This is an adaptation of sections of my final fellowship paper found here.
Ralph Buehler and John Pucher in their paper Demand for Public Transport in Germany and the USA: An Analysis of Rider Characteristics, have analyzed and compared ridership trends in Germany and the US. In the US, the biggest share of transit trips is commuting to work, (35% in 2008/2009, Figure 3), potentially lower than in 2001/2002 due to the recession. Interesting to note is that trips for personal and family visits (shopping, doctor visits, daycare, family events, etc.) rose to almost the same level of commuting (32%) from eight years earlier (29%). Social and recreational trips also increased over eight years to 20% of all trips. In Germany, trip purposes stayed mainly the same over the same eight year period.
In Germany, riders under the age 24 have the highest percentage of all trips (16-17% in 2008/2009) taken by transit, as opposed to the US where they are similarly as low as other age groups (1-3% in 2008/2009). This may be due to the large fleets of suburban school buses, whereas German students primarily use public transportation (which may increase their acceptance of transit as adults). A key difference is that those over the age of 65 in Germany ride transit at a higher rate than those 25-64. In the US, this age group uses transit even less than working age adults (1.4% compared to 2%), perhaps due to the importance of work-based transit trips.
To no surprise, people with no car in their household had the highest transit usage in both countries (Figure 4). But in households with one or more cars per driver, transit ridership in the US was almost non-existent, as opposed to in Germany where it was still an important mode, perhaps due to the attractiveness of transit or to the costs of driving in Germany. People in the lowest income quartile in both countries had the highest ridership rates, however what is most surprising is that Germans in the highest quartile rode transit about twice as much as Americans in the lowest quartile.
This last fact cannot be stressed enough, and may depend on many factors. Perhaps there is some truth to the “rail-bias” idea. Perhaps land uses and higher quality service in general make transit more convenient for everyone in Germany. It is also possible that the ease of car ownership and driving, coupled with the lower quality service in most of the US actually keep low-income people from using transit.