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Keeping Communities Connected: Public Perceptions of Public Transportation

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By The VCU Wilder School’s Office of Research and Outreach
March 6, 2023

Across the United States, Americans use public transportation an estimated 34 million times each weekday. Access is not consistent, however, with about 45 million Americans having no public transportation access at all. Typically, public transportation is funded from a variety of sources:

  • Fares, fees and direct taxes: About 43 percent of funding
  • Local funding: About 27 percent of funding
  • State funds: About 23 percent of funding
  • Federal funds: About 7 percent of funding

During the height of the pandemic, ridership on public transportation decreased by more than half of what it had been prior to the pandemic. This decline was caused by several factors, including decreased costs of driving a car, an increase in shared ride services and increased decentralization of jobs and housing that led to an increased requirement for personal transportation.

In order to increase access to public transportation, and to help mitigate some of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, several policies at the federal level were implemented to support public transportation across the country and to increase the federal funding percentage. These policies included:

  • The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, which provided $30.5 billion in federal funding to support public transportation across the nation.
  • Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2021, which provided $900 billion in supplemental funding to various organizations for COVID-19 relief, $14 billion of which was allocated to support public transit.
  • Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which provided $25 billion to support public transportation in urban and rural areas, of this total amount, $22.7 billion was allocated to urban areas and $2.2 billion was allocated to rural areas.

The Commonwealth of Virginia was one of many states to receive some of this federal money to provide free or discounted fares for public transportation during the height of the pandemic. In order to better understand how Virginians felt about this funding, the latest Wilder School Commonwealth Poll, conducted in winter 2022 – 2023, asked participants for their perceptions of these policies and if they thought that federal funding for public transportation should continue moving forward.

Of those polled, six in 10 Virginians said that they would support the state continuing to fund this public transit initiative, with over 70 percent of Democrats, African Americans and those 18-34 years old showing support for the funding of free or reduced fares for public transit. While whites, male respondents and those 55 years and older were less supportive, more than 50 percent of those respondents also supported the initiative.

This Commonwealth Poll obtained landline and mobile telephone interviews from December 3 to December 16, 2022, with a representative sample of 807 adults living in Virginia. It had a margin of error of 6.02 percent. Statistical results were weighted to correct known demographic discrepancies. A two-stage weighting procedure was used to weigh this dual-frame sample by the demographic characteristics of gender, age, education, race, ethnicity, Hispanic origin, region of residence and personal phone use.

The poll also found that support for continued public transportation funding was relatively high across those with all levels of education, with those with a postgraduate or professional degree showing the most support (71 percent). In addition, those with lower levels of income tended to show more support, with 78 percent of those earning less than $20,000 per year, 81 percent of those earning $20,000 – $34,999 per year, and 76 percent of those earning under $35,000 to $49,999 per year showing support. In comparison, 61 percent of those making over $150,000 per year said that they would support continued federal funding for public transportation. Even though those in higher income brackets showed less support than those in lower brackets, the majority was still in favor.

Nationwide, public transportation is also generally supported, with the majority of people reporting that they believe that it benefits their community (e.g. by reducing traffic and providing increase connectivity to residents). People also tend to support improvements to the public transportation system, though fewer people tend to support the idea of paying increased taxes to achieve these improvements.

Looking ahead, it’s clear that support for public transportation in general is relatively high. The challenge for policymakers will be to identify how to support and improve existing public transportation infrastructure, and how to create new public transportation infrastructure in a way that will also receive public support. Working to increase, or at least maintain, the pandemic-related federal funding, and continuing to monitor public opinion through polling initiatives, could be two successful first steps in resolving this challenge.

Author: The Wilder School’s Center for Public Policy advances research and training that informs public policy and decisionmaking to improve our communities. Drawing on the wide-ranging expertise of Wilder School faculty, we provide services including leadership development and training, economic and policy impact analysis, survey insights and program evaluation to clients in governments, nonprofits, businesses and the public, across Virginia and beyond. Twitter: @VCUWilderSchool

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