American Transit Ridership Hits 57-Year High

Public transit ridership grew 1.1 percent in 2013, three times faster than driving. Photo: Wikipedia
Public transit ridership grew 1.1 percent in 2013, three times faster than driving. Photo: Wikipedia

The last year transit ridership was this high in the United States, Dwight Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act. Not since 1956, according to the American Public Transportation Association, have Americans logged as many transit trips as they did in 2013: 10.7 billion. It was the eighth year in a row that Americans have made more than 10 billion transit trips.

Growth in transit ridership is outpacing changes in driving. While total miles driven by Americans rose 0.6 percent in 2013, public transit use was up 1.1 percent.

“There is a fundamental shift going on in the way we move about our communities” said APTA President and CEO Michael Melaniphy in a press release. “People in record numbers are demanding more public transit services.”

Some of the big increases were in places like Los Angeles and Salt Lake City that have been pouring resources into expanding their transit networks. L.A. saw a 4.8 percent increase in heavy rail ridership and a nearly 6 percent increase in light rail ridership, following the opening of its Expo Line in 2012. Salt Lake City, meanwhile, saw a doubling in commuter rail riders, on the heels of a significant expansion of its Frontrunner system.

Growth also occurred in cities with established train networks. Rail ridership in the New York region, for instance, grew 4.2 percent.

The positive trend, while not uniform, was widely spread. Places as diverse as Fort Myers, Florida; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Yuma, Arizona, saw sizable bumps in ridership either systemwide or on specific lines.

Heavy rail ridership recorded the strongest growth of any transit mode in 2013, with an increase of 2.8 percent, while commuter rail rose 2.1 percent. Light rail trips, including streetcars, increased by 1.6 percent. Meanwhile, bus travel was up 3.8 percent in cities with populations less than 100,000, but was down 0.1 percent overall, APTA reports.

  • Deacon Blues

    The Expo Line is heavy rail?

  • LAifer

    Los Angeles’ 4.8 percent heavy rail increase presumably was on the
    Red/Purple Lines, since they’re the only heavy rail in the LA Metro
    system. The Expo Line accounts for a significant portion of Los Angeles’ 6.0 percent increase in light rail ridership.

  • Komanoff

    It’s a little disingenuous to say “Growth in transit ridership is outpacing changes in driving” without qualifying that the comparison uses *percentages*. Because passenger miles driven is many times greater than passenger miles traveled via transit, the small (0.3%) increase reported for VMT in 2013 actually involved more miles than the 1.1% increase reported for transit use.

  • Andy

    I’m going to appeal to demography and point out that the US population has doubled since 1956, so it’s not exactly a victory that transit trips have hit a 57-year high.

    It’s great that transit use has risen in recent years, but overall growth in population suggests that our baseline expectation should be growth in transit use, not stagnation.

  • ohnonononono

    Yes. Per capita transit ridership in the US plummeted from the 50s to the 70s, while it’s held relatively stable since then. In the long run we’re not making much of a dent on this stagnation yet.

  • J

    Indeed. The population has more than doubled since 1950, meaning per capita, there are 1/2 as many transit trips as in 1950. When you look only at urban population, it’s even worse. In 1950, around 100 million people lived in urban areas, increasing to about 250 million in 2010. So with 2.5 times the urban population, we have the exact # of transit trips. It’s not surprising we have bad congestion and long commutes.

  • voltairesmistress

    I think this is classic and depressing misuse of statistics to paint a picture somebody wants to believe in. I checked census data and found approximately 163 million residents in the U.S. In 1956. As of March, 2014 there are 317 million, nearly twice the population of 1956. Finally topping 1956 transit miles shows a good trend, but total miles are nearly meaningless if one is looking at per capita transit use today at one half the rate it was in 1956.

  • It’s in the ridership report link to from the article. Heavy rail numbers are for Metrolink with Los Angeles listed as the “primary city” for this system.

  • david vartanoff

    True the % of total population using transit is small; but it is growing. If we could pry loose the funding to have as much transit adjacent our homes and work as was the case in 1956 (few suburbs had been built compared to now and the “edge cities” of offices none) the numbers would be very different.

  • Bolwerk

    I don’t think either way is “disingenuous,” but your way has its flaws too. A transit trip can be very, very short, so lots of them might not add up to anywhere near as many miles.

    And is a typical car trip worth more than a typical transit trip economically? Doubtful.

  • Bolwerk

    I’m sure it’s the milestone that excites people, but 1.1% growth really is crappy. At that rate, transit use doubles from its already meh number in ~63 years. Get the growth up to New York’s rail network’s growth and that time period drops to just under 17 years.

    If we want to do better, we need to see transit construction fire up again.

  • Shane in Utah

    Here’s a link on increased transit use in northern Utah:

    http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/news/57659844-78/transportation-bus-train-utah.html.csp

  • Kenny Easwaran

    It’s light rail, but it connects to the two heavy rail lines, so it accounts for some of the ridership increase there. Of course, some of that increase comes from people like me, who used to take a 40 minute bus ride down Vermont Ave, but now take a 15 minute heavy rail trip to downtown follows by a 12 minute light rail trip to work – that probably shouldn’t count as an overall increase in transit ridership, but it probably does in this methodology.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    What happens if we restrict not to “urban areas” (which include large suburban areas that aren’t very well served by transit at all) but to center city areas that had decent transit service in 1956? I would be moderately surprised if these areas had a population increase anywhere near doubling (especially given that many of the center cities have actually *decreased* in population since 1956, like Washington, Boston, San Francisco, and Chicago).

    But you’re right that this is the more significant number to figure out about.

  • Dave Weckl

    In 1956, the U.S. population was 170.3 million; in 2013. It was 315.8 million.
    Population increased 85%, ridership was unchanged.

    In 1956, U.S. VMT was 237.7 billion; in 2012, it was 2,994.4 billion – 1,160% growth.

    Transit ridership (demand) increases by 10% but the service (supply) increased nearly 4 times? We spend

    These statistics look at only one side of the equation. Will anyone look at both sides of the equation or do some research?

  • Tammi Diaz

    It all about Ridership on Trax & FrontRunner UTA Executives Earn Excessive Salaries & Bonuses at Taxpayers Expense. UTA has a very Poor Bus System.

    There need to be a Full Investigation into Utah Transit Authority.

  • Nathanael

    The pattern of growth isn’t suprising. In small cities (population <100,000) traffic is usually (not always) low enough that the buses can run more or less on time, even in mixed traffic.

    In big cities, the buses don't have a chance and people will take rail or drive if they can.

  • Nathanael

    The problem is really the large areas with no usable transit service. In big cities, due to traffic, usable means rail, with sidewalks to get to the stations.

    In suburbs without sidewalks, there is no possibility of usable tranist.

  • Nathanael

    Network effects. Expo Line is showing much larger ridership than expected by planners, and this is because planners failed to account for people changing trains to catch the Expo Line.

    Observed behavior, in studies, is that most people will make maybe one transfer, maximum, from a bus to a bus — but will make a *large* number of train to train transfers.

    This isn’t factored into most estimates, so there’s a consistent trend of planners underestimating train ridership once the train starts to be part of a network.

  • J

    Yeah, those areas with low density and an extremely disconnected street grid are basically locked in to car dependency. Yet they are the vast majority of the urban area that we built since 1950 They will need to be dramatically rebuilt in order to have a remote chance of supporting transit or walking.

  • Oregon Mamacita

    Growth may be down in Portland because they are slowly starting to enforce fare collection. At any given time, about 10% of the riders are transients, and if they can’t ride for free, well then ridership falls. Another factor is the inequitable approach we take in Portlandia: downtown is nice because they let the rest of the city go to heck. The outer neighborhoods have no sidewalks and infrequent bus service because we just had to have the slow fancy street cars for the new rich retirees. If we paid attention to the bus system, transit use would rise.

  • neroden

    If you want to really dig into it, some regions have made a dent and others haven’t.

    For instance, there’s been vast growth of population in the Deep South — and it’s pretty much *all* transit wastelands, even Atlanta. Texas does slightly better and Arizona is finally doing *something*. But if you looked at per capita transit ridership strictly in New England or California, for instance, the picture would look a lot rosier.