Public transportation ridership weathers slow economy, tight budgets

American Public Transportation Association report says cities such as Portland, Oregon, Phoenix and Seattle saw double-digit growth in ridership on their light-rail systems during the first quarter of this year. Transit and train ridership is even up in Los Angeles.

In times of economic distress, public transportation systems suffer in two ways -- ridership declines because fewer people are commuting to work, and subsidies from cash-strapped municipalities and transit agencies shrink.

However, despite the difficult economy, ridership on the nation's mass transit systems remained relatively steady, with some cities even seeing significant jumps in ridership, according to a report released by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). Growth was especially strong in the western United States.

Nationally, nearly 2.5 billion trips were taken on public transportation in the first quarter of 2010, APTA estimates. Even with continued high unemployment, an economic downturn, lower state and local revenue for public transportation, and historic snowfalls in the mid-Atlantic region and Texas, public transportation use in the first quarter declined by only 2.7 percent, compared to the same period a year ago.

Heavy rail usage was down by about a percent, while light rail ridership was up by a percent. Commuter rail was down three percent.

The leading city in terms of transit system passenger trips taken during the first quarter of 2010 was New York City MTA, with 572.6 million trips. By contrast, in car-crazy Los Angeles, the count was 11.7 million passenger trips. However, the LA area saw a 2.5% increase in trips over the past year, making it the second-ranked growth market. Chicago Transit Authority saw the most gains from last year to this year, rising three percent to 48.4 million trips taken.

Ten out of twenty-nine light rail systems reported an increase in ridership for the first quarter of 2010.  Cities seeing double-digit increases in ridership include Portland, OR (16.7%); Phoenix (14.7%); and Seattle (14.3%).

Three out of 15 heavy rail systems (subways and elevated trains) experienced ridership increases in the first three months of 2010, including Chicago (3.0%); Los Angeles (2.5%); and New York (1.6%).

Seven out of 27 commuter rail systems reported ridership increases, including Portland, OR (55.9%), Nashville (32.4%), and Salt Lake City (15.6%).

Photo, top: New York City MTA subway conductor. Sebastian Delmont/Flickr

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