1995 NPTS analyzed to develop information base on public transit

During the past 30 to 40 years, the portion of personal trips carried by public transit has declined in America. Along with other factors, this decline has recently created a strong interest in a better understanding of transit markets, both current and future, in the U.S. To support this interest, CUTR recently analyzed the 1995 Nationwide Personal Transportation Survey (NPTS) as part of the research program of the National Center forTransit Research (NCTR) at CUTR. The purpose was to provide an information base for people involved in the planning, operating, marketing, and decisionmaking of public transit to help them better understand current transit markets.

The results of the analysis are fully documented in a recent NCTR report titled "Public Transit in America: Findings from the 1995 NPTS." Some of the results are summarized below.

Transit use varies dramatically across contexts

The 1995 NPTS data verify the significance of the impact of various factors on transit use. Urbanization, frequency of usage, auto availability, driver's license status, and income are extremely powerful factors in understanding transit use. To each individual who may be dependent on transit, transit becomes a very important means of transportation; however, at the local level, transit's significance in the transportation system varies dramatically depending on the context. Transit captures a relatively large travel market in some of our largest urban areas like New York and Chicago but becomes an insignificant component of the travel networks' capacity in many suburban or smaller urban areas.

Transit mode share in urban areas larger than 3 million persons is 3.77 percent, while for urban areas smaller than 250,000 it averages 0.62 percent; outside metropolitan statistical areas it is 0.23 percent. Thus, the need for markets, objectives, and impacts of transit can vary significantly across urban and non-urban contexts as well. The market for transit services is not equal, and the investments, services, and policy commitments need not be the same either.

Important determinants of transit use

Over the years, numerous studies have pointed out the strong relationship between density and transit use. Density, at both the origin and destination ends, affords a higher level of service and, hence, enables transit to be more attractive. Density is often associated with other characteristics such as pay parking, lower income, and urban environments with sidewalks, which tend to be associated with higher transit use. The 1995 NPTS data confirm the relationship between density and transit use. As larger shares of the population and employment moved to suburban subdivisions, office parks, and strip development, the transit industry has tried to accommodate these development patterns with neighborhood circulators, park-n-ride services, time transfer systems, and other services designed to meet the travel needs of the dispersed population. While these may be helping sustain ridership levels, the importance of density has not been ameliorated by service design or technical innovation. Density enables quality services and implicitly provides the urban environment that enhances the competitive position of transit. A substitute for high density has not been found or implemented.

The NPTS data also make it clear that there is nearly as powerful a relationship between urban area size and transit use. Size can support a larger network of service to provide accessibility by transit to a larger range of activities. Size may also be correlated with parking availability and cost, hours of available service, service frequency, and other factors that support transit use. However, size appears to be important independent of density and perhaps other factors known to influence transit use.


The importance of transferring between public transit vehicles has received increased attention over the past few years. The 1995 NPTS provides an interesting profile of transfer behavior for public transit users, indicating that 79 percent of transit trips do not involve a transfer between public transit vehicles, 18 percent involve one, and 3 percent involve two or more. Not surprisingly, transferring is more common in larger, more urban, more transit intensive environments.

Customer satisfaction

Customer satisfaction is increasingly on the mind of transit agencies as they try to increase transit ridership and maintain transit's share of the overall travel market. In general, the public seems to be satisfied with local public transit. More than 60 percent of a sample rated local public transit excellent or good.

While knowing that the public is happy with public transit is important, knowing the reasons why people are using public transit is more interesting. The public has a strong consensus about why they use public transit, including more convenience, lower cost (than driving), no access to a car, less stress than driving on congested roads, and more environmentally sensitive.

The public, however, does not have strong consensus about why they do not use public transit to travel to work. Reasons cited include lack of availability at work sites, inconvenient scheduling, need for a vehicle for errands and other trips, lengthy travel times, high cost, and bus stops too far from home.

About 60 percent of Americans perceive themselves as living in cities or towns where public transit is available, and approximately half perceive themselves as living within a quarter mile of a bus stop. Yet, accessibility is more complex than knowing how close the home end of a trip is to transit. As other questions reveal, transit service to the destination end, hours of service, and frequency of service all contribute to accessibility. The NPTS reveals information about many of these aspects. Not surprisingly, more transit-dependent groups indicate that transit was more accessible. This might be expected due to both the tendency of these population segments to locate nearer transit and by the virtue of the fact that they are probably better informed as to the availability of transit because they are more likely to use it.

Transit use penetration

The transit industry has no good data on the national share of the population that are transit users on any regular basis. The 1995 NPTS provides a perspective that can help us understand how broad the market of users of transit is.

Nationwide, more than 11 percent of the population use transit one or more times within a typical two-month period. The percentage decreases to the 5-10 percent range in small- and medium-sized MSAs and outside urban areas but increases to more than 20 percent in MSAs with at least 3 million people and urban areas. This represents a potential constituency for transit interests and a base market from which transit can build.

As transit increases its service to new destinations such as airports, sports stadiums, malls, and convention centers and continues to expand into suburbs, it increases the exposure of new potential customers to transit services.

For further information, contact CUTR Sr. Research Associate Xuehao Chu at (813) 974-9831, chu@cutr.usf.edu.

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