Reflections on Future Job Growth and Transit Ridership

By Siim Sööt and Ashish Sen

(Note: This article contains the thoughts and commentary from the authors and does not necessarily reflect opinions from the Urban Transportation Center or the University of Illinois at Chicago.)

From 1970 to 1990 the Chicago area population grew by 4%, but the number of jobs grew by more than 20%. During that period, roadway congestion increased as did transit use. These data sets pertain to the Chicago area, but it was a nationwide phenomenon. Nationally, we now find ourselves in an analogous situation in which the number of jobs has increased dramatically and are projected to continue to grow.  It is therefore useful to consider the implications for transit.

Growth in Jobs Past and Present.

According to the most recent BLS data, employment has increased in the last seven years (November 2009 to November 2016) by more than 15 million. This translates to a growth of just over 11.5% or 1.6% annually.

If we contrast this with the enthusiastic platform presented last fall by then president-elect Donald J. Trump, we find his economic vision calls for an increase[1] of 25 million jobs over the next ten years. Over a base of 145 million in November 2016, this is an increase of 17.2% or an annual increase of 1.6%.  In essence there is no anticipated change in the rate of job growth in the coming years, perhaps surprising given the rhetoric during the campaign season.

Since previous and announced future growth rates are effectively the same, it may be useful to examine the national trends in transit ridership since 2009 and reflect on what it might mean for future transit use. We use commuting data because they are most readily available and account for a large share of transit use.

Commuting Data.

The U.S. Census Bureau provides annual data through its American Community Survey (ACS) starting in 2006.  These nationwide data show that in 2006 4.83% of the “means of transportation to work” was by public transit and 86.8% by private vehicle (drive alone or passenger). By 2009, the nation had lost approximately 6 million jobs, but transit-use share was up to 5% and private vehicle use was down to 86.1% according to ACS statistics. The most recent ACS data, for 2015, shows that transit share is now up to 5.23% while private vehicle use has declined to 85.6%. These were dramatic increases in transit commutes during both economic growth and downturn.

Since 2006 the number of transit commuters has grown from 6.68 million to 7.76 million or by 1.08 million. From 2009 to 2015 the increase was less, 0.84 million, in part because transit ridership also increased during the recession.

Perhaps most surprising is that the largest increase was from 2012 to 2015, when transit ridership increased by 0.7 million at a time when the average gasoline pump price decreased from $3.80 to $2.45 per gallon. In many markets transit ridership is negatively affected by decreases in gasoline prices. The increase in transit use may be in part to lower operating costs due to lower fuel costs.

If the trends in transit’s share of commuting market continue and job growth continues as in the past – as the current President projected — there will need to be substantial investments in transit.

Two warnings might be appropriate, however.

  • First, several transit properties have a huge backlog in maintenance, which might have to be addressed before new starts.
  • Second, transportation technology is changing extremely fast. Planning, especially of new systems, needs to be most cognizant of this, lest they become obsolete before or shortly after they are completed.

Summary.

Given the remarkable similarity in the job growth rate between the last seven years and the projected growth over the next 10, the recent increases in transit ridership needs attention. Since 2009 commuting to work by private vehicle has increased by 6% while the use of transit to work has grown by 12%.  Investments in infrastructure are essential in many areas but the needs in transit are currently obvious and may well continue to increase disproportionately.

[1] “dynamic booming economy that will create 25 million new jobs over the next decade.”

Note on authors: Siim Sööt, PhD, served as Director of the Urban Transportation Center from 1998 to 2000, and Ashish Sen, PhD, served as Director from 1996 to 1998.