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US Public Transportation Use Hits Peak Not Seen Since the 1950s


Washington D.C. Metro / Wikipedia

According to a new report by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), Americans took 10.7 billion trips on trains, subways, light rail, and buses in 2013, the highest public transit ridership since 1956. For the eighth year in a row, public transportation use on all sorts of transportation systems passed 10 billion trips. More great news: vehicle miles traveled (VMT), an indicator of car use, is essentially flat.

These numbers reflect broader transportation trends: Since 1995, the U.S. population has grown 20 percent, but public transit use has increased 37 percent, while VMT is only up 23 percent. Public transit use has increased far faster than population growth while VMT has largely mirrored population growth.

APTA President and CEO Michael Melaniphy said: "There is a fundamental shift going on in the way we move about our communities.  People in record numbers are demanding more public transit services and communities are benefiting with strong economic growth."

Here are the details by public transit type:

Subway and elevated train ridership increased 2.8 percent, with more than half of rail systems reporting increases.

Commuter rail use grew 2.1 percent, with 20 out of 28 systems showing an increase. A number of commuter rail systems saw triple or double increases. "With a new rail line that opened in December 2012, commuter rail in Salt Lake City, UT, saw an increase of 103.3 percent.  The following five commuter rail systems saw double digit increases in 2013: Austin, TX (37.3 percent); Harrisburg-Philadelphia, PA (33.9 percent); Anchorage, AK (30.0 percent); Lewisville, TX (23.0 percent); Stockton, CA (19.9 percent); Minneapolis, MN (12.5 percent); and Portland, OR (10.3 percent).

According to the report, light rail (modern streetcars, trolleys, and heritage trolleys) ridership grew just 1.6 percent, with 17 out of 27 systems reporting increases. "Systems that showed double digit increases in 2013 were located in the following cities:  New Orleans, LA (28.9 percent); Denver, CO (14.9 percent); and San Diego, CA (10.4 percent).

Bus ridership was more mixed. In cities with populations below 100,000, bus use was up 3.8 percent, but, nationally, bus ridership was down a slight 0.1 percent.

APTA believes the overall increase in national transit ridership is a sign of an emerging economic recovery. "When more people are employed, public transportation ridership increases, since nearly 60 percent of the trips taken on public transportation are for work commutes."

But public transit also provides the opportunity to reach jobs, so investment in public transit may be helping to improve local economic and job growth. Melaniphy told The New York Times: "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."

Public transit use may only continue to go up given "taxpayers are increasingly willing to finance public transportation improvements," said Melaniphy. "In the last two years, more than 70 percent of transit tax initiatives have succeeded."

Todd Litman, an analyst at the Victoria Transport Policy Institute in Victoria, British Columbia, explained to The New York Times that more and more Americans would prefer to drive less and get around by walking, cycling, or using public transit if high-quality options are available. These new "consumer preferences are a result of increasing urbanization, an aging population, and environmental and health concerns."

However, a recent report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group found that the real reason why VMT has fallen so dramatically in 46 states since 2007 is younger people aren't buying as many cars.