On March 10, 2014 the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) reported that public transportation use in the United States in 2013 rose to 10.7 billion trips – the highest number in 57 years. APTA and its predecessor organizations have collected ridership information since 1917. The highest U.S. public transit ridership number in history was 23.5 billion trips in 1946, a decade when many Americans did not own a car. The ownership of cars en masse came later and led to suburbs designed for car use and subsequent sprawl.
This ridership increase isn’t a one-year blip on the radar. If you look at the 18 year period from 1995-2013, public transportation ridership grew 37.2 percent, almost double the amount of the population growth at 20.3 percent. This is a long-term trend that shows that more and more Americans are using public transportation. APTA has used the 1995 number because after that year, ridership increased due to the passage of the landmark ISTEA legislation and other surface transportation bills which increased funding for public transportation.
More recent shifts in trends point to the growing demand for public transportation. Our analysis shows that the 2005 gas price shock, when prices first went to $3 for a gallon of gasoline, combined with demographic shifts including the Millennials’ desire for travel options and the Baby Boomers’ return to urban areas, have established consistent travel behaviors that led to the highest public transportation ridership since 1956.
Some critics have focused on ridership data from 2008-2013 and said that there was a decrease in per capita public transit ridership during these years. Their analysis misses an obvious and crucial factor– the recession and its subsequent impact on job growth. Employment levels in 2013 were only 0.85 percent above the 2008 level. Since the majority of public transit trips are work trips, employment levels have a greater impact on public transit ridership than population levels.
After the release of the 2013 U.S. public transit ridership numbers, some have said that public transit ridership in New York increased while ridership elsewhere declined. That statement is not true. While the growth in trips in New York outpaced the nation as a whole, many other systems across the country saw ridership gains last year and some reported all-time record ridership. Cities that have invested in high frequency public transportation and transit-oriented development policies are experiencing significant ridership growth. This trend is evident since the end of the recession; fully 59.3 percent of ridership growth during the period occurred outside of New York City.
Those who misinterpret data of public transportation use can lead people to believe that the public does not want public transportation. They state that public transit only makes up two to three percent of passenger trips. This is an incomplete picture because 45 percent of American households do not have access to any public transportation at all. Quite simply, if you don’t have access to public transit, you can’t use it. Access matters. We need to expand public transportation access so more people have travel choices. The percentage of public transportation use would be much higher if more people could use it.
Public transportation provides additional benefits for people who do not use it. It makes the entire transportation system work more efficiently. Every ten people on a bus or train in your community during rush hour means there are nine fewer cars on the roads. By providing extra capacity, public transportation use can move more people around metro areas, thereby increasing the efficiency of the entire transportation network. That means less traffic congestion, fewer carbon emissions, and a safer community for all.
We disagree with the contention that recent trends do not indicate a shift in American travel behavior. Increasingly Americans are moving to areas that have public transit services. More communities are being planned with public transit in mind to promote economic vitality.
The investment in public transportation in the last two decades has created and built new services around the country. The cities that have invested in public transportation are reaping the benefits of ridership and economic growth. Additional investment is urgently needed in transportation infrastructure so that our communities and nations can prosper.