Public Transport Booms in the Recession

Soaring gas prices lured Americans out of their cars and onto public transportation, adding up to a five percent increase in ridership in the first three months of 2012, the most significant 1st quarter increase since 1999.  According to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA),  Americans took almost 125 million more rides on public transit in the first three months of 2012 than they did in the same timeframe last year.  Ridership declined following the September 11, 2001, terrorist acts and had remained more or less stagnant until last year.

“More people are choosing to save money by taking public transportation when gas prices are high,” said Michael Melaniphy, APTA president.  Gas prices aren’t the only reason for the growth, Melaniphy said.  With local economies rebounding, more people are commuting to new jobs, some of them on public transportation, he said.  “As we look for positive signs that the economy is recovering, it’s great to see that we are having record ridership at public transit systems throughout the country.”

“There are a number of reasons why more Americans are using public transportation,” according to Melaniphy.  “For example, public transportation systems are delivering better, reliable service and the use of real-time technology, which many systems use, makes it easy for riders to know when the next bus or train will arrive.”  Melaniphy said the growing public transit ridership should encourage lawmakers to reach a deal on transportation spending.  Congress has been negotiating on a possible compromise on transportation spending for some time.  “As Congress is negotiating a federal surface transportation bill that is now more than 2 ½ years overdue, our federal representatives need to act to ensure that public transportation systems will be able to meet the growing demand,” Melaniphy said.  “It’s obvious from the surge in public transit ridership in the first quarter that Americans need and want public transportation.”

The federal Energy Information Administration said that U.S. gas demand fell to a 11-year low in the 1st quarter, at less than 8.5 million barrels a day; that was 1.5 percent less than the 2011 1st quarter average.  The drop came as the average nationwide price of regular-grade gasoline set a 1st quarter record of $3.60 a gallon, an increase of 9.6 percent when compared with last year.

APTA reported that all public transit modes saw 1st quarter increases, with light-rail use up by 6.7 percent and subways and elevated train ridership up by 5.5 percent.  Commuter rail ridership rose 3.9 percent, while bus ridership was up approximately 4.5 percent.

The fact that people are finding new jobs helped, said Melaniphy.  Ridership on heavy rail — subways and elevated trains — rose in 14 of 15 systems.  Use of light rail — streetcars and trolleys  rose in 25 of 27. And 34 of 37 large cities saw increases in bus ridership.  “It’s nationwide,” Melaniphy said, resulting in fuller trains and buses straining system capacity.

Fully 12 cities saw their highest ridership ever, including New York; Boston;  Oakland; San Diego; Charlotte; Tampa; Indianapolis; Ann Arbor, MI; Fort Myers, FL; Ithaca, NY; and Olympia, WA.