Talent prefers transit

Commutes to work on transit are up, despite overall ridership being down

While it’s true that the region has experienced a downward trend in transit ridership since a 20-year high in 2012, that’s not telling the full story. The proportion of commuters taking transit to work has actually seen a small but steady increase for over a decade now, as shown in Figure 1. This suggests that ridership loss may stem from discretionary trips far more than the daily journey to and from work. And considering that the number of jobs in the region increased by over 300,000 from 2005 to 2015, it’s clear that many more people are taking transit to work than any time in recent memory.

Figure 1: Total ridership fluctuates, but transit work trips are on the rise

Transit Usage in the 7-County Region since 1980 (Source: CMAP, US Census, ACS)

Transit commuting is strong and growing for the largest segments of the workforce

Table 1 shows data on the age composition of the overall workforce and the subset that commute by public transit. By comparing the percent of the total workforce to the percent of total transit commuters, it’s possible to see which age groups are over- or underrepresented among transit commuters. The last two columns show how the different age groups are growing in the overall workforce, and among transit commuters specifically. Workers aged 25 to 44 (which includes the majority of Millennial workers) are the largest part of the workforce, and will be for decades to come. They make up an even larger share of transit commuters, and their numbers are still swelling. The number of workers taking transit in the Millennial cohort grew by 8 percent in the last five years alone.

The older age groups also have an interesting story to tell. The Boomer generation aged 55 and up makes up 21 percent of the workforce, but only 15 percent of transit commuters. However, Boomers are the fastest growing part of the workforce and they’re taking transit to work in swiftly growing numbers. In the last five years, the number of workers over 55 taking transit grew by an impressive 11 to 13 percent.

Table 1: Millennials and boomers increasingly choose transit

Workforce composition and growth by age group (Source: ACS 2011, 2016)
% of total
workforce, 2016
% of transit
commuters, 2016
Workforce growth by age, 2011–2016
All modes Public transit commuters
Total workers 16 and over 3% 6%
16 to 19 years 3% 2%
-12% -17%
20 to 24 years 9% 12% 5% 6%
25 to 44 years 45% 53% <1% 8%
45 to 54 years 22% 18% -1% -1%
55 to 59 years 10% 7% 13% 11%
60 years and over 11% 8% 22%

Transit commuters are increasingly high-earners, but ridership is growing across income categories

Transit riders are fairly proportional by income groups to the overall workforce, with the exception of the highest earners. Those making $75,000 or more a year make up 23 percent of the workforce, but 27 percent of transit commuters, as shown in Table 2. The five-year growth rates are striking, showing the Chicago region’s workforce is getting wealthier at a fast rate. The share of workers (using all modes) earning $75,000 or more grew by 16 percent, while most other income groups actually shrunk or stayed constant. However, the growth of workers riding transit increased by about five percent more than the overall growth rate of commuters (using all modes) for income groups above $25,000. While there are clear equity implications as the region’s workforce skews towards the higher-earning end of the spectrum, workers across the board are commuting by transit in increasing numbers.

Table 2: High earners are taking to transit

Workforce competition and growth by income group (Source: ACS 2011, 2016) Note: For a 40-hour workweek at the Illinois 2018 minimum wage of $8.25 per hour, annual income is approximately $17,160.
% of total
workforce, 2016
% of transit
commuters, 2016
Workforce growth by by income, 2011–2016
All modes Public transit commuters
Total workers 16 and over 3% 6%
$9,999 or less 12% 12% -1% <1%
$10,000 to $14,999 7% 7% <1% -6%
$15,000 to $24,999
14% 13% 5% 3%
$25,000 to $34,999 12% 11% -3% 2%
$35,000 to $49,999 15% 13% -4% 1%
$50,000 to $64,999 12% 12% 2% 7%
$65,000 to $74,999 5% 6% -1% 5%
$75,000 or more 23% 27% 16% 21%

Looking at the change in median earnings by commute mode in Table 3 reinforces the previous findings. While earnings are up overall, growth is substantially higher for people commuting by transit. People driving alone saw a much lower median increase than the region as a whole.

Table 3: Transit riders are growing wealthier

Change in median earnings for 7-county region, 2011–2016 (Source: ACS 2011, 2016)
All modes Drive alone Public transit
$1,057 $277 $2,081

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