Public transit hits 10.8 billion trips in 2014

Malak Monir, USA TODAY

4:27 p.m. EDT March 9, 2015

Full article here.

A record 10.8 billion passenger trips were taken via public transportation in 2014, the highest number since 1956, according to a report from the American Public Transportation Association.

This marks the ninth consecutive year public transport trips topped the 10 billion mark, according to the APTA. Although gas prices in the fourth quarter of 2014 were almost 13% lower than those in the same quarter in 2013, public transport trips still saw a 1.1% increase.

"This record is about more than just gas prices," said Michael Melaniphy, chief executive of the APTA. "This is a nationwide phenomenon."

Melaniphy explained that although rises in gas prices typically bring with them a rise in public transit ridership numbers, the same effect does not hold true when gas prices drop.

"What we typically see is that there's a decoupling of that relationship (when gas prices fall)," Melaniphy said. "Especially with the volatility of gas prices, it's hard to budget."

This decoupling is particularly clear in Boston, where the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has had the highest ridership in its history despite both a drop in gas prices and a 5% fare increase. Joseph Pesaturo, the director of communications at the MBTA, attributed the increase to improved service and a desire within the community for more reliable public transit.

"It all depends on the quality and level of service," said Pesaturo. "I think most people in Boston would prefer to leave their cars at home."

The APTA found that most public transport systems, including heavy, light and commuter rails, had seen increased ridership across the nation throughout both the quarter and the year. Over the year, there were surges in light-rail ridership in Oceanside, Calif. (36%); Minneapolis (57.4%); and Houston (17. 9%). There also were significant upticks in commuter rail trips in Harrisburg-Philadelphia (67%), Salt Lake City (16.2%) and Seattle (10.4%).

"(Ridership numbers have) actually been on the increase for about five years," said Carm Basile, CEO of the Capital District Transportation Authority in Albany, N.Y. "Some of it we worked very hard on, and some of it is also societal."

Basile explained that the CDTA — which covers New York's capital district — has seen record numbers this year with a 4% systemwide increase in ridership. It has been increasing service and partnering with local universities and businesses to encourage more people to try public transport. These partnerships allow students and employees to use their ID cards to ride free of charge, which Basile said has led to a cyclical relationship where students who go on to find jobs in the area push their employers to seek a partnership with the CDTA.

"The Millennial generation has really embraced public transport," Basile said.

Public transport is becoming an increasingly attractive option for Millennials, those in the 18-34 age group. In fact, a 2014 survey from Transportation for America found that three out of every four respondents would prefer to live in a city where they did not need a car to get around.

Similarly, a report released earlier this month by the U.S. Department of Transportation found that Americans in general have been driving less every year since 2006, with Millennials in particular driving less than ever before and putting off getting driver's licenses until later in life. According to the report, the number of licensed drivers under 34 decreased between 2001 and 2012, despite a growing population.

Vehicle ownership is becoming an expense that some households prefer to dispense with. According to the February 2015 version of the APTA's monthly Transit Savings Report, public transit riders save $9,238 annually.

Erin Sheehan, an administrative assistant at the University of Albany, explained that she tried public transport for the first time in August 2010, when the CDTA made an agreement with the university to allow employees to ride for free. By December, she had retired her car, and in March 2011, after deciding to rely on public transportation to get around, she sold it. Sheehan said the move has been beneficial, saving her a considerable amount of money in, among other things, car insurance.

"There's a lot of money tied up in car ownership," said Sheehan.

She said that using public transport has been better for her, allowing her to "stop and smell the roses," as opposed to zipping past everything in her car.

"It's been terrific," Sheehan said. "I made a lot of friends on the bus. We have a little community."