U.S. public transportation surges as Americans return to work

WASHINGTON Mon Mar 11, 2013 12:01pm EDT

Two cars of the 'people mover' public rail are seen covered with a advertisement for the 2014 Chevy Silverado pickup truck as they move past General Motors World Headquarters in Detroit, Michigan January 11, 2013. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

Two cars of the 'people mover' public rail are seen covered with a advertisement for the 2014 Chevy Silverado pickup truck as they move past General Motors World Headquarters in Detroit, Michigan January 11, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Rebecca Cook

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The number of Americans commuting by public transportation rose to the second highest level on record last year, as more people returned to work, according to an annual survey released by the leading U.S. transit association on Monday.

The growth in ridership would have been even stronger, if Superstorm Sandy had not stranded people and shut down transit along the East Coast, where public transportation is most concentrated, American Public Transportation Association President Michael Melaniphy said.

Altogether, U.S. transit ridership rose 1.49 percent, with passengers taking 10.52 billion trips on trains, buses and commuter rail in 2012.

The increase was universal across the different modes of transit.

There were 1.42 percent more trips on heavy rail such as subways, 4.47 percent more on light rail, and 0.52 percent more on commuter rail than in 2011. Meanwhile, bus ridership grew 1.2 percent. Some of the light rail rise came from cities expanding or creating lines.

In the final quarter of the year, though, transit use was lower than in the fourth quarter of 2011, a reflection of Superstorm Sandy hitting in the fall. In November, New York and New Jersey, the states struck most by the storm, lost at least 41,600 jobs.

Rising fuel prices and a dislike of traffic contributed to the largest transit ridership since 2008, which was the highest year on records dating back to 1957, Melaniphy said.

Nonetheless, he added, nearly 60 percent of all transit trips are taken by people going to work.

"You can't get people back to work unless you can get them to work," Melaniphy said.

While the U.S. unemployment rate is stuck above the 6.5 percent that most economists consider healthy, it has been dropping for more than a year. The rate ended 2012 at 7.8 percent, well below where it ended 2011, 8.5 percent, according to Labor Department statistics.

The association points to places such as Seattle, Washington, where transit rides rose 11.8 percent over the year as the metropolitan area added more than 30,000 jobs.

At least 15 transit systems experienced record ridership last year, according to APTA. While some were in cities with well-established public transportation, such as Boston, Massachusetts, others were in areas associated more with freeways and commuting by car - namely Riverside and San Bernardino, California.

The question hanging over the industry is whether transit can meet mounting demand. Traditionally, fares only represent part of the agencies' capital and operating budgets, with federal, state and local governments providing a hefty share.

Melaniphy points to voter initiatives to raise taxes for transit that passed last year - 49 out of 62 measures placed on ballots. The association has not seen such a high passage rate for transit funding initiatives since 2000.

Places where Sandy damaged the infrastructure are borrowing to bring transit back on-line. New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which carried 11 million bus and train passengers each day, has approved selling up to $2.5 billion of short-term bond anticipation notes for Sandy costs.

At the same time, the U.S. Congress in 2012 passed a long-awaited authorization for funding surface transportation. It includes loan, financing and grant programs that systems will be able to use for repairs or new equipment. The account, supplied by gas tax revenues used to fund federal transportation, was put off-limits from the $85 billion in spending cuts known as "sequestration."

(This story corrects a figure in the third paragraph to billion, not million)

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert; Editing by Jackie Frank)

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Comments (7)
bobber1956 wrote:
Pulic transportation is surging because Americans can not longer afford to drive to work. obama has made sure of that.

Mar 10, 2013 12:31am EDT  --  Report as abuse
DeannaTx wrote:
Public transportation is surging because Americans are finally getting a little wiser.
But, our infrastructure supporting further public transportation use is sadly lacking. In fact it’s absolutely horrible. A limited few cities can claim otherwise.

China and Europe have us beat to what should be an embarrassing level when it comes to modern day infrastructures such as public transportation. Both are also highly focused on educating their population beyond the basics. We complain about the cost yet we’ve fallen that pedestal of the country that produces the most brightest minds.
We’ve become complacent. Thinking we can forever live off the glory of our grandparents and parents investment into keeping America at the top.
I wonder at what point we’ll finally wake up.

Mar 11, 2013 4:57am EDT  --  Report as abuse
morbas wrote:
We need a popularized infrastructure architectural ‘strategic vision’. Where repairing/replacing major highway intersections we should split the lanes and include truck and rail depots along with weight scales and highway patrol stations. A federal architectural design would be helpful tool for effected city government officials to plan and support. This would spur transition to development of rail based transportation systems people and container (truck trailer) freight.

Mar 11, 2013 9:12am EDT  --  Report as abuse
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