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Chapter 2: Passenger Travel

The U.S. passenger transportation system has grown in both extent and use over the last several decades, despite a recent decline in overall transportation activity due to the 2007–2009 economic recession. This expansion is in response to long-term growth in the number of people who travel as well as the distance traveled by each person.

Person-Miles Traveled

Between 2010 and 2014, passenger-miles1 of travel by commercial aviation, highway, transit, and intercity rail increased, rising by 7.5, 3.0, 8.3, and 4.0 percent, respectively. Miles traveled by aviation and transit modes reached record levels in 2014.

Table 2-1 U.S. Passenger-Miles Traveled by Mode: 2000, 2010 and 2014

Over the last three decades, the total number of miles traveled by passengers has more than doubled. The National Household Travel Survey (NHTS), which primarily examines local travel, shows a 169.5 percent increase in annual person-miles traveled2 (PMT) between 1969 and 2001. Between 2001 and 2009, however, PMT fell by 1.4 percent as people traveled less frequently and made shorter trips. The average number of person-trips declined from 4.1 trips per day in 2001 to 3.8 trips per day in 2009, while average person-trip length declined from 10.0 miles per trip to 9.7 miles per trip. Passenger travel trends also indicate that average daily PMT per person declined between 1995 and 2009.

Figure 2-1 Annual Person-Miles Traveled (PMT) and Average Daily PMT Per Person: 1969, 1977, 1983, 1990, 1995, 2001, and 2009

Many demographic factors influence daily passenger travel patterns. On average, Americans traveled 36.1 miles per day in 2009, a 10.2 percent decline from 2001. Men traveled more than women, averaging 40.9 miles per day compared with 31.5 miles per day for women. For both genders, people in their prime working years traveled more, with persons aged 36 to 65 traveling the most.

Table 2-2 Average Daily Person-Miles of Travel by Age and Gender: 1995, 2001, and 2009

Historically, higher income households travel more miles than lower income households. In 2009 person-miles of travel increased with household income. With the last national personal travel survey completed in 2009, at the end of the recession, it remains to be seen what the next survey now underway will show about the trip-making propensities of the public.

Figure 2-2 Average Annual Person-Miles of Travel per Household by Income: 2009

Why We Travel

Personal local travel is dominated by frequent, repetitive patterns, such as a daily commute to work. The most common reasons for travel are for family and personal errands, social and recreational activities, and work or work-related purposes.

In 2009 work and work-related trips were longer than trips for other purposes, making up 25.3 percent of total miles traveled but only 18.7 percent of total trips. Trips for shopping, personal errands, and social and recreational purposes were shorter but more frequent than commuting trips.

Figure 2-3 Average Annual Person-Trips, Person-Miles, and Trip Length per Household by Purpose: 2009

During an average week, people take more trips on weekdays than weekends. Fridays were the busiest days, largely because people make social and recreational trips in addition to regular work and school trips. Over the last 15 years, about one-fifth of trips involved trip-chaining—a sequence of trips with stops of less than 30 minutes. For example, people often run errands on the way to and from work. Trip-chains can reduce travel times, distance traveled, and fuel, but can also contribute to congestion because these trips often occur during peak travel periods. The least travel occurred on Sundays, although the lower numbers of work trips were partially offset by additional social/recreational and church trips.

Figure 2-4 Annual Person-Trips by Purpose and Day of Week: 2009

Time Spent Traveling

Time spent traveling declined to a low in 2014, falling below levels reached in the last recession. Compared with 2005, people spent 7.4 fewer minutes traveling per weekday, a decrease of 8.5 percent; and 6.7 fewer minutes traveling per weekend day, a 7.5 percent decrease.

Figure 2-5 Total Time Spent Traveling on Weekdays and Weekends: 2003–2014

On weekdays in 2014 the average person spent 79.5 minutes per day traveling for a variety of activities. Examining the 45.2 percent of people who engaged in travel for work, the average person spent 46.3 minutes per day traveling, the most time spent traveling for any of the selected travel activities.

Table 2-3 Average Weekday and Weekend Time Spent Traveling by Persons Engaged in Selected Activities: 2014

On weekends and holidays people spent an average of 83.6 minutes per day engaged in various travel activities, 4.1 minutes more than on weekdays. Out of all selected travel activities, the average person spent the most (52.5 minutes) on weekends and holidays traveling for activities related to personal care, about 19.8 minutes per day more than on weekdays. Travel related to eating and drinking on weekends and holidays accounted for 31.0 minutes, about 7 minutes more than on weekdays.

How We Travel

Most passenger travel occurs in cars or other types of personal motorized vehicles. In 2009, 83.4 percent of trips and 88.4 percent of person-miles traveled were by personal vehicle. The shares for other modes were considerably smaller—walking and biking accounted for 11.5 percent of local trips and 1.0 percent of miles in 2009, while transit’s share was 1.9 percent of trips and 1.5 percent of miles.  Between 1995 and 2009, the share of personal vehicle trips fell 3.0 percentage points, while the share of miles fell 2.8 percentage points.

Table 2-4 Annual Person-Trips and Person-Miles Traveled by Mode: 1995, 2001, and 2009

Trips to and from work and for work-related business accounted for 18.7 percent of trips. Walking trips, accounting for 10.4 percent of trips in 2009, were mostly for family/personal errands and social/recreational purposes. Together these two trip-purpose categories accounted for 83.0 percent of walking trips.

Figure 2-6 Annual Person-Trips by Mode and Purpose: 2009

Most workers (85.7 percent) drove to work in a personal vehicle in 2014, either by themselves or with others. The shares of workers using alternative modes as their primary means of transportation were smaller: 5.2 percent of workers used transit, 2.7 percent walked, and 0.6 percent biked. Although the number of commuters who drove to work increased between 2010 and 2014, the overall share of drivers decreased. The working population shifted to others modes of transportation as commuters who used transit grew by 12.3 percent, and workers who biked rose 23.7 percent.

Table 2-5 Commuting by Mode of Transportation: 2000, 2010, and 2014

The geography of commuting involves two opposing trends. While workers and their places of work have grown farther apart over recent decades, an increasing number of people are working at home. Part of the longer term growth in working at home had been masked in earlier decades by the number of farmers who worked where they also lived3. In 2010, 13.4 million people worked from home at least one day per week, an increase of about 4.2 million people (35.4 percent) from 1997. Home-based workers included those who worked exclusively at home as well as those who worked at both home and at a job site. Revealing a similar trend between 2010 and 2014, the American Community Survey reported an increase of over 600,000 people (10.4 percent) who worked at home the week before the survey interview.

Box 2-A National Surveys

Personal Vehicles

In 1960 the number of drivers exceeded the number of vehicles by 17.6 percent—there were 0.9 vehicles for every driver. By 1972 the number of registered vehicles surpassed the number of licensed drivers. This trend, in which the number of registered vehicles outnumbered licensed drivers, peaked in 2007 with 20.5 percent more vehicles than drivers. By 2014 that ratio had dropped, but vehicles still outnumbered drivers with about 1.2 vehicles per driver.

Figure 2-7 Licensed Drivers, Vehicle Registrations, and Resident Population: 1960–2014

Although household size has fallen since 1960, household vehicle ownership has increased. Before 1980 the majority of households owned one vehicle. Today the majority of households own two or more vehicles. For the last decade, about 1 in 10 households did not own a vehicle. The number of households without vehicles has remained relatively steady, at 10 to 11 million, despite a growing number of households over the past 40 years.

Figure 2-8 Household Vehicle Ownership: 1960–2013

The majority of these “zero-vehicle” households, 64.7 percent in 2009, had a combined household income of less than $25,000. On the other end of the spectrum, the majority of households with more vehicles than drivers, 53.0 percent, had incomes over $55,000.

Figure 2-9 Vehicles per Driver by Household Income: 2009

According to the 2009 National Household Travel Survey, 91.7 percent of households have three or less vehicles. Households with one to three drivers averaged more than one vehicle per driver, but households with four or more drivers average less than one vehicle per driver.

Figure 2-10 Average Number of Vehicles per Household by Number of Household Drivers: 2009

Pedestrians and Bicycles

Although walking and biking account for a small portion of passenger travel, 11.5 percent of trips and 1.0 percent of miles traveled, the National Household Travel Survey suggests that a growing number of Americans are walking and bicycling. In 2009 walking accounted for 10.4 percent of trips, and biking accounted for 1.0 percent of trips.

Nationwide, 3.4 percent of commuters walk or bike to work, accounting for 2.8 and 0.6 percent of workers, respectively. While less than 1.0 percent of Americans bike to work on a regular basis, the number of bicycle commuters has nearly doubled since 2000.

Walking and biking commuters make up a greater share of workers in urban areas. In principal cities within metropolitan areas, 4.2 percent of workers walk to work and 0.9 percent bike to work. In rural areas, 1.9 percent of workers walk to work and 0.2 percent bike to work.

In the United States, 77.0 percent (2,600 of 3,378) of bike-share stations connect to another scheduled public transportation mode within 1 block, 13.4 percent (451) connect within 1 to 2 blocks, and 9.7 percent (327) either have no connection or no connection to a scheduled public transportation mode within 2 blocks (see figure 2-11).

Figure 2-11 Bike-Share Connectivity to Scheduled Public Transportation: 2016

BTS found a total of 3,378 bike-share stations that operate in 104 U.S cities as of April 2016
(see figure 2-12).4

Figure 2-12 Cities With Bike-Share Systems: 2016

High rates of walking and biking are seen in several small and medium-sized cities, particularly those with significant university or college presence. For large cities, Boston, MA, had the highest rate of walking commuters (14.7 percent), while neighboring Cambridge, MA, had the highest rate of medium-sized cities (24.5 percent). Portland, OR, had the highest rate of bike commuters for large cities, and Boulder, CO, had the highest rate for medium cities.

Table 2-6 Top 5 Walk and Bike Commuting Cities by City Size: 2010–2014

Air Travel

Between January 2003 and December 2015, U.S. airlines’ total (domestic and international) passenger enplanements rose 25.0 percent. The total number of passenger enplanements in 2015 (798.4 million) exceeded the previous high of 769.6 million in 2007. During this period, the growth of international enplanements (57.2 percent) outpaced that of domestic enplanements (21.3 percent).

U.S. airlines handled 59.5 million system enplanements in December 2015, the second highest seasonally adjusted total after the all-time high reached in October 2015 (59.7 million). Nine of the top 10 all-time highest months for domestic enplanements were in 2015. The December 2015 level for international enplanements, 8.7 million, was the highest all-time, seasonally adjusted total.

Figure 2-13 U.S. Airline Passenger Enplanements: Jan 2003–Oct 2015

Network airlines, which operate a significant portion of their flights using at least one hub where connections are made for flights to down-line destinations or spoke cities, carry the largest portion of U.S. airline passengers. In 2015 the top three network airlines—United, Delta, and American—together carried 43.8 percent of total passengers traveling on U.S. airlines. The share of network airline passengers, however, has declined over the last decade, from 62.0 percent in 2003 to 50.2 percent in 2015. Meanwhile, low-cost airlines have carried an increasing number of passengers. In 2003 these airlines—Southwest, AirTran, JetBlue, Spirit, Frontier, Virgin America, and Allegiant—carried 16.1 percent of U.S. airline passengers. By 2015 these low-cost airlines carried 28.3 percent of passengers.

Figure 2-14 U.S. Airline Passengers by Carrier Type: 2003–2015

The busiest U.S. airport in 2015, measured by the number of enplanements, was Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport, followed by Los Angeles International Airport. The top 50 busiest airports accounted for 84.9 percent of the 798.2 million annual U.S. passenger enplanements.

Figure 2-15 Enplanements at the Top 50 U.S. Airports: 2015

From 2014 to 2015, all of the top 10 domestic markets experienced an increase in enplaned passengers. Atlanta, served by three airports, remained the top market with 43.9 million domestic enplanements in 2015. The largest growth was again seen in the Dallas/Fort Worth market, up 9.5 percent from 2014 to 2015.

Table 2-7 Top 10 Domestic City Markets by Number of Enplanements: 2014 and 2015

Southwest carried the most passengers from domestic airports of any airline in 2014 and 2015. Some of the 12.4 percent year-over-year growth can be attributed to the joint reporting of Southwest and AirTran following their 2011 merger. In second place, American and US Airways saw a 0.9 increase in domestic enplanements. US Airways, which merged with American in 2013, began reporting jointly with American in July 2015. Of the other top 10 airlines, only ExpressJet, a regional airline that provides contract service for mainline carriers, reported a decrease.

Table 2-8 Top 10 Airlines by Domestic Enplanements: 2014 and 2015

Public Transit

Transit riders in the United States took 10.3 billion unlinked passenger trips5 in 2015, a slight decline over the previous year. About half, 49.1 percent, of these trips occurred on transit buses, and 42.9 percent occurred on rail transit modes (commuter rail, heavy rail, light rail, and streetcar).

Figure 2-16 Transit Ridership: 2002–2015

Commuting by transit makes up a greater share of trips in larger metropolitan areas: 12.7 percent in areas with populations over 5 million, 5.9 percent in areas between 2.5 and 5 million, and 2.5 percent in areas between 1 and 2.5 million. At the highest extreme, 59.1 percent of workers living in the borough of Manhattan, in New York City, commute by transit and another 22.2 percent walk or bike.

Figure 2-17 Percent Commuting by Public Transportation in Metro Areas: 2010–2014

Motorcoach and Intercity Bus

The motorcoach industry, including charter, tour, sightseeing, airport shuttle, commuter, scheduled, and special operations services, provided 604 million person-trips in the United States and Canada in 2014, down 0.2 percent from 2013. The number of motorcoach carriers fell 4.6 percent, and the number of coaches fell 1.0 percent. This reduction in size was largely due to companies that went out of business, merged with other companies, or were acquired by larger companies. Although the motorcoach industry decreased in size, the number of passenger trips per motorcoach increased every year since 2010. The average motorcoach completed 11.5 percent more passenger trips in 2014 than in 2010.

Table 2-9 Motorcoach Carriers, Coaches, Passenger-Miles, and Trips: 2010–2014

The intercity bus industry served an estimated 60.9 million passengers in 2015, up 22.0 percent since 2010. The growth in intercity bus travel is largely due to the growing popularity of discount city-to-city, Chinatown, and Latino-oriented bus operations. While the number of trips on conventional service operators, such as Greyhound and Peter Pan, remained fairly constant, these alternative bus operators saw ridership nearly double.

Figure 2-18 Intercity Bus Passenger Trips: 2010–2015

Waterborne Travel

U.S. ferries carried an estimated 115 million passengers and just over 30 million vehicles in 2013. Washington, New York, and California had the greatest number of ferry passengers, accounting for 22.6, 11.6, and 8.8 percent of total passengers, respectively. Ferries in Washington carried the greatest proportion of vehicles as a percent of total vehicle boardings (9.3 percent), followed by Louisiana (3.7 percent) and Alaska (2.9 percent). The states with the most ferry vessels were California (53 vessels), Massachusetts (49 vessels), Washington (46 vessels), New York (45), New Jersey (39), and North Carolina (30). Nearly all of the vessels carried passengers (95.0 percent), while less than half carried vehicles (47.1 percent), and less than a quarter carried freight (22.2 percent).

Figure 2-19 Average Number of Ferry Passengers and Vehicles: 2013

Passenger Rail

Amtrak is the primary operator of intercity passenger rail service in the United States. Ridership on Amtrak has been growing since 2000, reaching a record 31 million passengers in fiscal year 2012 and has remained relatively stable since.

Figure 2-20 Amtrak Ridership: FY2000–FY2015

In fiscal year 2015, 12 of the Nation’s 25 busiest Amtrak stations served the Northeast Corridor. Passengers along the Northeast Corridor accounted for well over one-third of systemwide ridership. The busiest station within the entire Amtrak network was New York City’s Penn Station. Ridership was also high in Chicago as well as at several locations in California and the Pacific Northwest.

Figure 2-21 Top 25 Busiest Amtrak Stations: FY2015

Figure 2-22 Amtrak Stations Along the Northeast Corridor: FY2015

Foreign Travel

In 2014 U.S residents made 68.3 million overnight trips to other countries, a 12.3 percent increase from 2000. Over half, 54.9 percent, of overnight international travel by U.S. residents was to neighboring countries: 25.4 million visits to Mexico and 12.1 million visits to Canada. The busiest month for overnight international trips in 2014 was July (7.6 million), and the least busy was February (4.4 million).

U.S. residents made 30.8 million overnight visits to countries outside of North America in 2014. Between 2000 and 2014, travel to overseas countries grew by 14.6 percent. Travel to Europe fell by 9.4 percent, while visits to the Middle East nearly tripled since 2000.

Table 2-10 Top 10 International Travel Destinations Visited by U.S. Residents: 2000 and 2014

A record 74.7 million foreign travelers visited the United States in 2014, up 6.9 percent from the previous year. International visitation grew every year since the end of the recession in 2009. The largest visitor markets in 2014 were Canada (30.7 percent) and Mexico (23.2 percent).

Figure 2-23 Foreigner Visits by Main Markets: 2000–2014

Travelers from countries outside of North America accounted for 46.1 percent of international visitation in 2014. The top tourist-generating countries outside North America were the United Kingdom (5.3 percent), Japan (4.8 percent), Brazil (3.0 percent), and China (2.9 percent). Combined with Canada and Mexico, these six markets accounted for 70.0 percent of all 2014 international visits. In 2000 China was the 24th largest market for international visitors to the United States. By 2014 visitation from China increased by over 700 percent, and the country is now the 6th largest market.

Table 2-11 Top 10 Countries Sending Tourists to the United States: 2000 and 2014

Although Canada and Mexico are the largest visitor markets, incoming persons at the U.S.-Canada and U.S.-Mexico land borders have declined since 2000. In 2015, 76.8 percent of incoming person crossings were along the U.S.-Mexico border, and 23.2 percent of crossings occurred through ports of entry along the U.S.-Canada border. Along the U.S.-Canada border, person crossings reached a low of 55.0 million crossings in 2015.

Figure 2-24 Index of Incoming Persons Crossing Through U.S. Land Borders: 2000–2015

In 2015 more than one million persons crossed into the United States through each of 34 border ports of entry: 20 along the U.S.–Mexico border and 14 along the U.S.–Canada border. Texas is home to 11 Customs border ports of entry with a total of 82.7 million person crossings. Along the U.S.–Mexico border, California had the second most person crossings with 72.4 million persons crossing at 6 ports of entry. Along the U.S.–Canada border, the State of New York had the greatest number of crossings with 17.8 million persons crossing at 6 ports of entry. Washington had the second highest number of crossings with 13.6 million persons crossing at 15 ports of entry.

There were 23 airports in 2015 with more than one million incoming passengers from international origins. New York (JFK), Miami, and Los Angeles airports received the most international passengers, with 14.9, 10.5, and 10.0 million passengers, respectively. From 2014 to 2015, the largest increase in international passengers was at Orlando International Airport, up 18.3 percent, with Seattle-Tacoma International Airport second at 17.8 percent. Charlotte Douglas International Airport had the greatest decrease in international passengers, down 4.4 percent.

Figure 2-25 Persons Traveling Into the United States at Land Border Crossings and International Airports: 2015


1 In the National Household Travel Survey passenger-miles estimates differ from person-miles traveled estimates (see footnote 2). Passenger-miles are the cumulative sum of the distances ridden by each passenger and do not include mileage accrued by the vehicle operator and crew. A passenger-mile denotes one passenger transported one mile.

2 Person-miles traveled (PMT) is an estimate of the aggregate distances traveled by all persons, including mileage accrued by the vehicle operator and crew, on a given trip based on the estimated transportation-network-miles traveled on that trip. The National Household Travel Survey measures PMT by all modes of travel, including private vehicle, transit, walking, and biking.

3 American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), Commuting in America 2013 (October 2013), available as of March 2015.

4 This count does not include bike-share systems operated by a college or university and/or operating exclusively on a college or university campus and does not include private rentals.

5 Unlinked passenger trips are the number of passengers who board public transportation vehicles. Passengers are counted each time they board vehicles no matter how many vehicles they use to travel from their origin to their destination.