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Rail Transit Accounted for 84% of US Transit Passenger-Mile Growth, 1990-2000. Any Questions?

Analysis by Light Rail Progress • September 2003

If ever there was a slam-dunk case for the uniquely powerful effectiveness of rail transit – and light rail transit (LRT) – in building public transit passenger traffic, this has got to be it.

Data compiled by the American Public Transportation Association reveal that, over the decade 1990-2000, total passenger-miles carried by US public transit increased at a very impressive pace – nearly 16%, or over 6.5 billion passenger-miles. (See table below.) And, of that growth, approximately 84% is accounted for by America's rail transit systems.

Passenger-Mileage, Growth, and Percentage Growth
Millions of Passenger-Miles, 1990-2000

Year Motor
1990 20,981 7,082 11,475 571 1,034 41,143
2000 21,241 9,402 13,844 1,356 1,823 47,666
Growth 260 2,320 2,369 785 789 6,523
% Growth 1.2% 32.8% 20.6% 137.5% 76.3% 15.9%

[Source: APTA, "Passenger Miles by Mode, Millions" (table), 2003]
a Also called "commuter rail"
b includes electric trolleybus, demand-response, automated guideway, ferry boat, etc.

Denver LRTWhile a squad of professional anti-transit, pro-automobile critics have attempted to portray US mass transit as an "industry in decline", this portrayal has been refuted by clearly substantial increases in transit ridership, in both the USA and Canada. According to data from the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), United States public transit ridership has been experiencing the longest sustained growth in the nation's history. Since 1995, ridership has grown by 20 percent. By 1999, US public transit systems were carrying more than 9 billion trips, representing the highest level of ridership in nearly 40 years. 2001 was the fifth year in a row that transit ridership grew faster than highway use. Americans made a record 9.5 billion trips on mass transit in 2001, 2% more than in 2000 (while highway use grew only one percent).
[Source: Washington Post, 18 April 2002. Photo of Denver RTD LRT at 10th & Stout station: Jon Bell.]

All major modes of public transportation have reported more riders. Particularly significant is the fact that public transportation ridership has been rising at a faster rate than automobile use and even domestic air travel.
[Washington Post, 18 April 2002]

Furthermore, transit ridership growth appears to reflect greater public use of transit, and not simply more boardings due to more transfers. This is indicated by the substantial increase of approximately 16% in transit passenger-mileage from 1990 to 2000, shown in the table above – traffic which would not be increased merely by more transfers.

As the table above reveals, total transit growth in the decade 1990-2000 amounted to more than 6.5 million passenger-miles (p-m). Of that, growth in the major rail transit modes totalled nearly 5.5 billion p-m – approximately 84% of the total (illustrated in the pie graph below, which provides the percentage breakdown in passenger miles for both major rail transit and motor bus, as well as all other modes).

pie graph

The bar graph below compares the actual passenger-mileage growth for the major modes. Once again, while motor bus registered some increase, clearly, the major rail transit modes tallied traffic growth well in excess of motor bus. Rail growth outpaced motor bus growth by over 21 times, and LRT growth alone outpaced bus by more than three times.

bar graph

Finally, the graph below illustrates the percentage rate of growth for the various major rail transit modes and motor bus.

bar graph

Clearly, this final graph illustrates that, among the major transit modes, rail transit is the big winner, by a long shot, in generating the preponderance of transit passenger-miles. it also provides additional evidence of the enormous capability offered by LRT to expand mass transit ridership traffic in America's urban areas.

Surely these data proclaim a clear-cut case for the tremendous potential of LRT and other rail transit modes in effectively addressing the mobility needs of American cities and significantly expanding the role of public transportation.

Updated 2003/09/01


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