The American Public Transportation Association is partying like it's 1956. That's because Americans took 10.65 billion trips on public transit systems in 2013 -- numbers not seen since the 1950s. In its annual ridership report, APTA stated that more Americans were using trains, buses, and subways as an alternative to commuting to work by car.
The 2013 numbers narrowly surpassed the post-1950s high of 10.59 billion in 2008, when gas prices ballooned. According to APTA, what makes the 2013 numbers so exciting is that gas prices are lower now than they were in 2008.
Public transit powerhouse New York City saw a 4.2% heavy rail ridership increase. More surprisingly, Los Angeles posted a 4.8% heavy rail increase coupled with a 6% light rail increase for 2013.
The LA County Metropolitan Transportation Authority is betting big on public transit as the future of the area. "It has to be," said Marc Littman, the LA Metro's deputy executive officer of public relations. "Mobility is the linchpin of the economy."
By the end of 2014, the LA Metro will have started construction on multiple new heavy and light rail projects that will become operational over the next decade. "Voters in LA are so fed up with traffic that in 2008 they voted to tax themselves three times over," said Littman. The taxes he is referring to are all part of Measure R, a 2008 county ballot that will award around $40 billion of taxpayer money to traffic relief and transportation upgrades over the next 30 years.
While traffic reduction was undoubtedly at the forefront of voters' minds, so too was an increasing environmental consciousness. "You can reduce your carbon footprint by up to 20 pounds of CO2 per day," says Littman. "We've tapped into people who are fed up with traffic as well as those that are environmentally conscious."
This green rider is exactly who APTA believes is behind 2013's surge in public transportation ridership. In an interview with the Associated Press, APTA President and CEO Michael Melaniphy proclaimed, "People are making a fundamental shift to having options for getting around. This is a long term trend. This isn't just a blip."
Quantifying the affect of environmentalism on increased public transit ridership is difficult, but the fact that 2013's levels resemble those of the 1950s can't be ignored. With the rise of the automobile and suburbia, public transit has long been a secondary option for commuters.
Littman believes that Americans, especially Los Angelenos, want a return to a sprawling public transit infrastructure. "In Los Angeles, there were more than 1000 miles of track 100 years ago, and people want it back. It's kind of like that baseball movie [Field of Dreams]. If you build it, they will come."
To get involved with local public transit projects, visit publictransportation.org
--Image courtesy of iStockphoto/Merkuri2
Callum Beals is an editorial intern at Sierra. He recently graduated from UC Santa Cruz, where he studied history and literature. He enjoys hiking, camping, and waking up at ungodly hours to watch soccer games.