Public Transit Ridership Hits Record Highs

Crowded Metro in DC
Crowds on the DC Metro system. Photo by Techne.

With the average price per gallon of gas down to $1.75 – the lowest in nearly five years – it may come as a surprise that Americans continue to ride buses, subways and commuter rail at record levels.

The American Public Transportation Association today announced that more than 2.8 billion trips were taken on public transportation from July to September this year – an increase of 6.5 percent over the same time period in 2007.

According to APTA:

This is the largest quarterly increase in public transportation ridership in 25 years.  Meanwhile, vehicle miles of travel (VMT) on the nation’s highways declined in the same period by 4.6 percent according to the Federal Highway Administration.

These trends are also notable considering that unemployment has increased (to 6.7% in November), which usually means people are less likely to take public transit. For example, during the Great Depression in the 1930s, transit patronage nationwide declined by more than 25 percent (see study: “The Factors Influencing Transit Ridership.”) A similar decline occurred among big cities that experienced job losses during the fiscal crisis of the 1970s.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THE FUTURE?

The Washington Post reports that today’s increased ridership could influence tomorrow’s decisions about transportation infrastructure.

“The trends are likely to boost support for more transit funds in the economic stimulus package that Congress will send to President-elect Barack Obama,” reporter Lena Sun writes. “With the economy in a recession, Obama pledged Saturday to create the largest public works construction program since the building of the federal interstate highway system in the 1950s.”

Indeed, APTA and the Community Transportation Association of America found that $8 billion in federal funds could start 559 “ready-to-go” projects for 170 public transit systems. “I urge Congress to move forward with an economic stimulus package that recognizes the value of investing in our nation’s public transportation infrastructure,” said APTA Chair Dr. Beverly Scott, according to a press release. “These projects will create new economic activity and put thousands of people to work.” You can read APTA and CTAA’s official policy agenda pushing for more public transportation here.

BUMPS ALONG THE ROAD

Despite increased demand for public transit, the ride isn’t easy for everyone – namely, transit agencies.

“Severe budget deficits and declining sales and property tax revenues have already forced many transit agencies to raise fares and cut service,” the Post says. “Dozens more are considering service reductions.”

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