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Transit ridership up nationally

Some encouraging news here.

More Americans used buses, trains and subways in 2013 than in any year since 1956 as service improved, local economies grew and travelers increasingly sought alternatives to the automobile for trips within metropolitan areas, the American Public Transportation Association said in a report released on Monday.

The trade group said in its annual report that 10.65 billion passenger trips were taken on transit systems during the year, surpassing the post-1950s peak of 10.59 million in 2008, when gas prices rose to $4 to $5 a gallon.

The ridership in 2013, when gas prices were lower than in 2008, undermines the conventional wisdom that transit use rises when those prices exceed a certain threshold, and suggests that other forces are bolstering enthusiasm for public transportation, said Michael Melaniphy, the president of the association.

“Now gas is averaging well under $4 a gallon, the economy is coming back and people are riding transit in record numbers,” Mr. Melaniphy said in an interview. “We’re seeing a fundamental shift in how people are moving about their communities.”

From 1995 to 2013, transit ridership rose 37 percent, well ahead of a 20 percent growth in population and a 23 percent increase in vehicle miles traveled, according to the association’s data.

Stronger economic growth is playing an important role in the increased use of public transit, as more people are using the systems to get to an increasing number of jobs, the association reported, and transit agencies are nurturing growth by expanding their systems or improving services.

“We’re seeing that where cities have invested in transit, their unemployment rates have dropped, and employment is going up because people can get there,” Mr. Melaniphy said.

Overall public transit ridership increased by 1.1 percent from 2012, with the biggest gains in rail service and in bus service for smaller cities.

The APTA press release is here, and the full report is here. The picture for Houston is somewhat murky. Overall, ridership is up 2.76% in 2013 over 2012 (see page 27). That’s driven by increases in bus (3.44%) and demand response (5.35%), which I’m guessing is MetroLift, but offset somewhat by declines in light rail (-0.72%) and vanpool (-1.11%). Complicating the picture further is that both bus and rail saw declines in October and November 2013 from 2012, but then had a big increase in December. The latter is likely helped, though not completely explained, by the North Line opening; the increase in bus rides is less clear. And December 2013 was still the slowest month of the quarter, just better than it had been the year before. I don’t really know what causes the fluctuations. And even with some recent encouraging news, Metro still has a way to go to catch up to their ridership numbers from 2006. It’s likely that Metro will see bigger increases in ridership over the next couple of years, as the updated bus service and two new rail lines come online. It would be nice to have a better understanding of what has happened between then and now, and for Metro to get back to the point where it should be and beyond it. Dallas Transportation has more.

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2 Comments

  1. Joe White says:

    “The ridership in 2013, when gas prices were lower than in 2008, undermines the conventional wisdom that transit use rises when those prices exceed a certain threshold, and suggests that other forces are bolstering enthusiasm for public transportation, said Michael Melaniphy, the president of the association.” On the contrary, the decline in ridership per capita reinforces CW. For the years mentioned, here are the numbers on a per capita basis:

    year trips population trips per capita
    1956 10650 168.9 63.06
    1995 7774 266.28 29.19
    2008 10590 304.09 34.83
    2012 10534 313.91 33.56
    2013 10650 316.16 33.69

    I couldn’t find the actual passenger trips figure for 1956, so just made it the same as 2013 for comparison’s sake. The ridership numbers for 1995 and 2012 I interpolated from the percentage comparison to 2013 in the press release. Census figures are via http://www.multpl.com/united-states-population/table

    (no time this morning to do a full comparison to inflation-adjusted average gasoline prices)

  2. Christof Spieler says:

    There is always fluctuation between months. The number of weekdays per month can vary from year to year, and December is always low because people take off days from work and therefore don’t ride transit to work. Weather also plays a big role: cold and wet days have fewer riders because people stay home instead of making optional trips or drive instead of taking transit. Special events also make a difference: March always has high rail ridership because of the rodeo, and the end of free fares for Texans games has reduced ridership in football game weekends. Traffic has the same kinds of fluctuations, but traffic counts aren’t done daily so those changes aren’t tracked.

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