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US Public Transport Sees Record 10.5 Billion Trips In 2012

We dedicate a lot of metaphorical column inches to covering clean forms of transportation such as electric vehicles and the ever popular bicycle. Both hold an important position in the future to come, for the environmentally conscious and the financially conscious.

The general populace, however, are not expected to suddenly up and convert themselves to a new way of living. The reality is, if a country’s leaders and politicians can’t seem to find common ground when it comes to the environment, how can we expect the average citizen to do so.

Which is why public transport is such an important aspect of greener modes of transport, and according to new data released by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), the American public took 10.5 billion trips during 2012, the second highest ridership since 1957.

The figure puts 2012 at 154 million trips higher than 2011. Though, it is the seventh year in a row that more than 10 billion trips were taken on public transport networks across the country.

10.5 Billion Rides on Public Transport in 2012

Bus riders via Shutterstock

“Every mode of public transportation showed an increase in ridership,” said APTA President and CEO Michael Melaniphy. “Public transit ridership grew in all areas of the country – north, south, east, and west — in small, medium and large communities, with at least 16 public transit systems reporting record ridership.”

“Considering the devastating impact of Hurricane Sandy on some of the nation’s largest systems, this record level of ridership is truly significant,” Melaniphy added.

Concerning Hurricane Sandy, APTA believes that the superstorm disrupted 74 million trips when public transit systems from Washington, DC to Boston were shut down due to Hurricane Sandy and the blizzard that followed the next week.

Explaining the Ridership Increase

Understanding the increase in public transport ridership is not such a mystery these days, as Melaniphy explains:

“Two big reasons for the increased national transit ridership are high, volatile gas prices and in certain localities, a recovering economy with more people returning to work. Public transportation saves people money, and people save even more so when gas prices spike. Also, since nearly 60 percent of trips taken on public transportation are for work commutes, it makes sense that ridership increases in areas where the economy has improved and new jobs have been added.”

There is more to what is going on, though, than just hard economic times and gas prices. Michael Melaniphy believes there is “a sea change going on in the way that people look at transportation.”

“Americans want travel choices; they want to be able to choose the best travel option for their lives. This is an exciting time for the public transportation industry as more and more Americans support it and want it.”

Public Transport Breakdown

Light rail saw an increased ridership of 4.5% in 2012, with 21 out of 28 transit systems reporting increases. Light rail, for the sake of this study, refers to modern streetcars, trolleys, and heritage trolleys. Specific increases centred upon the new rail line extension in Hampton, Virginia which opened in August 2011 — it saw an increase of 154% in 2012.

Light rail systems that saw a double-digit increase include: Memphis, TN (28.4%); Dallas, TX (20.8%); Los Angeles, CA (18.5%); Salt Lake City, UT (14.7%); Pittsburgh, PA (14.7%); and Seattle, WA – Sound Transit (10.7%).

Heavy rail systems saw increases as well, with the following cities reporting the highest increases in 2012: Cleveland, OH (9.7%); San Francisco, CA (7.8%); Miami, FL (5.2%); Chicago, IL (4.3%); and Los Angeles, CA (3.7%).

Commuter rail ridership increased by 0.5% nationally in 2012, with 18 out of 28 systems reporting increases. Specifically, the following five commuter rail systems saw double-digit increases: Austin, TX (26.8%); Salt Lake City, UT (14.7%); Stockton, CA (14.0%); San Carlos, CA (13.0%); and Seattle, WA (10.5%).

Large bus systems also saw an increase, 1% nationally with 29 out of 38 large bus systems reporting increases during 2012, though with no increases in the double digits.

National Support for Public Transport Investment

Another nugget of good news to come from the APTA research, according to Melaniphy, is that Americans are beginning to show more support for public transport investment, seen in part through the large number of transit-orientated ballot initiatives passed during 2012.

“Last year 49 out of 62 transit-oriented state and local ballot initiatives passed,” said Melaniphy. “That means there was a nearly 80 percent passage rate. This extremely high rate of success demonstrates how important public transportation is to people and to communities.”

Last September, we reported on a bipartisan poll which found that most Americans “want more transportation options, think their community would benefit from improved public transport, and support local investment in public transit,” with 59% of Americans feeling the transportation system is “outdated, unreliable and inefficient.”

Unsurprising, considering that the public transport networks of many western countries are often relegated to second-class status and deprived of critical support and funding. But as the Texas Transportation Institute discovered earlier this year, public transport can be very helpful. In a report released in February of this year, the TTI found that “public transit reduced road delays by 865 million hours in 2011, and avoided the consumption of 450 million gallons of fuel.”

Again in February, APTA found that public transport saved customers $826 a month over taking the car.

The biggest monthly saving goes to New York transit riders, with a savings of $1,225 a month. Riding public transport in San Francisco and Boston also saves more than $1,000 a month.

The full APTA report can be seen here (PDF) with all sorts of data goodness for you stats-geeks out there.

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