WASHINGTON — Americans hopped on buses, subways and commuter rails more last year amid record-high gas prices and drove less on the nation's highways, according to industry figures to be released Monday.
Experts disagree on whether the number of riders — the most since 1956 — indicates Americans' travel habits are changing or if the shift away from cars is temporary because of fuel costs and the recession.
People made 10.7 billion trips on public transit in 2008, a 4 percent increase over 2007, according to the American Public Transportation Association. Over the same time, Americans drove 3.6 percent less on the nation's highways. Gas prices peaked at more than $4 in July before falling, but ridership remained strong.
In 1956, Americans made nearly 11 billion trips. However, the percentage was much higher because the country had far fewer people — about 170 million compared with some 306 million today — and not as many cars.
Driving in 2008 accounted for more than 90 percent of commuters' trips, said Robert Poole, director of transportation studies for the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank based in Los Angeles.
Many who try mass transit, stick with it
The swooning economy should be hurting ridership as hundreds of thousands of workers lose their jobs, and cash-strapped transit agencies raise fares and cut service, said William W. Millar, the association's president. However, he believes many who are trying mass transit are sticking with it despite the economy.
"I think there's no doubt that many people have found transit is a good thing," Millar said. "There does seem to be a shift."
Poole has a differing view. The recession is pulling budget-conscious Americans off the roads as they seek cheaper alternatives, and the real test will be if gas prices remain low as the economy improves, he said. The length of the downturn could play a role, too, with some suggesting a prolonged period of pain.
The problem, Poole and others say, is that for most commuters who live and work in the suburbs, public transportation is inconvenient.
"We doubled the price of gasoline and the total impact (on driving) was minimal," said Alan Pisarski, author of "Commuting in America." "You can do a lot with prices and people will continue to pay."
But even a small shift in driving habits can have a big impact on transit. Light rail ridership, which includes modern streetcars and trolleys, was up more than 8 percent for the year. Ridership was up 4.7 percent for commuter rail, 4 percent on buses and 3.5 percent on subways.
Public transit use declined after World War II
Public transportation use in America peaked in the 1940s and steadily declined after World War II as more Americans moved to the suburbs and highways were built. The number of people taking transit bottomed out in 1972 at about 6.6 billion trips.
Ridership has steadily gained momentum in recent years, and the 4 percent growth in 2008 was larger than usual, officials said.
In April, Kelly Broberg of Long Beach, Calif., began riding the bus to her office in Santa Ana, motivated by a desire to save money and help the environment.
"The gas prices just sealed it for me," she said.
She found public transit far less stressful than driving and enjoyed the mix of people. "Even though it can be dirty and loud, it's vibrant."
Still, it's not convenient enough to use all the time, she said.
Bus saves money, but takes longer
Broberg estimates the bus saves her more than $3 each day, but she only takes it once a week because of the added commuting time. The bus takes an hour, compared with a 30-minute car trip.
Broberg said she would take the bus every day if it was faster.
Millar said riders like Broberg indicate a clear demand for more service and increased investment at the federal, state and local levels.
He points to the November elections, in which voters approved 76 percent of transit-related ballot initiatives authorizing more than $75 billion in funding.
"I think this is one of those issues where the public is far ahead of many politicians and others," he said.
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