Last year, Americans climbed onto buses, swiped through turnstiles, and boarded trains 10.4 billion times. That’s not a record number of public transit rides, but it’s close—the second-largest number of public transit rides in the United States since 1957, according to the American Public Transportation Association.
In the 1950s, public transit use hadn’t hit its nadir yet, but had dropped dramatically from the highs of World War II. Americans were abandoning cities for the suburbs and, with gas rationing over and car prices dropping, they were choosing to drive more. Public transit ridership dropped until the 1970s, when it started slowly rising again.
Over the past few years, ridership numbers have dipped with the economy. Even so, Americans are in the middle of a serious flirtation with public transit. Each year over the past 10 has ranked among the top years for transit rides in decades. Cars are still our first love, of course, but we’re growing disenchanted with the baggage they bring to the relationship: high ownership costs and a dependence on costly gas. Check out the last 16 years of public transit rides, as measured by APTA:
It’d be interesting to see the number of rides as a proportion of all trips or pegged to the population of the areas that public transit serves. But even the number of trips alone shows that Americans are warming up to public transit, because for so many years that number cascaded downwards.
There are two stories to tell here. One is about car-dependent cities improving their public transportation systems. Last year, cities like Dallas, Cleveland, and Nashville logged the largest percentage gains in transit use. These cities are working hard to amp up their transit game: Cleveland is planning a new rail line linking its downtown with its walkable east side, while Nashville is moving towards a bus-rapid-transit system. These are relatively small systems, though. In Cleveland, for instance, last year’s 12 percent growth reflects not only economic recovery and high gas prices, but a traffic snarl caused by a major bridge project. Public transit offered "a less congested option," says Mary McCahon, a spokeswoman for the regional transit authority.
She points out, though, that in Cleveland, people who take public transit always have the option of driving. “We can attribute our ridership growth to people who are making a choice,” she says, not people who have no other option but to use the system’s services.
The other story is about public transit systems in big cities, particularly New York. Here, the percentage gains are smaller—around 1 or 2 percent—but the number of new rides is large. But because APTA looks at the total number of rides, shifts in New York City transit ridership have a major impact on the numbers. APTA counted 235 million more rides in 2011 than in 2010. About a fifth of those, 48 million, can be traced back to New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority.
The bump from 2010 to 2011 can be attributed to economic recovery. But New York’s public transit story is also about more people choosing to use public transportation. In 2000, the MTA provided about 300 rides for every person living in New York City. In 2011, it provided about 400 for each resident.
That could mean that New Yorkers are using public transportation instead of driving or taking cabs. It could mean that more commuters and visitors are using public transportation. But no matter who’s on those trains and buses, they’re getting more use.