US Public Transportation Trips Topped 10.4 Billion in 2011

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American use of public transportation reached 10.4 billion trips in 2011, the second highest annual ridership amount since 1957, according to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA).

This figure represents a 2.3 percent increase over 2010 ridership, and was the sixth year in a row that more than 10 billion trips were taken on public transportation systems in the United States.

Rising Gas Prices and Economy a Factor

An improving economy and rising gasoline prices drove the increase in ridership, according to the APTA. “Since nearly 60 percent of trips taken on public transportation are for work commutes, it’s not surprising to see ridership increase where the economy has improved,” said Michael Melaniphy, APTA president and CEO. Indeed, vehicle miles of travel declined by 1.2 percent in 2011.

Surprisingly, the jump in public transit ridership was not confined to big cities with existing subway or bus systems. Ridership increases were seen in all-sized communities, and the largest rate of growth was in rural communities with populations under 100,000. In those areas, public transit use grew 5.4 percent.

Riding the Rails

Rail travel seems to be the biggest winner in 2011. Light rail ridership, including streetcars and trolleys, increased 4.9 percent, with both the King County, Washington (37.2 percent) and Dallas, Texas (31.2 percent) systems leading the way.

Heavy rail ridership, meaning subways and elevated trains, increased 3.3 percent, with Cleveland, Ohio (12.3 percent) and San Juan, Puerto Rico (12 percent) in the lead. Commuter rail ridership, meaning traditional trains, increased 2.5 percent, with Austin, Texas jumping an incredible 169 percent due to a new rail line extension. Nashville, Tennessee also saw a notable increase of 33 percent.

Even More to Come?

While the number of Americans ditching their cars for public transportation keeps climbing, we may be on the verge of a massive shift. A recent Gallup Poll found that gas prices of $5.30 would be the tipping point that forces most Americans to make significant changes in the way they live their lives.

That figure may seem inconceivable to most people, but with four states already in the $4-per gallon club and the national average hovering over $3.80 per gallon, it looks like public transit ridership will continue to climb through 2012.

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