Cars, Not Trains or Planes Dominate Northeast Corridor Travel

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Northbound on the Northeast Corridor between Trenton and Newark

For years, Amtrak has been publicizing its large market share compared with planes in the Northeast Corridor, which covers the major metropolitan air markets of Washington to Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Providence and Boston. Amtrak’s Acela fast train provides quick service on the route, and its somewhat slower Northeast Regional trains make stops at locations less convenient to airline travel. Yet its overall share is much lower once all the transportation forms are included.

Amtrak indicates that it has 70 percent of the combined air-rail market in the Northeast Corridor.

The Northeast Corridor Intercity Travel Study (published by the Northeast Corridor Commission) confirms the impressive rail market shares relative to the airlines in the Northeast Corridor. It is likely that nearly all this inter-metropolitan city travel is on Amtrak, though a share of it is on the multiple commuter rail services that operate, principally feeding New York's Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan.

This article summarizes data from the markets reported upon to provide a provisional estimate of travel market shares by mode along Amtrak’s principal Northeast Corridor, route, which will be referred to as the I-95 Northeast Corridor. Each of the major markets is on Interstate 95, which parallels the route of Amtrak’s Acela. (Washington-Baltimore-Trenton-Philadelphia-New York-Bridgeport/Stamford-New Haven-New London-Providence and Boston).

What the Study Includes: The study includes rail and bus trips “along the NEC (Northeast Corridor) which connect distinct metropolitan areas,” as well as automobile trips over 30 miles. The study further includes all commercial air travel. Data is provided between the 25 largest “sub-market” pairs (such as Philadelphia-New York). This article summarizes data for the reported submarkets located along the I-95 Northeast Corridor (Note), excluding reported trips within the metropolitan areas as defined by the Office of Management and Budget.

Estimating Travel Shares Between Major Airline Markets

Between the major airline markets of the Northeast Corridor Amtrak commands a 63 percent share of the combined rail-air market. This includes services operating between New York and both Washington/Baltimore and Boston/Providence as well as between Boston/Providence and both Washington/Baltimore and Philadelphia.

But there is a lot more travel along the Northeast Corridor than by trains and planes.

When buses are included the market share of rail among the commercial travel modes falls to 41 percent. Buses carry 34 percent, while airlines carry 25 percent (Figure 1). But the “elephant in the room” is the car. Cars carry much more Northeast Corridor travel that any of the three other modes. Between the major metropolitan air markets, cars account for 78 percent of travel, more than 3.5 times the combined rail, air and bus ridership (Figure 2).

The Entire I-95 Northeast Corridor

More than one-half (56 percent) of the reported ridership along the I-95 Northeast Corridor either begins or ends outside the major air markets. In these markets, the air market share is zero, with the entire market divided between cars, trains and buses. Much of this travel begins or ends in Philadelphia, which is too close to New York and Washington/Baltimore to attract significant air travel.

Trains do even better in the commercial market along the entire I-95 Northeast Corridor than between the major air markets. Trains carry 58 percent of travel, buses 28 percent and the airlines 14 percent (Figure 3). But once you expand the scope it’s the car that is dominant, with 81 percent of the travel. The auto share is seven times that of rail (12 percent) , which is more than four times that of air and about double that of buses (Figure 4).

Buses: The Big Surprise

Over the past two decades, buses have become far more important in the I-95 Northeast Corridor. Now it is estimated that buses carry more passengers than planes and nearly 45 percent as many as trains. A number of articles have been written on the rise of Northeast Corridor bus service by DePaul University’s Joseph Schwieterman and Randal O’Toole of the Cato Institute. I described a round trip from Washington to New York on a “Chinatown bus” a couple of years ago.

The Northeast Corridor: A "New York Story"

The I-95 Northeast Corridor is dominated by New York. This is to be expected. New York is the world’s 8th largest urban area, with a population half that of the other metropolitan areas covered in this article. According to the report, most of all intercity trips by all modes either begin or end in Greater New York. This includes 76 percent by auto, 91 percent by rail, 64 percent by rail and 91 percent by bus. As in national transit statistics, the Northeast Corridor is a "New York story" (Figure 5).

Moreover, it remains, at the end of the day. principally about cars. While City trips are more by rail and bus than suburban trips, cars dominate travel to and from both the City and the suburbs. Among intercity trips to and from the suburbs, 78 percent are by car, with 58 percent of City oriented trips also by car (Figure 6). Even in the Northeast, with its legendary urban cores, and strong train culture, the car remains dominant.

Note: The 25 sub-markets do not conform precisely to metropolitan areas as delineated by the Office of Management and Budget. In one case, for example, Trenton (a separate metropolitan area) is combined with Burlington County, New Jersey (part of the Philadelphia metropolitan area). Sub-markets that include Trenton/Burlington County are excluded from this analysis. The Boston and Providence metropolitan areas are combined into a single sub-market, as are the Washington and Baltimore metropolitan areas. These combined sub-markets are included in the analysis. New York suburban counties were excluded from the report. Other areas, such as New London, Connecticut and Wilmington, Delaware (part of the Philadelphia metropolitan area) were also excluded from the report.

Photo credit: Northbound on the Northeast Corridor between Trenton and Newark (2000). By author.

Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, an international public policy and demographics firm. He is a Senior Fellow of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism (US), Senior Fellow for Housing Affordability and Municipal Policy for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy (Canada), and a member of the Board of Advisors of the Center for Demographics and Policy at Chapman University (California). He is co-author of the "Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey" and author of "Demographia World Urban Areas" and "War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life." He was appointed by Mayor Tom Bradley to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, where he served with the leading city and county leadership as the only non-elected member. Speaker of the House of Representatives appointed him to the Amtrak Reform Council. He served as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, a national university in Paris.