October 1 2006

Public transportation systems exist throughout the state – from large networks of buses, trains and light rail in southeast Pennsylvania to small bus systems in rural communities. IssuesPA takes a closer look at ridership, funding and the overall impact of public transit on Pennsylvania's transportation infrastructure.

(October 2006) Statewide, Pennsylvanians take more than 400 million passenger trips annually on all types of public transportation serving urban, rural and suburban areas. There are 74 different public transportation systems throughout the state, including urban and rural fixed-route systems and community systems such as dial-a-ride or paratransit. Though the majority of those trips occur in the two major systems in Philadelphia and Allegheny counties and the majority of statewide attention is focused on these two systems, public transportation isn’t limited to the largest metro areas. 

Are more people using public transit?

Yes. While motor vehicles account for 88% of overall travel, there continues to be a strong demand for public transportation. Especially in urban areas, public transit provides congestion relief and keeps more single-occupancy cars off the roads. Nationally, passengers make over 9.5 billion trips annually using public transportation, and passenger miles traveled has increased 23% in 10 years – a rate faster than highway travel in the same timeframe. In Pennsylvania, ridership in recent years has increased statewide, fueled in part by high gasoline prices.

How is public transit used?

Public transportation is an important service for Pennsylvanians who rely on it for mobility. It’s more than a means of transportation; it’s an important connector to human services and economic activities such as work, shopping and medical care.

Without viable public transportation options, many workers currently using public transit would be required to join the majority of workers who commute to work in single-occupancy automobiles, adding to congestion, especially in already-congested areas. Or, alternatively, those workers and others without access to an automobile or unable to drive would lack the mobility and independence most individuals enjoy.

On urban transit systems, over half (57%) of transit trips are work-related. Other transit trips on urban transit systems help transport people to school (11%), shopping (9%), and medical appointments (3%). In Pittsburgh, nearly half the workers who commute downtown to work use public transit. In Philadelphia, the percentage of center city workers who commute via public transit is even greater – roughly 70%.

In rural areas, riders use public transportation for more diverse reasons. Roughly two-thirds of transit trips on rural systems are either medical-related (35%) or work-related (30%). The remainder are shopping-related (23%), for school (4%) or some other purpose.

Who funds public transit in Pennsylvania?

Riders pay at the farebox, which pays a portion of the total costs of public transit. Beyond that, there is no regional taxing authority to decide whether or not to levy a regional tax dedicated to public transportation. As a result, state government shoulders much of the burden to pay for public transportation in Pennsylvania.

As a percent of total revenue, Pennsylvania also ranks high in state support for public transit. Over 50% of the operating revenue for public transportation comes from state sources, a greater percentage than in similar states. Likewise, state revenue provides a larger portion of the capital revenue for public transit in Pennsylvania – more than 34 percent -- again, a larger portion than in similar states.

Unlike in other states, public transit in Pennsylvania is funded mainly through discretionary funds, making funding unpredictable from year to year. Systems in other states have a greater proportion of funds coming from local or regional dedicated sources. A scan of the larger transit systems in the country shows Pennsylvania’s major systems rely more on state revenue than the average.

Compared to the top 50 largest transit systems in the United States, Pennsylvania’s largest transit systems have mixed results when it comes to farebox collections. The average of the 50 top systems in percent of funding that comes from farebox collections is roughly 35%.  Philadelphia’s SEPTA system outperforms that average with nearly 40% of all funding coming from farebox collections. On the other side of the state, Pittsburgh’s Port Authority (PAT) collects less than 25%  of total funding from fares.

Bottom line?

Public transit is an important component of a state’s transportation system. It reduces congestion, connects people to jobs, and provides mobility to individuals without other means of transportation. And it’s a big part of Pennsylvania’s infrastructure big picture.