The Newest Americans, Getting Off the BusTanvi Misra 11:52 AM ET
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.)