains essentially a public service that is provided and managed locally. There has been an increase in the number of urbanized areas served by a single transit system. Regional transit authorities and transit organizations, decision making, and financing are becoming much more common. As transit plays a more important role in regional job access and congestion mitigation and in shaping development, this change in transit organization and governance is expected to accelerate.

Collectively, all levels of government provided $21.0 billion for transit operations and capital improvements in 2000, with the Federal government contributing $5.3 billion, and State and local governments contributing $15.7 billion. Since 1991, the State and local share of total transit funding has remained around 75 percent.

In 2007, Federal
funding for transit
is nearly $9 billion.

Federal support for transit includes revenue from motor fuel taxes (from the Mass Transit Account of the Highway Trust Fund) and general fund appropriations. The amount of Federal motor fuel taxes dedicated for transit in the Mass Transit Account has totaled 2.86 cents per gallon since 1997. Sources of funds at the state and local levels include direct transit system taxing authority, property taxes, motor fuel taxes, tolls, sales taxes, income taxes, and a variety of other tax sources.

Last updated: Monday, December 14, 2015