Report: Americans ride public transit in record numbers

Expanded networks, increased service, urban living and economic recovery account for boom in 2013

Commuters ride the Number 4 Lexington Avenue Express subway train in New York City.
Getty Images

More Americans boarded public buses, trains and subways in 2013 than at any time since the suburbs began booming nearly 60 years ago, found a study published Monday by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA).

Nearly 10.7 billion trips in 2013, to be precise — the highest total since 1956. While the number of national vehicle miles traveled on roads increased 0.3 percent, public transportation use in 2013 increased by 1.1 percent, according to the study.

“As the highest annual ridership number since 1956, Americans in growing numbers want to have more public transit services in their communities,” Peter Varga, APTA Chair and CEO of the Grand Rapids’ transit authority in Michigan, said in a press release

“Public transportation systems nationwide — in small, medium, and large communities — saw ridership increases. Some reported all-time high ridership numbers.”

Expanding bus and train networks and increased service helped spur the growth, as did the nation's urban shift, the report found. Since 1995, public transit ridership has risen 37.2 percent, outpacing both population growth and the number of vehicle miles traveled on roads.

“There is a fundamental shift going on in the way we move about our communities,” said Michael Melaniphy, APTA president. "People are making a fundamental shift to having options" aside from a car in how they get around, he added. "This is a long-term trend. This isn't just a blip."

The economic recovery is another driver behind the increase in transit ridership. Nearly 60 percent of trips taken on public transportation in 2013 were for work commutes, the study found.

Transit ridership has now fully recovered from a dip caused by the Great Recession. With services restored following economy-driven cutbacks, the numbers appear set to continue what had been a steady increase.

Heavy rail (subways and elevated trains) ridership saw the biggest jump with 2.8 percent nationally in 2013. Increased service during peak hours in Miami accounted for the bulk of the jump, increasing local usage by 10.6 percent. Commuter rails also became more popular as ridership increased 2.1 percent nationally. A new rail line in Salt Lake City, Utah, which opened in 2012, registered more than double the number of passengers compared to last year. Light rail systems, such as modern streetcars, trolleys and heritage trolleys, usage increased 1.6 percent, according to the study.

Nationally, bus ridership remained stable, declining by 0.1 percent. But in cities with a population of below 100,000, the number of passengers increased by 3.8 percent.

Demand-response ridership, a flexible mode of public transit that doesn’t follow fixed routes or schedules, such as shared taxi or minibuses that pickup and deposit passengers along the way, increased by 0.5 percent in 2013.

Overall, the sprawling city of Houston had a large ridership gain. So did Los Angeles, Seattle, Miami, Denver and San Diego. The New York area's behemoth transit network saw the greatest gain, accounting for one in three trips nationally.

Transit advocates argue that the public increasingly values the ability to get around without a car. They offer as evidence the nation's urban shift and the movement to concentrate new development around transit hubs.

"People want to work and live along transit lines," Melaniphy said. "Businesses, universities and housing are all moving along those corridors."

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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