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Public Transportation Is Picking Up

January 4, 2013

Public transportation used to be the choice of people without a choice — a safety net for those without cars. Everybody else — with a few exceptions — drove. But those days are fading in the rear view mirror like a mini-van in the slow lane.

After stalling during the recession, transit ridership is on a roll again as more and more people opt to park their cars and board buses, light rail and commuter trains. The nation’s transit ridership rose for the sixth straight quarter between April and June of this year, according to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA).

The 1.6 percent increase over the same quarter last year came even as gas prices retreated — an encouraging sign for transit advocates that travel habits are changing for good. Another telling statistic: total annual ridership in 2011 was 10.4 billion — the second highest since 1957, topped only by 2008 when gas prices first kissed $4 a gallon.

The surge in transit ridership comes despite budget cuts that forced most public transportation providers to cut service and/or raise fares in 2011, according to an APTA survey. Another APTA report suggests why service cuts The total number of vehicle miles traveled in the United States every year has steadily fallen. and fare hikes haven’t fazed riders: people who take public transportation to work instead of driving can save an average of $826 a month compared to the cost of owning a car, buying gas and paying for downtown parking based on September 2012 prices.

“The needle is swinging our way,” says Art Guzzetti, vice president of policy and research with APTA. “It’s not all about the car anymore.”

No, it’s not. The total number of vehicle miles traveled in the United States every year has steadily fallen from a peak of slightly more than 3 trillion miles in 2007 to a projected 2.95 trillion miles in 2012, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Although the projected 2012 figure is nearly identical to the 2011 number, even a flat figure is significant considering that vehicle miles traveled rose by a healthy amount each and every year between 1987 and 2007.

When Guzzetti connects the dots, he sees driving decline and transit growth as proof that continuing to expand the nation’s public transportation systems makes all kinds of sense. “People are smart and they’re going to make smart choices when they’re available to them,” he says. “We’ve given people better choices by investing in transit.”

Giving people better transportation choices goes hand-in-hand with smart growth. “It’s hard to say one is the chicken and one is the egg,” says Geoffrey Anderson, president and CEO of Smart Growth America. “I think they’re stimulating and reinforcing each other.”

Anderson hesitates to say current ridership and driving trends represent a tipping point for transit and smart growth, which emphasizes walkable development and reduced dependence on the automobile. “Despite everything that’s happened over the last several years, we still have fairly poor transportation choices in a lot of areas,” he says. Under those conditions, smart growth is off the table. “There are places that offer walkable living without transit, but it’s much more difficult,” Anderson says.

The good news is that rising ridership signals a thirst for public transportation in those places that have invested in transit, providing a model for others to follow and a catalyst for smart growth.

While ridership on all major modes of public transportation climbed in the second quarter, light rail led the way with a 4.3 percent increase. Six light rail systems experienced double-digit percentage increases: Memphis (36.7), Salt Lake City (28.8), Pittsburgh (21.2), Los Angeles (13.8), Sacramento (13.4) and Seattle (10.3).

“The investments in transit that have occurred in (these places) have really shown that when there are good options out there, people will use them,” Anderson says. “It’s certainly telling that a lot of these systems have been Giving people better transportation choices goes hand-in-hand with smart growth. built because people were willing to tax themselves. It’s another expression of market demand.”

Fares pay less than half of the cost of most public transportation systems, so transit agencies rely heavily on local taxes and state and federal funds to operate and expand. Sustaining today’s ridership growth will require continued taxpayer subsidies. That’s no different than any other important public service, Guzzetti says. “Some (transit systems) are coming close to covering operating costs at the firebox, but you can’t put that test on every one,” he says. “We have police, fire, courthouses. We should have mobility systems.”

Salt Lake City is a surprising poster child for the appeal of public transportation. “Utah is a very conservative state. We like our cars. We like our highways. We like our quarter-acre lots in the suburbs,” says Gerald Carpenter, spokesman for the Utah Transit Authority (UTA). “A lot of people said it wouldn’t work here.”

That was before the UTA — originally a bus-only agency — added light rail service in 1999. “It did very well. The trains were full. People loved it,” Carpenter says. “The conversation quickly changed to when do I get service?”

The first line was built without voter approval after the UTA secured a federal grant covering 80 percent of the cost. The public was initially angry the line was built because voters previously rejected a light rail ballot measure. However, when UTA sought a sales tax increase in 2006 to accelerate expansion plans, voters said yes.

UTA opened two new light rail lines in 2011 and will open two more in 2013. They add a combined 25 miles of track to the existing 20-mile system. UTA also added 44 miles of track to an existing 45-mile commuter rail line that opened in 2008. The extension, which will begin service in December, links Salt Lake City with Provo.

In a separate project, UTA is working with Salt Lake City and the city of South Salt Lake to build a two-mile streetcar line that will connect the thriving Sugar House Business District to the light rail system.

Ridership across the UTA system was up 7 percent during the first half of 2012 versus the first half of 2011. That projects to 42.7 million trips in 2012 — a new record that breaks a record set the year before.

Three out of every four UTA passengers are choice riders who have cars but prefer transit, Carpenter says. “People have felt the pinch at the gas pump … and they enjoy the convenience of not driving,” he says. “The west side of Salt Lake City has heavy congestion during commute hours.”

Congestion is a growing problem nationwide. By 2015, the average commuter will waste 37 hours a year stuck in traffic. That’s up three hours from 2010, according to the 2011 Urban Mobility Report published by Texas A&M University. The cost of gridlock will rise from $101 billion to $133 billion and the amount of wasted fuel will jump from 1.9 billion gallons to 2.5 billion gallons.

The UTA’s aggressive expansion supports the Salt Lake City region’s vision of concentrating growth around activity centers served by public transportation. Transitoriented development is blossoming. The developer of Daybreak, a large master-planned community southwest of Salt Lake City, contributed $13 million to hasten extension of the light rail system to that development.

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) in St. Petersburg, Fla., added no new service, yet ridership on the bus-only system grew by 7 percent to a recordbreaking 14.1 million trips during the most recent fiscal year ending Sept. 30. “Some of our top routes are standing-room-only all day long,” says Bob Lasher, PSTA spokesman.

A record-setting tourist season and higher gas prices during much of the year helped drive the increase, Lasher says. However, even after gas prices dipped, many people who previously resisted, discovered they liked riding the bus and never stopped, he says.

The PSTA’s main funding source is property taxes, but that revenue stream has shriveled with the housing market and left the agency unable to boost service. One possible answer is to switch to a sales tax, Lasher says. The agency is currently seeking public input on a plan to improve transit services — including possibly building a light rail line.

“We’re definitely seeing the demand for more service, but it’s a matter of finding a way to meet it in these tough economic times,” he says.

Over the last 12 years, voters in Grand Rapids, Mich., have approved five property tax increases to expand a transit service known as The Rapid. Ridership on the bus-only system has grown 162 percent since the agency assumed responsibility for the system in 2000, says Jennifer Kalczuk, agency spokesperson.

At the time, there was no service after 6 p.m., no Sunday service at all and either 30 or 60 minutes between buses. “There weren’t really any choice riders to speak of,” Kalczuk says. “It wasn’t a viable option for anybody who had an option.”

During fiscal year 2011, the system set a record with 10.8 million passenger trips and topped it in 2012 when ridership approached 12 million. Some, but not all, of the increase resulted from a contract with Grand Valley State University that allows students, faculty and staff to ride free.

The Rapid owes its success — both in attracting riders and winning elections — to learning what services people want and then delivering them. “We have been very deliberate about what we tell voters so they know exactly what they’ll be getting in exchange for their money,” Kalczuk says.

The latest addition is a nine-mile bus rapid transit (BRT) line along the busiest commuter corridor in the region. It targets the so-called Medical Mile in downtown Grand Rapids where a cluster of hospitals and research facilities are located. Like light rail on wheels, the BRT will run often — every 10 minutes at peak hours — and at times travel in a lane of its own.