Public transport, or mass transit, has long been a politically charged issue, throughout the world. However, the modern world now recognizes that it is an effective way to deal with mass movements of people in a manner that respects the use of non-renewable resources.
After all, the only way to continue with autonomous transportation is to get rid of fossil fuels. However. electric cars will not be of much use until we work out where we are going to get all of the needed extra electricity, in a manner that is environmentally friendly. There is not much point in simply moving the burning of fossil fuels from the vehicle (ie. gasoline) to a power station that also burns fossil fuels (eg. coal). There is also a limit to how many rivers there are left to dam for hydroelectric power; and nuclear reactors have gone out of fashion (fortunately). There is also, of course, the matter of how we are going to recycle the used (lithium-ion) batteries from the cars, which is apparently a tougher proposition than recycling the electric motors themselves.
So, until we sort this out, mass transit is a viable option for most conurbations. In this context, a conurbation (or a metropolitan area) is a contiguous area within which large numbers of people move regularly, especially traveling to and from their workplace each weekday. A conurbation often involves multiple cities and towns, as defined by political administrations or contiguous urban development — many people live in one urban area but work in another.
So, naturally, governments collect data on these matters. One such data collection is the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Transit Database. The data consist of "sums of annual ridership (in terms of unlinked passenger trips), as reported by transit agencies to the Federal Transit Administration." Data for three separate modes of transit are included: bus, rail, and paratransit. The data currently cover the years 2002–2018, inclusive.
To look at the data for the 42 U.S. conurbations included, for the year 2018, I have performed this blog's usual exploratory data analysis. I first calculated the transit rate per person, by dividing the annual number of trips for each of the three modes by the conurbation population size. Since these are multivariate data, one of the simplest ways to get a pictorial overview of the data patterns is to use a phylogenetic network. For this network analysis, I calculated the similarity of the conurbations using the manhattan distance. A Neighbor-net analysis was then used to display the between-area similarities.
The resulting network is shown in the graph. Conurbations that are closely connected in the network are similar to each other based on the trip rates, and those areas that are further apart are progressively more different from each other. In this case, there is a simple gradient from the busiest mass transit systems at the top of the network to the least busy at the bottom.
The network shows us that the New York – Newark transit-commuting area (which covers part of three states) is far and away the busiest in the USA. The subway system dominates this mass transit, of course, as it is justifiably world famous, although not always for the best of reasons as far as commuters are concerned
The San Francisco – Oakland area is in clear second place. Here, bus transit slightly exceeds rail transit. Then follows Washington DC and Boston, both of which also cover parts of three states. In Boston trains out-do buses 2:1, while in Washington it is closer to 1.5:1.
Nest comes a group of four conurbations: Chicago, Philadelphia, Portland and Seattle. Two of these cover part of Washington, but in quite different ways — in Seattle the buses dominate the system 5:1 but in Portland it is only 1.5:1. Chicago and Philadelphia share buses and trains pretty equally.
At the bottom of the network there are two large groups of conurbations, one of which does slightly better than the other at mass transit use. The least-used system is that of San Juan, in Puerto Rico, perhaps not unexpectedly. Of the contiguous U.S. states, Indianapolis (IN) has the least used system, followed by Memphis (TN–MS–AR).
Moving on, we could also look at changes in the total number of transit trips (irrespective of mode) during the period for which data are available: 2002–2018. A network is of little help here. So, it so simplest just to plot the data, as shown in the next graph.
For most of the metropolitan areas there is little in the way of consistent change through time. However, there are some areas that show high correlations between the number of trips and time. These are the areas that have shown the most consistent increase in the number of transit trips from 2002–2018:
- Chicago (IL–IN)
- Tampa – St Petersburg (FL)
- Baltimore (MD)
- Denver – Aurora (CO)
- San Francisco – Oakland (CA)
- Memphis (TN–MS–AR)
- San Diego (CA)
- Cleveland (OH)
- Providence (RI–MA)
- Orlando (FL)
- Indianapolis (IN)
- New York – Newark (NY–NJ–CT)
- Portland (OR–WA)
- Minneapolis – St Paul (MN–WI)
- Kansas City (MO–KS)
- Columbus (OH)
- Riverside – San Bernardino (CA)
Declining transit numbers is a topic discussed around the web; for example: Transit ridership down in most American cities. This article has a graph neatly showing the change in transit numbers from 2017 to 2018. It shows marked decreases, particularly for bus trips, while the few increases almost all involved rail travel. Is this a short-term effect, or the start of a general long-term decline?