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What Do Americans Think About Public Transit?

Posted by Content Coordinator on Thursday, August 6th, 2015


Executive Summary

Study Objective

This “seed grant” research project compiled a set of 56 US public opinion polls that asked respondents their opinions about public transit. The goal of the work was two-fold. The first and primary goal was to assemble a large set of transit-related survey questions that can be used to inspire the design of future surveys on the topic of public transit. The assembled collection of questions will help future researchers and transit planners by:

1. Identifying the key topics of interest in public opinion research on public transit;

2. Identifying topics that have been poorly researched to date and may thus be worthwhile for future research; and

3. Providing a bank of questions that can be used to generate ideas for future question wording.

A further objective of the project was to identify general patterns in public opinion about transit that may emerge across multiple surveys.


This study identified and analyzed surveys of US residents that included questions about attitudes regarding public transportation. Public transportation was defined as local or regional services. (Surveys asking only about long-distance rail were excluded.) The project excluded the transit passenger surveys that transit agencies routinely conduct, since the focus of the research was to ascertain the views of the American public at large rather than opinions from transit passengers only. The initial search for relevant surveys netted well over 80 that asked something related to public transportation. The questionnaires obtained were further reviewed to identify those surveys that contained questions relevant to the study as defined by two criteria:

1. Questions had to be opinion-based (as opposed to questions about travel behaviors such as the frequency of transit usage).

2. Questions had to ask about public transit on its own (without combining public transit with another topic such as roads/highways or bike infrastructure).

The review process identified a final set of 56 surveys containing one or more questions each that match the criteria.

The survey questions were then reviewed to identify themes covered in many polls, and all questions on each theme were compiled and analyzed.

Summary of Findings 

Reviewing the entire set of polling questions related to public transit revealed that the surveys commonly address the following themes: the reasons people support public transit; opinions about transit service quality; the extent to which people support improving transit as a general concept; and support levels for raising additional revenues to support transit.

The analysis of the poll questions found that strong majorities of people believed that transit brings a number of specific benefits to their community, especially congestion relief and accessibility to vulnerable residents. Strong majorities also support improvements to transit as a general concept. However, fewer people support the general concept of increased spending on transit, and considerably fewer than half support raising any specific tax to increase transit funding, except for sales taxes, which usually enjoy majority support.

The study findings suggest that fruitful avenues for building upon this review of poll findings would be to:

  • Expand the range of surveys reviewed to include the household travel surveys conducted by regional and state agencies, as well as to include the National Household Travel Survey.
  • Compile a set of transit passenger surveys, each of which include opinion questions, to compare the views of transit riders with the views of the general public.
  • For the subset of polls for which data files or crosstabs are available, review how opinions vary by key socio-demographic and travel behavior factors (age, gender, transit use, etc.).

The findings from the current review also suggest some types of questions that have not been commonly asked but might fill important gaps in knowledge, such as:

  • More directly ask respondents why they support public transit. The existing polls typically break this information into two questions, one asking about benefits perceived and another asking whether or not people support more or better transit.
  • More directly ask respondents who say they would not support additional funding for transit why they hold this opinion.

Download full version (PDF): What Do Americans Think About Public Transit?

About the Mineta Transportation Institute
The Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) conducts research, education, and information and technology transfer, focusing on multimodal surface transportation policy and management issues. It was established by Congress in 1991 as part of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) and was reauthorized under TEA-21 and again under SAFETEA-LU. The Institute is funded by Congress through the US Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Research and Innovative Technology Administration, by the California Legislature through the Department of Transportation (Caltrans), and by other public and private grants and donations, including grants from the US Department of Homeland Security. 

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