Use of Public Transit in U.S. Reaches Highest Level Since 1956, Advocates Report

March 10, 2014

By JON HURDLEMARCH 10, 2014

PHILADELPHIA — More Americans used buses, trains and subways in 2013 than in any year since 1956 as service improved, local economies grew and travelers increasingly sought alternatives to the automobile for trips within metropolitan areas, the American Public Transportation Association said in a report released on Monday.

The trade group said in its annual report that 10.65 billion passenger trips were taken on transit systems during the year, surpassing the post-1950s peak of 10.59 billion in 2008, when gas prices rose to $4 to $5 a gallon.

The ridership in 2013, when gas prices were lower than in 2008, undermines the conventional wisdom that transit use rises when those prices exceed a certain threshold, and suggests that other forces are bolstering enthusiasm for public transportation, said Michael Melaniphy, the president of the association.

“Now gas is averaging well under $4 a gallon, the economy is coming back and people are riding transit in record numbers,” Mr. Melaniphy said in an interview. “We’re seeing a fundamental shift in how people are moving about their communities.”

From 1995 to 2013, transit ridership rose 37 percent, well ahead of a 20 percent growth in population and a 23 percent increase in vehicle miles traveled, according to the association’s data.

Stronger economic growth is playing an important role in the increased use of public transit, as more people are using the systems to get to an increasing number of jobs, the association reported, and transit agencies are nurturing growth by expanding their systems or improving services.

“We’re seeing that where cities have invested in transit, their unemployment rates have dropped, and employment is going up because people can get there,” Mr. Melaniphy said.

Overall public transit ridership increased by 1.1 percent from 2012, with the biggest gains in rail service and in bus service for smaller cities.

In New York, where use of all modes of transit in the Metropolitan Transportation Authority increased 3.6 percent last year, according to the data, ridership has been bolstered by falling unemployment and improved service, said Kevin Ortiz, a spokesman for the authority.

The system is also being increasingly used during off-peak times, especially by younger people, who are encouraged by promotions like free transfers between subways and buses and by a decline in crime in the city, Mr. Ortiz said.

In Denver, the Regional Transit District topped 101 million passenger trips last year, its most ever, helped by an improving economy and an increasing acceptance that public transit is an attractive alternative to the automobile, said Scott Reed, a spokesman for the district.

One of the challenges is simply getting people to try public transportation, Mr. Reed said, but when they do, “they find it is so much easier than they had feared.”

The 14-mile light-rail W Line connecting Denver, Lakewood and Golden, Colo., opened in April, and by the end of the year, it was carrying about 15,000 passengers a day, as planned. The line is part of a FasTracks expansion program, which will consist of 122 additional miles of light and commuter rail, 18 miles of a bus rapid transit system and a doubling of park-and-ride facilities, all scheduled for completion in 2016.

The estimated $7 billion cost is being paid for in part with a 0.4 percent sales tax, which voters approved in 2004. Nationally, taxpayers are increasingly willing to finance public transportation improvements, Mr. Melaniphy said.

In the last two years, more than 70 percent of transit tax initiatives have succeeded, he said.

Todd Litman, an analyst at the Victoria Transport Policy Institute in Victoria, British Columbia, said the new data were the latest indication of changing consumer preferences as a result of increasing urbanization, an aging population, and environmental and health concerns.

“A lot of people would prefer to drive less and rely more on walking, cycling and public transit, provided that those are high-quality options,” Mr. Litman said.

Correction: March 11, 2014

Because of an editing error, an article on Monday about the use of public transit in the United States having reached its highest level since 1956 misstated the number of passenger trips taken on transit systems in 2008. It was 10.59 billion, not million.

PHILADELPHIA — More Americans used buses, trains and subways in 2013 than in any year since 1956 as service improved, local economies grew and travelers increasingly sought alternatives to the automobile for trips within metropolitan areas, the American Public Transportation Association said in a report released on Monday.

The trade group said in its annual report that 10.65 billion passenger trips were taken on transit systems during the year, surpassing the post-1950s peak of 10.59 billion in 2008, when gas prices rose to $4 to $5 a gallon.

The ridership in 2013, when gas prices were lower than in 2008, undermines the conventional wisdom that transit use rises when those prices exceed a certain threshold, and suggests that other forces are bolstering enthusiasm for public transportation, said Michael Melaniphy, the president of the association.

“Now gas is averaging well under $4 a gallon, the economy is coming back and people are riding transit in record numbers,” Mr. Melaniphy said in an interview. “We’re seeing a fundamental shift in how people are moving about their communities.”

From 1995 to 2013, transit ridership rose 37 percent, well ahead of a 20 percent growth in population and a 23 percent increase in vehicle miles traveled, according to the association’s data.

Stronger economic growth is playing an important role in the increased use of public transit, as more people are using the systems to get to an increasing number of jobs, the association reported, and transit agencies are nurturing growth by expanding their systems or improving services.

“We’re seeing that where cities have invested in transit, their unemployment rates have dropped, and employment is going up because people can get there,” Mr. Melaniphy said.

Overall public transit ridership increased by 1.1 percent from 2012, with the biggest gains in rail service and in bus service for smaller cities.

In New York, where use of all modes of transit in the Metropolitan Transportation Authority increased 3.6 percent last year, according to the data, ridership has been bolstered by falling unemployment and improved service, said Kevin Ortiz, a spokesman for the authority.

The system is also being increasingly used during off-peak times, especially by younger people, who are encouraged by promotions like free transfers between subways and buses and by a decline in crime in the city, Mr. Ortiz said.

In Denver, the Regional Transit District topped 101 million passenger trips last year, its most ever, helped by an improving economy and an increasing acceptance that public transit is an attractive alternative to the automobile, said Scott Reed, a spokesman for the district.

One of the challenges is simply getting people to try public transportation, Mr. Reed said, but when they do, “they find it is so much easier than they had feared.”

The 14-mile light-rail W Line connecting Denver, Lakewood and Golden, Colo., opened in April, and by the end of the year, it was carrying about 15,000 passengers a day, as planned. The line is part of a FasTracks expansion program, which will consist of 122 additional miles of light and commuter rail, 18 miles of a bus rapid transit system and a doubling of park-and-ride facilities, all scheduled for completion in 2016.

The estimated $7 billion cost is being paid for in part with a 0.4 percent sales tax, which voters approved in 2004. Nationally, taxpayers are increasingly willing to finance public transportation improvements, Mr. Melaniphy said.

In the last two years, more than 70 percent of transit tax initiatives have succeeded, he said.

Todd Litman, an analyst at the Victoria Transport Policy Institute in Victoria, British Columbia, said the new data were the latest indication of changing consumer preferences as a result of increasing urbanization, an aging population, and environmental and health concerns.

“A lot of people would prefer to drive less and rely more on walking, cycling and public transit, provided that those are high-quality options,” Mr. Litman said.

Correction: March 11, 2014

Because of an editing error, an article on Monday about the use of public transit in the United States having reached its highest level since 1956 misstated the number of passenger trips taken on transit systems in 2008. It was 10.59 billion, not million.

A version of this article appears in print on March 10, 2014, on page A15 of the New York edition with the headline: Use of Public Transit in U.S. Reaches Highest Level Since 1956, Advocates Report.

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