Ridership on buses, subways and other modes of public transportation in the USA rose 1.5% to 10.5 billion trips last year, the highest annual total since 2008, according to a new report.
Although Superstorm Sandy and its aftermath slowed ridership on some of the nation's largest transit systems, at least 16 systems reported record ridership numbers in 2012, says the American Public Transportation Association.
"When Sandy hit, and the snowstorm that followed it, an estimated 74 million (transit) trips were lost, and yet we still had the second-highest ridership since 1957," said APTA president and CEO Michael Melaniphy.
Melaniphy says the increase in transit ridership was driven, at least partly, by high gas prices, the volatility of those prices and the nation's changing demographics.
"In the last 18 months or so, we've seen prices be very volatile," he says. "When you think about the impact of that on your budget, when you can't count on your transportation costs being consistent day over day, week over week, that's really hard on the budget."
A 2012 report by the National Conference of State Legislatures said that "affordability likely plays a role" in the growth of transit, noting "estimates are that an individual can save more than $10,000 a year by riding public transit instead of driving."
That report also noted the growing popularity of public transportation, especially among Baby Boomers, empty-nesters and Millennials, who total about 150 million people.
"We expect we're going to continue to have good ridership," Melaniphy says. "More than 80% of transit systems have cut services, raised fares or considered it. Think about what ridership numbers would look like if they didn't have to cut back."
He says public transportation "is really part of the overall transportation system" that gives people choices for trips.
Melaniphy notes that in 2012, there were 62 local tax elections on transportation funding proposals that had at least a significant transit component; 49 of them passed.
"We're seeing record transit ridership on systems all over the country, in the Midwest, the East, the South, the North and the West," he says.
In Michigan, the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority (TheRide) saw a 6.6% increase in ridership to a record 6.6 million trips in 2012, spokesman Don Kline says. "We have the transit-dependent riders, but we also have the choice riders," he says. "We really play into the national trends, with young people ditching their cars."
The 34-year-old system, which operates mainly in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, saw ridership numbers spike last year when gas prices hit $4 a gallon, Kline says.
In Washington state, ridership on Sound Transit soared 12% last year to just over 28 million - a record in the agency's 14-year history, spokesman Bruce Gray says.
"Ridership growth over the past several years has a lot to do with the recession trailing off, finally, and more people using our trains and buses to get to and from work," he says. "If you add more jobs and higher gas prices, that equals higher ridership on all of our services."