Public transit ridership shows first increase in two years

Traffic is up on the nation's light rail and subway systems. Is this an indicator of a recovering economy?

The economic recovery is spurring new growth in mass transit ridership across the United States, the American Public Transportation Association reports. In the second quarter of 2010, APTA says, more than 2.5 billion trips were taken on US public transportation, an increase of about 0.1 percent over the second quarter of 2009. This uptick in ridership is the first increase in six quarters. Ridership increases were most notable on light rail or streetcar systems, APTA reports.

APTA President William Millar credits renewed growth in the economy for the bump in ridership. “History shows that as the economy grows, public transit ridership tends to increase. This rise in ridership offers a glimmer of hope that we may be coming out of the economic recession and ridership will continue to move upward.” Nearly 60 percent of public transit trips are to and from work. Indeed, though unemployment remains at high levels, we appear to be well into an economic recovery. The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), a panel of the nation's leading economists who are looked upon to call the “official” starts and ends to recessions, said the most recent recession—what some pundits call “The Great Recession”— ended back in June of 2009.

Previous to this quarter’s ridership increase, public transit use had declined in the past five quarters due to high unemployment, the economic recession, and lower state and local revenue for public transportation, APTA says. However, as reported previously on this site, overall ridership remained relatively steady during the economic downturn.

APTA provided ridership stats by mode:

  • Light rail (or streetcars): Sixteen out of 28 light rail systems reported an increase in ridership for the second quarter of 2010 as light rail ridership increased nationally by 4.2 percent in the second quarter of 2010.  Light rail systems in five cities saw double-digit increases in the second quarter:  New Orleans, LA (27.8%); Phoenix, AZ (12.7%); Seattle, WA – King County Metro Transit (12.5%); and Portland, OR (11.3%).  Seattle’s Sound Transit system had a more than 100% increase in ridership due to a new line that began in July 2009.
  • Heavy rail (subways and elevated trains): Eleven out of 15 subway lines experienced ridership increases from April through June of 2010 over the same period in 2009. Nationally, heavy rail ridership increased by 2.2 percent.  The heavy rail systems with the highest percentage increases in ridership in the second quarter of 2010 were in the following cities: New York, NY – MTA Staten Island Railway (9.1%); Baltimore, MD (7.2%); Philadelphia, PA (6.3%); and Chicago, IL (5.4%).
  • Commuter rail: Thirteen out of 27 commuter rail systems reported ridership increases. Cities with the greatest commuter rail increases were: Nashville, TN (19.0%); Portland, OR (10.4%); Harrisburg, PA (9.5%); Salt Lake City, UT (9.3%); and Alexandria, VA (9%).  Nationally, commuter rail ridership declined by 0.4 percent in the second quarter of 2010.
  • Buses: Bus ridership decreased nationally by 1.7 percent.  The top increases among large bus systems for the second quarter of 2010 were reported in Saint Louis, MO (15.0%) and Philadelphia, PA (3.8%).  Small bus systems with populations below 100,000 also saw an increase (3.1%).

APTA has also posted a full copy of the report at its site.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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