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Movement after Migration: Immigrants’ Disproportionate Reliance on Public Transportation

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Movement after Migration: Immigrants’ Disproportionate Reliance on Public Transportation


A man waits for a subway train during the COVID-19 pandemic in New York City. (Photo: UN Photo/Evan Schneider)

Public transit systems have reemerged as priorities for cities around the planet, as concerns about carbon emissions, growing urbanization, and the rise of smartphones and ride-sharing services have prompted new ways for people to get around. In many places in North America and Europe, transit system riders are disproportionately immigrants.

For example, despite representing just under 14 percent of the total population in the United States in 2019, immigrants comprised 32 percent of its transit commuters. In Germany, 22 percent of immigrants or people with at least one immigrant parent used buses and trains daily or almost daily in 2017, compared to 12 percent of those without an immigrant background. Likewise, immigrants in Canada are more than twice as likely to commute via public transit compared to their native-born counterparts. A study of migrant travel behavior in the United Kingdom similarly revealed that immigrants, particularly recent arrivals from Europe, were more likely than UK nationals to use buses, subways, and light rail than automobiles. This finding held true even when controlling for variables such as location and sociodemographic characteristics.

Yet some of these transit systems have faced particular strain in recent years, especially in the United States. While systems such as metro rail have been on the rise in regions including Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa, ridership on U.S. metro systems has been on the decline.

These challenges were made more acute by the COVID-19 pandemic, which prompted a severe slowdown in commuter travel around the world. Much like limitations on international movement, interruptions to intracity mobility were sweeping. Looking forward, the future of transit services could be more bleak as cities cope with budget shortfalls brought about by the pandemic and adjust to a world in which many commuters make fewer trips to the office or remain anxious about boarding crowded buses and trains.

This article examines trends of immigrant transit ridership and the effects of immigration on transit networks in North America—particularly in the United States, where public transportation has faced several hurdles in recent years—and parts of Europe. It considers transit access to be an element of immigrants’ integration in their new societies, allowing them to access work, health care, and other services. In the process, the article reviews the pitfalls encountered during the COVID-19 pandemic and outlines the challenges that would be presented by large-scale permanent service reductions (such as those previously contemplated in New York City, where the Metropolitan Transportation Authority lost $200 million per week during the pandemic).

Explaining Immigrant Ridership

Historically, immigrants tend to settle in large urban areas where transit systems are better developed. Their disproportionate reliance on public transit can also be attributed to several other factors. In the United States, immigrants are nearly twice as likely as the U.S.-born population to live in households without an automobile, and this rate is even higher for those who immigrated within the previous six years. Immigrants also tend to live in larger households than the native born, so families often must share access to a vehicle among more people. Researchers have found that some immigrants might be less comfortable driving, due to lack of familiarity with local customs. Others have not learned to drive. In several countries and 34 U.S. states, unauthorized immigrants also are ineligible for driver’s licenses. Additionally, 43 percent of foreign-born transit commuters in the United States in 2019 had limited English proficiency, meaning it would likely be more difficult for them to pass a driver’s license test.

However, immigrants’ reliance on transit is not static. Studies and surveys reveal that the longer immigrants reside in a country, the less likely they are to rely on public transportation. In Canada, nearly one-third of people who immigrated in the last five years used public transit, compared to 16 percent of those who arrived more than 15 years ago. 

A similar trend can be observed in the United States, where 13 percent of immigrants who have lived in the country for five years or fewer depend on transit to get to work, compared to 10 percent of those who have been there for five to ten years, and 8 percent of those in the country for 15 years or more. Immigrants with longer residence tend to move into suburban areas, where they engage in a process known as “transit assimilation” by joining their native-born peers in car ownership and or other more private means of transportation.

Immigrants’ Growing Share of Shrinking U.S. Ridership

The share of immigrant riders of U.S. transit doubled from 1980 to 2019, when the foreign born accounted for nearly one-third of all riders (see Figure 1). This is much larger than immigrants’ share of the U.S. population, which has more than doubled in this period from just over 6 percent to nearly 14 percent.

Figure 1. Foreign-Born Share of U.S. Residents and Public Transportation Commuters, 1980-2019

Note: Commuters refer to individuals who indicated that they used public transportation as their means of commuting to work.

Sources: Harmonized data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Surveys (ACS) and 1980, 1990, and 2000 decennial censuses, available online.

Yet overall, U.S. transit ridership has declined. In terms of individual trips, total ridership fell by more than 5 percent from 2008 to 2018. And the proportion of immigrants who rode transit decreased over the last 40 years, from 15 percent in 1980 to slightly over 9 percent in 2019. Ridership of the U.S. born has long been lower than that of immigrants, and the share of transit riders has remained steadier over this same period (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Share of Foreign- and Native-Born U.S. Residents Who Commute via Public Transportation, 1980-2019

Note: Data refer to individuals who indicated that they used public transportation as their means of commuting to work.

Sources: Harmonized data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s ACS and decennial censuses.

One of the reasons for this downward trend may be the changing demographics of new immigrants to the United States. In recent years, immigration from Mexico has been on the decline, while arrivals from Asia have increased. Since 2013, China and India have been the origin countries of more immigrants to the United States than Mexico. Recent immigrants are also more likely to have a college degree. Immigrants who tend to earn higher incomes and settle in the suburbs are more likely to own a car.

Troubled Future for U.S. Public Transportation

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the smaller numbers of immigrants on U.S. public transit did not bode well for the future of these systems. In Los Angeles, which has the country’s second-largest immigrant population but is known more for its car-clogged freeways than its transit system, residents increasingly have opted for private vehicles. Despite spending billions of dollars on new public transportation, ridership in the broader Southern California region peaked in 1985; in 2016, people took 72 million fewer rides than in 2012. The steady decline in transit ridership coincided with a sharp increase in access to automobiles, particularly for immigrants, potentially due to factors including the millennial generation reaching adulthood. From 2000 to 2015, there was a 42 percent decrease in the share of Southern Californian immigrant households without access to a car; among the region’s Mexican immigrant households, there was an even starker 66 percent drop.

The United States stands out for its downward trend in transit ridership. Prior to the pandemic, European and East Asian countries were experiencing increasing usage of public transportation. For example, transit ridership in France rose 32 percent from 2010 to 2018, driven by increases in the largest urban areas.

A number of factors can influence rider behavior, including gas and car prices, alternative options such as the growth of ride-hailing services, and transit safety, reliability, and accessibility. But the decrease in U.S. ridership makes particular sense when considering lackluster infrastructure investments over the past decade. From 2010 to 2019, the United States added 1,200 miles of new and expanded transit service, versus 28,500 miles of highways and other major roadways. In the same timeframe, France added slightly more miles to its public transit networks, even though its population is one-fifth that of the United States. Per capita mileage expansion of U.S. transit systems over this period was similar to Canada, a country with a population smaller than that of California, albeit both countries have a similar share of people living in urban areas. U.S. transit advocates have also blamed the prioritization of lines in suburban areas over high-density neighborhoods where consistent transit riders are more likely to live. Taking these priorities into account, it is not surprising that U.S. transit riders, including immigrants, are opting more frequently for cars.

COVID-19’s Impact on Transit

Since the start of the coronavirus public-health crisis, transit systems around the globe have reeled from the sharp decline in riders and, consequently, revenue. Despite minimal evidence of a link between transit ridership and transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19, some riders have chosen to avoid transit due to health and safety concerns. And, of course, with significant shares of the labor force working remotely, the need to commute also lessened. In the second quarter of 2020, 76 percent fewer people rode U.S. transit than in the first quarter. This figure rebounded slightly, but ridership over the following four months was still down more than 60 percent compared to the year before. In Canada, ridership in the second and third quarters of 2020 declined by nearly 82 percent and more than 65 percent, respectively. Some cities have recovered riders as some public-health restrictions have been lifted, but pre-pandemic levels are unlikely to be achieved soon.

With more individuals working from home and forgoing nonessential trips, transit agencies—including some of the largest systems in the United States and Europe—have considered operational and budget cuts, or else asked for massive government relief. Officials in Europe estimated in 2020 that public transport services would lose 40 billion euros in revenue over the course of the year. The U.S. Congress has earmarked tens of billions of dollars in aid to transit agencies over the past year, but systems’ long-term prognoses remain unclear, since ridership and subsidies from state and local governments will likely remain low for the foreseeable future.

Many cities cut back service during the pandemic, and systems in cities such as London, New York, and Washington openly speculated about long-term cuts to meet budget shortfalls. Such cuts might make financial sense in the short term since public-health lockdowns have limited much of the world’s mobility.

Yet a disproportionate share of the burden of these temporary cuts has fallen on essential workers who rely on transit to commute to work. Often, these workers are immigrants. In the United States, for instance, immigrants account for 17 percent of the civilian labor force, but 29 percent of all physicians and 38 percent of home health aides. In Europe, researchers Francesco Fasani and Jacopo Mazza have estimated that 42 percent of migrants from outside the European Union were in professions declared essential, compared to 35 percent of natives.

Cuts have so far mostly been temporary, and in some cases may be reversed. Transit agencies in Canada, for instance, have promised that service will eventually resemble pre-pandemic levels, due largely to billions of dollars in federal and provincial aid. But not all systems can anticipate similar outcomes. If budgets are officially slashed in coming months, immigrant and native-born riders will migrate to other modes of transportation. That has already been the case for many essential workers and others who have had to commute amid the pandemic, particularly those who work overnight shifts and other off hours. A continued decrease in ridership will not only perpetuate a downward spiral for transit systems, but will also create a shift to driving that may be irreversible. More driving will likely precipitate greater traffic congestion, heightened environmental and health effects, and less geographically and socially connected communities.

The pandemic has already harmed vulnerable groups the most, and permanent cuts to transit would likely only further exacerbate inequalities. Relying on transit with irregular schedules to access COVID-19 testing and other medical care could prompt some riders to delay or forgo care. In the long term, transit cuts may affect riders’ access to work, education, and other services which, for immigrants, can be crucial to integration.

Transportation as a Tool for Integration

Immigrants’ ability to connect to city services and access available resources is key to their integration. Public transit systems that are reliable, safe, and accessible have a role to play, particularly by facilitating immigrants’ access to employment and critical social services. Conversely, poor transit systems may inhibit an immigrant’s integration experience. This is an issue of particular concern in the United States, where public transportation has lagged.

Immigrants who do not have access to an automobile and rely on transit to commute tend to be more economically and socially vulnerable than their U.S.-born and non-transit commuter peers. Although characteristics vary widely for different groups, immigrants are on the whole less likely to have a high school education and more likely to have lower incomes compared to the U.S. born. This divide is especially pronounced among the subpopulation relying on transit (see Table 1).

Table 1. Characteristics of U.S. Immigrant and Native-Born Workers by Method of Commuting, 2019

Source: Data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 ACS.

While most immigrants drive to work, fewer drive alone; immigrants carpool at higher rates than the U.S. born. Expansive U.S. transit systems tend to be located in some of the largest urban areas, particularly on the coasts, but many immigrants do not live in these areas. Not being able to rely on a consistent source of transportation—which is often the case for those who carpool—can limit immigrants’ opportunities, which, in turn, affects their short- and long-term economic outcomes.

Transportation access is also a key determinant of health. According to the 2018 National Health Interview Survey, 3.6 million U.S. residents delayed medical care due to lack of transportation, 13 percent of whom were immigrants—a rate roughly equivalent to the foreign-born share of the overall population. Recent Hispanic immigrants were more likely to delay care for this reason.

Beyond health care, those who rely on public transit must consider distances to healthy food outlets, which may cause issues of food insecurity if they live in a food desert. Additionally, those who depend on unreliable, unsafe, or unaffordable transit for everyday movement may experience severe stress and may choose to forgo certain trips altogether.

Return to Normal or Permanent Decline?

Prior to the pandemic, significant transit projects were underway. Worldwide, transit agencies have been rolling out zero-emissions buses. Increasing numbers of cities—approximately 100 globally as of the start of 2020—and Luxembourg have made transit services free for riders, betting that eliminating fares will combat inequality and reduce overall carbon emissions.

But COVID-19 has prompted new priorities, which may override long-planned upgrades. And if transit systems are not able to function at reliable levels, the loss of riders, including immigrant riders, could alter the future of transit.

In the short term, transit agencies could examine areas where transit is still being heavily used and reallocate service accordingly. Some transit agencies have offered discounted fares to low-income riders or temporarily eliminated fares altogether, but these measures have mostly been ad hoc. Cities including Boston and Chicago added dedicated bus lanes during COVID-19 lockdowns, as these projects are high-impact yet relatively cheap and quick to complete, although efforts such as Milan’s initiative to transform streets into spaces for pedestrians and bicyclists have been more popular. Maintaining consistent schedules, rather than cutting weekend service or shortening weekday services, will allow riders to trust in and continue using these systems.

Transit agencies could do a better job understanding immigrants’ travel behavior and factoring this into their decision-making, especially following a public-health crisis in which foreign-born workers have been disproportionately on the front lines. Investment in services in neighborhoods with high ridership is likely not only to benefit immigrants themselves, but also transit systems and the health and connectedness of entire communities.


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