Public transit ridership rises to highest level in 52 years

Ridership on public transportation systems, including the Washington area's Metro, climbed as Americans took 10.7 billion trips last year.So what are you doing transit-wise to cope with the recession and the inevitability of much higher oil prices in the future?

The Washington Post reports today:

Despite job losses and falling gasoline prices, record numbers of Americans rode subways, buses and commuter rail last year, boosting public transportation ridership to its highest level in 52 years, according to a survey to be released today by the American Public Transportation Association.

Advocates say the ridership figures show growing support for public transportation. They hope to use that support to push for federal funding beyond the $8.4 billion in stimulus money set aside for transit. More investment in transit not only helps the economy, advocacy groups say, but also helps the environment and fosters energy independence.

This would seem to be the shape of things to come for most Americans, especially once peak oil drives gasoline prices back above $4 a gallon — and probably above $6 — in the next decade (see “Merrill: Non-OPEC production has likely peaked, oil output could fall by 30 million bpd by 2015” and “Normally staid International Energy Agency says oil will peak in 2020“).

Here are some encouraging excerpts from the article:

The 10.7 billion transit trips Americans took last year amounted to a 4 percent increase over trips taken in 2007; at the same time, Americans drove measurably less, according to the Transportation Department.

[I will do an article on the driving statistics shortly.]

The increase is significant because cheaper gas and job losses tend to drive transit ridership down. Almost 60 percent of transit riders go to work.

The APTA survey found that ridership increased last year on all modes of transit all across the country. Ridership rose on 14 of the nation’s subway systems (3.5 percent), 20 of 21 commuter rail systems (4.7 percent) and 20 of 26 light-rail systems (8.3 percent). Some of the big increases were in places such as South Florida, Dallas and Salt Lake City, not necessarily among the largest communities served by transit, officials said.

Bus service increased 3.9 percent, but ridership on systems serving populations under 100,000 rose 9.3 percent, the survey found. Riders in those systems typically wait up to an hour for their buses, officials said….

Transit officials said that even with fewer people going to work and cheaper gas, riders are taking transit to save money. On Oct. 1, a gallon of regular gas was $3.61, compared with $4.11 a gallon on July 17. By year’s end, the national average was $1.61.

In South Florida, average weekday ridership on the Tri-Rail commuter line is about 15,000 trips, a small number compared with the hundreds of thousands of vehicles that cram Interstate 95 every day between Fort Lauderdale and Miami. But ridership on Tri-Rail, which runs from Miami to West Palm Beach, rose 18 percent in the fourth quarter and nearly 23 percent for the year. Reflecting a nationwide trend, more riders climbed aboard in the second and third quarters last year as gasoline prices skyrocketed, and the number stayed even when prices at the pump fell. The trend is holding, with ridership up about 8 percent in January over the same month last year, Tri-Rail spokeswoman Bonnie Arnold said.

The Dallas light-rail system, which has an average weekday ridership of 70,000 trips, registered a ridership increase of more than 8 percent in the fourth quarter and more than 10 percent for the year.

“People who were used to driving did the math and figured they could buy a monthly pass [$50] for less than a tank of gas,” said Morgan Lyons, a spokesman for the Dallas Area Rapid Transit. As gasoline prices fell, other benefits became more apparent, he said. Instead of traffic-clogged drives that could take up to an hour, riders could be on the train for 35 to 40 minutes and do work or relax. “When you have to start making decisions about all the little things, other little things become equally important,” he said.


Ridership demand notwithstanding, enormous budget deficits and falling sales and property tax revenue have forced many transit agencies to raise fares and cut service. Last month, the Cincinnati Metro said it was reducing service on 27 bus routes to balance its 2009 budget. Maryland officials cut MARC rail and commuter bus service. In Washington, Metro officials are expected to decide this week whether they will reduce bus and rail service to help close a $29 million deficit in next year’s budget.

Looking ahead, transit officials say ridership is likely to fall in the first quarter of this year because of the slumping economy. But they say stimulus-funded projects set to get underway this spring will show policymakers the benefits of transit investment.

Let’s hope so.

9 Responses to Public transit ridership rises to highest level in 52 years

  1. Hank R. says:


    Just an FYI….your site takes a very long time to load.

  2. Barbara says:

    Two stories here today, taken together, are interesting. If half the population in the country lives along the coast and if much of our mass-transit is below ground, how long before subways begin flooding? Sooner than the city streets above, certainly. How far below ground are they? I’m not much of a city gal, though. Maybe the engineers are already dealing with this. From the photo (is that London?) it looks as though the Tube would already have closed…

    Your website did not take any time to load, at all.

    Thanks for all you do, Joe.

  3. Peter Black says:

    What took you so long to cover this Joe? ;-)

  4. Barrett says:

    The idea that riders should have to wait an hour for a bus is ridiculous. I think that we should make every four lane road (2 lanes in each direction) have a dedicated bus lane in both directions. Let Buses speed through traffic.

    Part of the issue with public transit is waiting for the bus or train. Google Maps supports a public transit option now for NYC. I can enter my starting and ending address and Google Maps will tell me the fastest way to get there via public transit. It lists the times that the bus or train will arrive along with transfer times. The iPhone has this built in to the software under the standard maps application. It is a great use of technology. At night, when the traffic is less, the times are pretty spot on. During the day, traffic interferes with the bus times. People would take public transit more if they could know the times. We should build a system that realizes this truth.

    A dedicated bus lane would allow Buses to be on time. They would have their own lane and we could use Radio Frequency ID tags to broadcast the exact position of the bus which could easily be relayed to a cell phone or the internet. People would know exactly where the bus was and when it would arrive. People can still drive their cars, but they will have to deal with the traffic and commute times. Reward the people who will use public transit by giving them traffic-less lanes to travel on. If the police strictly enforced the the bus-only lanes, bus travel times would be reduced and on time even during rush hour. A double reason to ride the bus.

  5. Ruth says:

    This is very encouraging! Thanks.

    And Barbara, it is indeed a picture of London, but it doesn’t look quite like that. Not yet :)

  6. Adam says:

    I live in Sydney and there has been an increase in public transport patronage here too. Unfortunately the rail network is already running over 100% capacity, there is not enough power in the network’s electricity grid to run the new trains and the project to fix that is running 3 years late and 7-times over budget, the new rail lines to fast-growing outer suburbs have been cancelled, the new storage facility for the new trains was to be built as part of one of those cancelled rail lines, and an alternative will not be ready until 3 years after the new trains come into service, and from some parts of Sydney it is no cheaper than driving because the state government subsidises tolls on the privately-owned motorways instead of investing in public transport infrastructure…. the point I’m making with this rant is that governments need to start thinking of public transport as the primary form of transportation, and fund it accordingly.

  7. David B. Benson says:

    Downtown Portland Oregon has whole streets dedicated to the buses.

  8. Nick Santos says:

    Not that it matters terribly much, but that also looks a lot like it could be Washington DC’s Metro system instead of London – I’ve never been to London though, so it could be that they look quite similar. I’m just guessing DC since Joe is located there.

  9. Jim Bullis says:

    The price of gasoline got so high last year that many people got so desperate they would try anything; even allowing themselves to be herded onto mass transit.

    No problem for those who live and work in clustered situations. The more the better, but most of us in the USA do not live that way. If I observe correctly, and my own experiences are remotely representative, most do not want to give up their present patterns.