More Americans used public transportation last year than they have any year in nearly six decades, the American Public Transportation Association said in a report released Monday. But ridership in the Washington region, where local officials say public transit expansion is needed, fell in 2014, the report said.
Americans took 10.8 billion trips on public transportation in 2014, according to the association of transit professionals, which advocates for public transportation. The overall increase is less than a percentage point from 2013, but marks the highest use of public transit in 58 years.
“People are changing their travel behavior and want more travel options,” Michael Melaniphy, the organization’s president and CEO said in a news release. “In the past people had a binary choice. You either took public transit, most likely a bus, or you drove a car. Now there are multiple options with subways, light rail, streetcars, commuter trains, buses, ferries, cars and shared use vehicles.”
The organization attributed ridership growth in some cities, including Atlanta, San Francisco, and Minneapolis to growing local economies that created more jobs and expanded the need for cheap transit options.
In at least five cities—like Denver and Salt Lake City—improved or expanded service also attracted more riders.
But in the Washington region, a metropolitan area notorious for its traffic congestion, public transportation use fell by 0.67 percent in 2014. Heavy rail, or Metro, saw the steepest drop at 0.84 percent.
“I think it’s probably reliability and cost,” said an Arlington resident who tweets under the handle @unsuckdcmetro. “But there’s an absolute narrative about it not being safe. How many smoke incidents have there been? The safety incidents are not helping [Metro].”
Metro officials have blamed the system’s declining ridership, in large part, on a federal policy that offers better tax incentives to people who drive to work than to those who take public transportation.
In 2013, the IRS lowered the amount private-sector workers are allowed to take out of their wages, before taxes, to cover public-transit fares to $130 a month from $250 a month. Federal employees who use public transportation can get a subsidy of up to $130 monthly without a pay deduction.
Chuck Bean, the executive director of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, said the shrinking transit benefits, Metro track maintenance issues, and a growth in the number of federal employees working from home have all contributed to the decline.
Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said that harsh winter weather, causing school and office closures, was also a factor.
But fare revenues are a critical component of the beleaguered transit agency’s financial model. To keep Metro funded, “the big employer in the region, the federal government, needs to make sure that they’re participating--either through the support of their employees or federal direct support of Metro,” Bean said.
Light rail options, which include streetcars, are also succeeding elsewhere, even as a nascent street car development project flounders in D.C.
In Minneapolis, light rail ridership picked up 57.4 percent with the opening of a new line.
Meanwhile the District Department of Transportation is weighing whether its yet-to-open line, in which the city has invested $200 million, is worth saving.
DDOT has blown through multiple deadlines to launch the new 2.2-mile line that has been built on H Street and Benning Road NE. The project has been beset by problems, including questions about whether it is safe.
A team from the American Public Transportation Association began a week-long inspection and analysis of D.C.’s streetcar program Monday.