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Public Transit Ridership Hits Highest Level in 52 Years

Ridership on public transportation systems, including the Washington area's Metro, climbed as Americans took 10.7 billion trips last year.
Ridership on public transportation systems, including the Washington area's Metro, climbed as Americans took 10.7 billion trips last year. (By Bill O'Leary -- The Washington Post)
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By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 9, 2009

Despite job losses and falling gasoline prices, record numbers of Americans rode subways, buses and commuter rail last year, boosting public transportation ridership to its highest level in 52 years, according to a survey to be released today by the American Public Transportation Association.

Advocates say the ridership figures show growing support for public transportation. They hope to use that support to push for federal funding beyond the $8.4 billion in stimulus money set aside for transit. More investment in transit not only helps the economy, advocacy groups say, but also helps the environment and fosters energy independence.

"Now, more than ever, the value of public transportation is evident, and the public has clearly demonstrated that they want and need more public transit services," said APTA President William W. Millar.

"These are investments that pay off for decades and decades to come," he said. Boston opened the nation's first subway in 1897. More than a century later, Millar noted, "I can still ride it today."

The 10.7 billion transit trips Americans took last year amounted to a 4 percent increase over trips taken in 2007; at the same time, Americans drove measurably less, according to the Transportation Department.

The increase is significant because cheaper gas and job losses tend to drive transit ridership down. Almost 60 percent of transit riders go to work.

The APTA survey found that ridership increased last year on all modes of transit all across the country. Ridership rose on 14 of the nation's subway systems (3.5 percent), 20 of 21 commuter rail systems (4.7 percent) and 20 of 26 light-rail systems (8.3 percent). Some of the big increases were in places such as South Florida, Dallas and Salt Lake City, not necessarily among the largest communities served by transit, officials said.

Bus service increased 3.9 percent, but ridership on systems serving populations under 100,000 rose 9.3 percent, the survey found. Riders in those systems typically wait up to an hour for their buses, officials said.

In the Washington region, Metrorail, the Virginia Railway Express and MARC commuter rail also reported ridership increases.

Transit officials said that even with fewer people going to work and cheaper gas, riders are taking transit to save money. On Oct. 1, a gallon of regular gas was $3.61, compared with $4.11 a gallon on July 17. By year's end, the national average was $1.61.

In South Florida, average weekday ridership on the Tri-Rail commuter line is about 15,000 trips, a small number compared with the hundreds of thousands of vehicles that cram Interstate 95 every day between Fort Lauderdale and Miami. But ridership on Tri-Rail, which runs from Miami to West Palm Beach, rose 18 percent in the fourth quarter and nearly 23 percent for the year. Reflecting a nationwide trend, more riders climbed aboard in the second and third quarters last year as gasoline prices skyrocketed, and the number stayed even when prices at the pump fell. The trend is holding, with ridership up about 8 percent in January over the same month last year, Tri-Rail spokeswoman Bonnie Arnold said.

The Dallas light-rail system, which has an average weekday ridership of 70,000 trips, registered a ridership increase of more than 8 percent in the fourth quarter and more than 10 percent for the year.

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