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Survey deep dive: immigrants and public transit

More transfers, less bank access, and different reasons for taking transit

June 27, 2024

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Immigrants make up an important base of ridership for lots of transit systems — in some cities, more than half of transit riders are immigrants! But no matter where you are, immigrant riders need a place around the decision-making table at local transit agencies, to make sure every community is well-served by public transit.

But what do immigrant riders actually need? How do their ridership patterns differ from those of non-immigrants? How can we even know what immigrants on public transit think about the service they rely on every day?

Well, all you have to do is ask.

Four times a year, our Ridership Happiness Benchmarking survey (RHB) asks riders in English, Spanish, and French what they think about public transit, and what their agency could do to make it better. We also include demographic questions, such as: “Do you consider yourself an immigrant to the country you live in?”

Across the US, almost 1 in 6 transit riders who answered our question say they’re an immigrant… across Canada, it’s almost 1 in 3.

And they have a lot to say.

So what do immigrant riders think about transit service?

More than half of immigrants said better real-time information would be the number one improvement that would get them to ride more often, followed by improved shelter at bus stops — numbers that match the sentiment of transit riders overall.

Source: Transit’s May 2024 Ridership Happiness Benchmarking survey

Though there are some commonalities, there are also some key differences in how immigrant riders use public transit.

For example: immigrant riders are slightly more likely to use public transit to commute to work or school, and less likely to use it for recreational trips, social visits, errands, and appointments, when compared with non-immigrant riders in both the US and Canada.

Source: Transit’s May 2024 Ridership Happiness Benchmarking survey
Respondents can choose more than one option

The most notable reason for this difference is that immigrant transit riders are more likely to be of working age than non-immigrants.

In Canada, immigrant transit riders are much more likely than non-immigrants to be between the ages of 18 and 44, whereas in the US, they’re more likely to be ages 45 to 64. The result: the average immigrant taking the bus to work in Canada is much younger than their counterpart in the US.

Age isn’t the only difference: the racial and ethnic background of transit-riding immigrants also varies significantly between the two countries. In the US, transit-riding immigrants are more likely than non-immigrants to be Hispanic or Asian; in Canada, they are far more likely to be Asian or Black.

Source: Transit’s May 2024 Ridership Happiness Benchmarking survey
Respondents can choose more than one option, which match Census categories in the US and Canada.

And while it’s no surprise that immigrant riders are more likely to have moved to the area where they live recently, a large share of immigrant and non-immigrant riders alike say they moved to the area “many years ago.”

It’s a helpful reminder that the needs of newcomers can differ from those of long-term immigrants.

Source: Transit’s May 2024 Ridership Happiness Benchmarking survey

It also makes sense that transit agencies in the cities and suburbs of immigrant-rich metro areas like Miami, Toronto, Vancouver, New York, and Los Angeles top the list when it comes to the proportion of immigrant riders.

In addition to having large numbers of immigrants, these cities also have high housing costs. This can be a particular challenge for immigrants, since they tend to have lower incomes than non-immigrants. In Canada, 49% of immigrant riders who answered our question about household income earned less than $30,000 a year, compared with 35% of non-immigrant riders.

This income disparity often pushes many immigrants farther from the core of large cities where rents tend to be higher. Just look at Toronto, where the suburban transit systems in nearby Brampton and Mississauga reported higher rates of immigrant ridership than the system in Toronto proper.

Source: Transit’s May 2024 Ridership Happiness Benchmarking survey

The result: immigrant transit riders report that they are more likely to make trips that span multiple transit systems. In the US, 52% of immigrant riders said they recently made a connection to another public transit system in their area, compared to just 38% of non-immigrant riders.

Immigrant riders are also less likely to have access to bank accounts, which has big implications for fare payment features like pre-paid debit cards and in-person cash loading. This is especially relevant in the US, where 24% of immigrant respondents who answered our question said they didn’t have an account with a bank or credit union, compared with 14% of non-immigrant riders. 

Immigrant riders are also less likely to own a car or have access to one: just 16% of immigrant respondents reported owning a car, compared with 23% among non-immigrant riders.

This combination of factors highlights the need for policies like Ontario’s One Fare program, which uses the Toronto region’s contactless Presto card system to eliminate cross-agency transfer penalties. It’s a change that offers an enormous benefit for immigrant transit riders specifically.

Immigrant transit riders are often overlooked in transit planning and policy discussions. But newcomers and long-term residents alike make up a significant group of transit users, with a wide diversity of demographic profiles and trip needs.

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