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Mass Transit's in "Decline"? Think Again!

Introduction by Light Rail Progress – March 2001

Light rail supporters have repeatedly challenged claims by the anti-transit Fringe that transit is an "industry in decline" which has inexorably been "losing ridership". Transit professionals and supporters have presented abundant data which clearly and unequivocally demonstrate that, since the late 1970s, transit ridership has reversed its previously trend of decline and has been on the increase – a resounding indication that public investment in better mass transit is paying off.

This past year, those assertions were further confirmed, in abundance, by ridership tallies from the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), which indicate that public transit ridership in 1999 surged to over 9 billion tripshitting its highest level in nearly 40 years – and establishing, in effect, a post-decline record.

That remarkable turnaround is the focus of the following Washington Post article, which further corroborates our contention that the decline in public transit ridership has long since been reversed, and in effect rebuffs the Road Warriors' portrayal of transit inexorably sliding into irrelevancy and oblivion.

Mass Transit Popularity Surges in U.S.

By Lyndsey Layton

Washington Post
Sunday, April 30, 2000

From Gainesville to Grosvenor to Grand Central station, the number of people crowding onto public transportation is the largest in 40 years. The surge has packed trains and buses, crammed park-and-ride lots and suggests that increasingly, Americans are leaving the driving to someone else.

Last year, 9 billion trips were taken on mass transit in the United States, according to new figures released by the American Public Transportation Association. The last time ridership was that high, Dwight D. Eisenhower was in the White House. More significant, transit advocates say, is that ridership is rising at a rate faster than automobile use.

Ridership rose 4.5 percent in 1999 compared with 1998, while motor vehicle travel rose 2 percent, according to the transit association.

The shift is putting a stress on some transit providers, such as the Washington area's Metro system, as passengers flood through turnstiles and squeeze onto standing-room-only buses. "The Red and Orange lines are close to capacity now," said Metro General Manager Richard A. White, whose agency is studying its capacity and trying to determine when it will reach its limits. "Parking in most of our lots is tight. We don't know how many more passengers we can absorb before we reach capacity."

Highway advocates noted that although transit ridership is increasing, the vast majority of Americans still rely on the automobile for trips to work and play.

"Let's not break out the champagne here," William D. Fay, president of the American Highway Users Alliance, said in response to some transit officials' giddiness over the new numbers. "Highway growth is the real success. By real numbers, far more people are driving cars than taking transit."

In the last year, transit gains have been visible from Bowling Green, Ky., where bus ridership increased 31 percent, to New York City, where ridership on buses, commuter trains and the nation's largest subway system jumped 7 percent.

In the Washington area, the national trend is seen in packed Metro subway cars and parking lots, Prince George's County's popular Call-A-Bus program and the way the Virginia Railway Express is drawing enough new passengers each month to fill an additional train car. VRE is the second fastest-growing commuter railroad in the nation after the one in Dallas.

At Metro, where 13 of the top 20 ridership days in its 25-year history have occurred since March 1, White said the trend is signaling a subtle shift in American behavior.

"Transit dominated this country prior to World War II," White said. "After the war, that changed with the creation of the interstate system and tremendous ex-urban and suburban development. But now that congestion and sprawl are becoming front-burner issues, there's a change in people's attitudes and patterns.

"This is a harbinger of good times."

Public transit use peaked in 1946, when Americans took 23.4 billion trips on trains, buses and trolleys, said Donna Aggazio, spokeswoman for the American Public Transportation Association. By 1960, that figure had dropped to 9.3 billion and declined further, as roads and car culture gripped the nation.

In 1972, transit ridership hit rock bottom at 6.5 billion trips. Since then, it seesawed until 1995, when it began steadily climbing.

Transit operators and analysts say increases in mass transit ridership are driven by several factors, including heavy public spending on transit, a strong economy, stable fares, innovation among transit systems and growing congestion on roads and highways.

The federal government began heavily investing in mass transit about 10 years ago, sending billions of dollars to communities across the country to launch ferry boats, build tracks and buy trains and trolleys, including special vehicles for the disabled. Meanwhile, many states increased transit funding.

"If you invest in something and provide a good product, people will use it," said Chris Boylan, spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates the New York City subway and bus system as well as Long island Bus and two commuter railroads. The MTA has spent $34 billion in improvements since 1982, he said. Daily trips number 7.2 million today, compared with 5.1 million three years ago, Boylan said.

Heavy spending on transit is likely to continue. In the Washington area, plans for transportation projects through 2025 call for spending $76 billion, of which $40 billion is dedicated to transit, said Ron Kirby, a transportation planner with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

A rollicking national economy also has boosted ridership.

"People ride for a purpose, either making money or spending money," said William Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association.

The economy has allowed fares to remain relatively flat while enabling transit agencies to offer new service or extend existing service, he said.

Salt Lake City just opened its first rail system, Phoenix is adding Sunday bus service, and Colorado voters have decided to extend Denver's light-rail system.

Close to home, Metro opened two District stations last year, will extend the Green Line to five stations in Prince George's next year and has aggressive plans to extend rail to Largo and Dulles international Airport.

Many say the transit agencies have attracted riders by becoming more flexible and creative. "The industry has gotten a lot smarter," said Bruce Frame, spokesman for the Federal Transit Administration. In Baltimore, after the transit agency rolled out a $3 transit pass for unlimited one-day travel on trolleys and buses, ridership jumped, said Frame, who lives there.

In Washington, Metro simplified its byzantine bus fare system and eliminated transfer fees in June. Four months later, daily ridership had jumped by more than 60,000 trips, or about 13 percent.

In Virginia, the VRE places a premium on customer service.

It has free parking that is constantly expanding, cafe cars and an e-mail service that alerts riders of service problems or changes. VRE reimburses riders for day-care fees if their trains are late and issues a free ticket to any commuter whose train is delayed at least 30 minutes. It averages 9,000 daily passenger trips.

Several transit agencies have been offering up-to-date transit information through Web sites or station signs. Metro has been working for years on such information signs, but software problems have created lengthy delays.

A new trend in transit, called universal access, also is proving highly popular, Millar said. Universal access gives passengers unlimited rides on a transit system in exchange for a flat fee that is usually paid by a third party -- a university or housing complex or community, he said.

In State College, Pa., bus ridership shot up 250 percent last year after Pennsylvania State University gave $1 million to the local transit agency to get rid of 40-cent fares and offer unlimited, free travel on routes connecting the campus with the downtown, said Hugh Mose, general manager of the Centre Area Transportation Authority.

"This fall we won't have enough equipment," Mose said. The agency had ordered 10 new buses and just bought six more.

Although some say rising fuel prices may have shifted some riders from cars to mass transit, several transit agencies reported ridership already was going up last year when gasoline prices were still less than $1 a gallon.

Meanwhile, sprawl and traffic congestion are making automobile travel less appealing, said Alan Kiepper, a transportation consultant who once ran the transit systems in Houston, Atlanta and New York.

"Congestion is just getting really, really bad, and people are sick of sitting in their cars and getting nowhere," he said.

Mike Seymour, a 52-year-old public health analyst from Rockville, is one of them. He stopped driving his Chevy van to work in Twinbrook two years ago and started riding the Montgomery Ride-On bus. "My kids were getting up to the age where I no longer had to lay taxi driver after work, and I wanted to give our cars a rest," Seymour said. "It's comfortable, and I like to be able to sit and read the paper for 20 minutes."

As it celebrates new ridership records, the transit industry wants to keep the momentum up. It's planning a national image campaign similar to the milk industry's "Got Milk?" advertising push.

"Transit still has a negative image in many circles," said White, one of several managers working on the campaign.

"Many people believe that transit is for people who can't afford an automobile. But a number of people – a third of the nation – are in the middle and don't have a strong opinion. We need to reach people in their living rooms and show them that transit is a good choice."

Light Rail Progress Rev. 2001/03/19


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