by Eileen Weber
Earlier this week in a press release, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) announced a 6.5% increase in ridership on mass transit. While ridership has steadily increased this year because of the rise in gas prices and the economic downturn, the announcement packs a greater punch.
During the third quarter of this year, the increase in public transportation occurred as unemployment rose and gas prices fell. “The fact that public transit ridership surged while gas prices and highway travel declined,” said William W. Millar, President of APTA in the release dated December 8th, “shows a growing demand for more bus and rail services.”
Unemployment and gas prices are two main elements that typically drive ridership down. Instead, it’s gone up. The increase is the largest the country has seen in one fiscal quarter in 25 years. From 2007 to 2008, the number of trips on U.S. public transit jumped to 10.3 billion. That statistic is the highest increase in 50 years.
In large cities, especially on the East Coast like New York and Boston, mass transit has a relatively high and steady ridership on a regular basis. But, in the last several months, The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times have all reported that the South and West, places that have a strong driving culture, have seen soaring numbers in mass transit.
The biggest increase was recorded in light rail, specifically trolleys, at 8.5%. Cities such as Baltimore, Minneapolis, and Sacramento had the highest ridership. In our own area, cities in New Jersey as well as New Haven saw ridership increase on commuter trains and subway systems.
Metro-North Railroad, which services the Connecticut coastline and Westchester, showed 6.42 million riders in 2007 and 7 million riders in September 2008. But according to an article on November 29th in The Boston Globe, Metro-North has plans to cut four off-peak trains to close their budget gap. The trains would be cut from the New Haven line which takes commuters into Manhattan. State officials say the plan undermines the efforts made so far to boost mass transit use. If more people are taking the train, decreasing the number of available trains is counterintuitive.
While mass transit has risen across the country, there are still plenty of drivers on the highways. However, those drivers can be seen scooting around town in smaller cars with better gas mileage. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times dated September 20th, the top smaller cars sold nationally are either Hondas or Toyotas. With hybrids, which get over 40 miles per gallon, Honda and Toyota still come out ahead. Ford’s hybrid follows not too far behind. Not surprisingly, sales of SUVs and large pickup trucks are down by over 20%.
The upside of the increase in mass transit is how this will impact the environment. APTA’s president Millar congratulated Barack Obama for his plan to invest more in public transportation and stimulate the economy by creating more jobs. “Public transportation is good for the economy, good for the environment, and good for energy independence,” said Millar. “[It] reduces our dependence on foreign oil and lowers our nation’s carbon footprint.”
Photo courtesy of Metro-North Railroad.