For immigrants who depend on buses, service cuts are bad news. Jeff Zelevansky/REUTERS

Immigrants have long been the most loyal users of public transit. That’s starting to change.

To get to class, Ramon Garibaldo Valdez would start from his home in East Charlotte, North Carolina at 8 a.m. each weekday. He’d board the 17 at the nearby bus station, settling in for a 40-minute ride downtown. Then he’d transfer to the 7, which would take him north, to the Johnson C. Smith University campus in Biddleville. That journey, a 15-minute hop by car, took more than an hour. Some days, after he finished school, he’d take an express bus to the southern suburbs, where he tutored high school kids. Getting there would take around an hour and forty minutes.

On these long commutes, Garibaldo Valdez had a lot of time to think about the state of public transit in his city. The 22-year-old lived in Charlotte ever since he arrived in America from Mexico eight years ago. Because he’s undocumented, he isn’t eligible for a driver’s license in North Carolina. And even if he were, he wouldn’t have been able to afford his own car. So he banked on the goodwill of car-owning friends and depended on Charlotte’s spotty bus service. He developed a wish-list of improvements: more light-rail express stops in working-class immigrant neighborhoods, for example. He’d also lower the public transit fares, increase the frequency of buses and extend the service hours, make transit stops safer, and employ more Spanish-speaking staff. “In the midst of your grumbling, you come up with a lot of ideas,” Garibaldo Valdez says.  

Now, Garibaldo Valdez is pursuing his Ph.D. at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, a state in which where he is eligible for a driver’s license. Since he started in the fall 2016, he’s been on a strict budget. “I’m actually very excited,” he says, “I’m going to be saving up for a car.”

Historically, immigrants like Garibaldo Valdez have been among the most loyal of transit users, because of the structural barriers they face in owning cars, socio-economic constraints, and settlement patterns. But over the last few decades, they’ve been moving away from it—figuratively and literally—and instead, getting behind the wheel. And that exodus could be driving down overall transit ridership, especially in places where immigrants are highly concentrated.

How immigrants use transit: a look at the numbers

Compared to native-born Americans, immigrants are less likely to drive alone to work (80 percent versus 65 percent) and more likely to use alternatives like carpooling, bikes, and public transit. Around 10 percent of foreign-born commuters ride their local train or bus, compared to four percent of native-born, according to a 2015 analysis by Brian McKenzie, a sociologist in the Journey to Work and Migration Statistics branch of the U.S. Census Bureau.

But over time, immigrants’ reliance on public transit has been declining. At a transit conference in 2016, Evelyn Blumenberg, professor and chair of urban planning at UCLA’s Luskin School of Urban Affairs, presented the graph below. It shows that immigrants experienced the highest decline in transit ridership (16 percent to 10 percent) between 1980 and 2014, whereas the trend for other groups is more or less flat. (Usage for all groups has actually been falling since the 1960s, which is how far back the data go from this source. But while the other groups have started stabilizing since the 1980s, immigrant usage continues to drop.)

Public transit usage among immigrants has declined between 1980 and 2014, compared to the U.S. overall, and to other groups with similar economic constraints. (Courtesy of Evelyn Blumenberg)

That decline among immigrants, along with a slight rise in driving alone, should be a cause for concern for view of transit agencies and really, anyone interested in sustainable urbanism. Why did it happen—and what, if anything, can be done to lure them back on board?

Where immigrants live and work has changed

The narrative of immigrants disembarking at Ellis Island and living in a dense “ethnic enclave” in the city is no longer true to the same extent as it was in the 20th century. More and more immigrants are bypassing the traditional immigrant gateways like New York City, San Francisco, and Chicago and heading straight to new destinations like Dallas, Atlanta, and Charlotte. While they still disproportionately live in large U.S. metros, the immigrant population has also been suburbanizing since the 1980s. These new immigrants hubs are not only where they find jobs and affordable housing, but also where they discover that the need for car has been much more supreme.

Where jobs are located also influences commuting choices. If immigrants are working in central business districts located in dense thicket of transit, they might be more likely to use it, at least part of the way. But many immigrants work in industries like construction and agriculture, and may need to travel to distant sites. In addition, the nature of the working-class jobs many immigrants do require cars. In a 2009 paper analyzing travel behavior of immigrants in California, Blumenberg writes:

Cars are also essential for commutes to work in industries that involve variable work sites (e.g., construction), the need to carry equipment (e.g., landscaping), and early or late shifts (e.g., service work).

Immigrants undergo “transit assimilation.”

The longer immigrants tend to live in the country, the more likely they are to start driving alone to work—and that’s true across geographical context. “Several social and economic characteristics of the foreign born population increasingly mirror the native-born population, as the numbers of years spent in the U.S. increases,” says Census sociologist McKenzie. “Travel behavior is no exception to that kind of integration.”

Here’s a chart from his 2015 analysis that breaks down the likelihood of driving alone for each 3-year interval up immigrants spend in the country:

(U.S. Census Bureau)

This makes sense: As time goes by, immigrants are likely to become more educated and earn higher incomes, putting them in a better financial position to buy a car (and perhaps more likely to adopt the distinctly American cultural obsession with automobiles). Owning a car is also associated with real employment gains for low-income Americans, and that applies for immigrants as well. In the 2009 paper on travel behavior of Californian immigrants, Blumenberg writes:

For Mexican immigrants, the car is an important and necessary mode of transportation—auto access means more freedom, more job opportunities, and a better quality of life; for some it is a symbol of greater social status.

Different immigrants, different rides

Immigration has already played a role in shrinking transit ridership in states like California. And going forward, if the incoming administration implements its stated plan of deporting nearly three million undocumented immigrants, and curtails legal immigration more generally, that might deal a further blow to transit usage rates.

But among the foreign-born population are subgroups with distinct travel-related behavior that experts are yet to fully understand. One observation, for example, is that many working-class immigrants to the U.S. arrive from Mexico, and annual immigration from that country has been declining for the last 15 years. On the other hand, immigrants from Asia, who tend to be “high skilled” are on the rise. The latter group, by virtue of their socioeconomic position, are more likely than the former to own cars, says Mike Smart, assistant professor at Rutgers University, who has extensively studied immigrant travel behavior.

So, what can transit agencies do?

Boosting ridership among immigrant communities would likely involve investing more heavily in providing services to suburban neighborhoods where immigrants and their children now live. Making transit systems safer and more user-friendly would also help. Another idea that is gaining traction among transit agencies and commuters alike is to employ ride-sharing services to close the gaps in connectivity.

But at the end of the day, competing with a car in suburbia is an uphill battle. “What we’ve known for decades and decades is that transit really succeeds where it outcompetes with driving,” Smart says. “That’s as much about transit as it is about transit’s main competitor: the car.” Tactics like adopting congestion pricing and raising parking fees have been shown to make Americans as a whole, not just immigrants, more likely to ditch their cars. But such methods might also disproportionately burden low-income immigrants, especially if the transit infrastructure is not already in place in sprawled areas. (That’s why in states like California, lawmakers are trying to provide low-cost insurance to immigrant drivers.)

Scarce resources might be better focused towards improving the modes of transit immigrants use in urban areas. “If we’re not enhancing the areas where transit already works well, where many immigrants tend to live, I think that that’s going to be problematic ultimately for their ridership,” Blumenberg says. “We can make transit much more desirable not just to immigrants but to other travelers to stem that tide [of declining transit ridership], but it may require us to make politically complex trade-offs.””

Making the bus service more frequent, reliable, and efficient would certainly be one way to attract and retain loyal riders, immigrant and otherwise. In many cities, that’s not happening. In New York City—the city with the most robust transit network in the country—bus ridership is languishing. D.C.’s bus service, too, is in the same fix. This reflects service cuts, not dwindling demand, writes Daniel Hertz of City Observatory: “It’s not buses that are being abandoned. It’s bus riders.”

The chart below makes Hertz’s point clear. In cities that increased their bus services, ridership also rose. In other words, if you invest in it, they will come.

More bus services are correlated with higher ridership across U.S. cities. (Daniel Kay Hertz/City Observatory)

It’s hard to untangle how much of immigrant travel behavior stems from constraints and how much is a result of preferences. But making transit a more attractive option for them would have a big economic upside: Spending up to $10,000 a year to maintain a car can neutralize any potential gains from employment low-income immigrants get from driving, according to a 2015 paper by Smart and his colleague Nicholas Klein. To add to that: Latino immigrant also get disproportionately fined for minor traffic violations in many parts of the country.

Still, immigrants are increasingly aspiring to own cars, even if they can’t sustain this ownership permanently. For the newest Americans, driving may be the only way that they can reclaim the hours lost waiting for public transit and inject some semblance of certainty into their lives.

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