By Chris Zeilinger

A Snapshot of Public Transit in Small Urbanized Areas

July 30, 2020

In anticipation of this year’s CTAA Small Urban Network meeting, it’s interesting to take a look at a few foundational facts and figures about transit in urbanized areas with populations less than 200,000.
Source: Data from FTA’s National Transit Database

There are 319 urbanized areas with populations between 50,000 and 200,000, or “small-urban areas.” In addition, federal transit law treats the U.S. Virgin Islands as if that entire territory were an urbanized area with a population below 200,000. Currently, the District of Columbia, Rhode Island, Guam, American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands are the only states or equivalents with none of their population in small-urban areas. As an interesting aside, the Lake Tahoe basin of California and Nevada is treated by statute as if it were an urbanized area with a population greater than 200,000, even though almost no portion of the Tahoe basin is within any Census-designated urbanized area.

Urbanized areas are determined every ten years by the Census Bureau, based on decennial census results. Census has a detailed methodology for making these determinations, primarily drawing on concentrations of tracts and block groups with high population densities. Remember, Census does not take city, county or state jurisdictional boundaries into account when making these urbanized area determinations.

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) apportions Section 5307 formula funds to every one of the nation’s 320 small-urban areas (Census-designated plus Virgin Islands) on the basis of their relative shares of population and population density. These apportionments are made without regard to the presence or prevalence of public transit in these urban areas. Quite a few of these small-urban areas’ Section 5307 apportionments also include performance-based funding through the Small Transit Intensive Cities (STIC) tier of funding, which is tied to how small-urban areas’ transit system performance data compare to large-urban area transit benchmarks.

In the 2018 National Transit Database (NTD) reporting year, there were eleven urbanized areas for which no urban transit data were reported. These were:

  • Casa Grande, Ariz.
  • Lake Havasu City, Ariz.
  • Prescott Valley-Prescott, Ariz.
  • Conway, Ark.
  • Panama City, Fla.
  • Sebring-Avon Park, Fla.
  • Brunswick, Ga.
  • Dalton, Ga.
  • Valdosta, Ga.
  • Chambersburg, Pa.
  • Hilton Head Island, S.C.

Some of those urbanized areas actually have some level of urban or rural public transit, but any transit operations they may have had weren’t reported to the NTD in 2018. Others in that short list have launched some urban public transit in the years since 2018, and will find themselves reflected in future years’ NTD data.

To summarize the above, there are 320 Census-designated small-urban areas in the U.S., including the Virgin Islands. Of these urbanized areas, 309 had transit systems reporting data to the NTD in 2018.

Among the country’s 309 small-urban areas served by FTA-funded public transit, 162 – just over half – are served only by one public transit provider reporting to the NTD. But nearly half of all small-urban areas – 147, at last count – are served by two or more NTD-reporting public transit agencies. And quite a few of these small-urban areas are served by three or four transit agencies. In fact, there are six small-urban areas in which five transit providers report their data to the NTD: Camarillo, Calif., Simi Valley, Calif., Dover-Rochester, N.H.-Maine, Vineland, N.J., Burlington N.C., and Murfreesboro, Tenn.

Looking at this from another angle, 434 transit agencies reported operating in small-urban areas in 2018, also according to NTD data. This number represents the NTD-reporting agencies, and does not include subcontractors or other third-party partners in the provision of small-urban transit. The vast majority – 85 percent – of transit providers in small-urban areas serve only a single small-urbanized area, or maybe just serve one portion of a single urbanized area. On the other hand, 10 percent of small-urban transit agencies serve two small urbanized areas, and there are two dozen small-urban transit providers operating in three or more small urbanized areas.

What about these 434 providers of public transit in small-urban areas?

For the most part, the vast number of small-urban transit providers are either cities, counties, or transit-specific independent governmental entities. However, it’s actually a diverse network, as detailed below (this categorization is based on CTAA’s interpretation of NTD reporting agency information, and is subject to correction):

  • 152 units of city government (35.0 percent of network)
  • 65 units of county government (15.0 percent of network)
  • 131 transit-specific independent government entities, such as authorities, special purpose transit districts, etc. (30.2 percent of network)
  • 9 universities and colleges (2.1 percent of network)
  • 8 units of state government, excluding universities and colleges (1.8 percent of network)
  • 22 planning agencies, councils of governments or similar bodies (5.1 percent of network)
  • 2 tribal entities (0.5 percent of network)
  • 28 private nonprofit entities (6.5 percent of network)
  • 5 private for-profit entities (1.2 percent of network)
  • 9 public or private rail-specific operators (2.1 percent of network)
  • 3 other types of government organizations (0.7 percent of network)
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The Community Transportation Association of America (CTAA) and its members believe that mobility is a basic human right. From work and education to life-sustaining health care and human services programs to shopping and visiting with family and friends, mobility directly impacts quality of life.