In spite of natural disasters and budgetary cutbacks, public transportation in the U.S. had a record year in 2012. Much of that was driven by higher gas prices, increasingly heavy traffic and a recovering job market.
The rise of public transportation
According to a new report from the American Public Transportation Association, Americans took 10.52 billion trips last year on buses, subways and trains. That is an increase of 1.49 percent from the previous year, and the second-highest ridership total since 1957. The only recent year to surpass it was 2008, at the start of the Great Recession.
An increase was seen across a spectrum of transportation modes. Subways and heavy train ridership increased by 1.42 percent. People rode light rail conveyances 4.47 percent more. Commuter trains carried 0.52 percent more passengers. Bus ridership grew by 1.2 percent.
An increase is being seen all over the country. “We’re seeing record transit ridership on systems all over the country, in the Midwest, the East, the South, the North and the West,” said APTA president and CEO Michael Melaniphy.
In spite of cuts and disasters
The increase comes in spite of public transportation budget cuts and the ravages of Superstorm Sandy.
“More than 80 percent of transit systems have cut services, raised fares or considered it. Think about what ridership numbers would look like if they didn’t have to cut back,” said Melaniphy. “When Sandy hit, and the snowstorm that followed it, an estimated 74 million [transit] trips were lost, and yet we still had the second-highest ridership since 1957.”
Several reasons are driving the increase, which the APTA believes will continue to grow.
The price of gasoline
The volatile cost of gasoline is likely one of the key driving forces in the increase. “In the last 18 months or so, we’ve seen prices be very volatile,” Melaniphy said. “When you think about the impact of that on your budget, when you can’t count on your transportation costs being consistent day over day, week over week, that’s really hard on the budget.”
Another factor is increasingly dense traffic, which is driving more and more to seek alternate methods of getting around.
Going to work
But the numbers can also be seen as yet another indicator of an improving job market, as more and more Americans are commuting to work.
“You can’t get people back to work unless you can get them to work,” Melaniphy said. Almost 60 percent of all transit trips are taken by commuters going to and from their places of work, he explained.
“Ridership growth over the past several years has a lot to do with the recession trailing off, finally, and more people using our trains and buses to get to and from work,” said Bruce Gray, a spokesman for Washington state’s Sound Transit, whose ridership grew 12 percent in 2012 to more than 28 million, an all-time record. “If you add more jobs and higher gas prices, that equals higher ridership on all of our services.”