Published on Sunday, April 30, 2000 in the Washington Post
Going Forward:
Mass Transit Popularity Surges in U.S.
by Lyndsey Layton
From Gainesville to Grosvenor to Grand Central station, the number of people crowding onto public transportation is the largest in 40 years. The surge has packed trains and buses, crammed park-and-ride lots and suggests that increasingly, Americans are leaving the driving to someone else.

Last year, 9 billion trips were taken on mass transit in the United States, according to new figures released by the American Public Transportation Association. The last time ridership was that high, Dwight D. Eisenhower was in the White House.

More significant, transit advocates say, is that ridership is rising at a rate faster than automobile use. Ridership rose 4.5 percent in 1999 compared with 1998, while motor vehicle travel rose 2 percent, according to the transit association.

The shift is putting a stress on some transit providers, such as the Washington area's Metro system, as passengers flood through turnstiles and squeeze onto standing-room-only buses. "The Red and Orange lines are close to capacity now," said Metro General Manager Richard A. White, whose agency is studying its capacity and trying to determine when it will reach its limits. "Parking in most of our lots is tight. We don't know how many more passengers we can absorb before we reach capacity." The agency already has ordered 100 more rail cars and 100 more buses.

Highway advocates noted that although transit ridership is increasing, the vast majority of Americans still rely on the automobile for trips to work and play.

"Let's not break out the champagne here," William D. Fay, president of the American Highway Users Alliance, said in response to some transit officials' giddiness over the new numbers. "Highway growth is the real success. By real numbers, far more people are driving cars than taking transit."

In the last year, transit gains have been visible from Bowling Green, Ky., where bus ridership increased 31 percent, to New York City, where ridership on buses, commuter trains and the nation's largest subway system jumped 7 percent.

In the Washington area, the national trend is seen in packed Metro subway cars and parking lots, Prince George's County's popular Call-A-Bus program and the way the Virginia Railway Express is drawing enough new passengers each month to fill an additional train car. VRE is the second fastest-growing commuter railroad in the nation after the one in Dallas.

At Metro, where 13 of the top 20 ridership days in its 25-year history have occurred since March 1, White said the trend is signaling a subtle shift in American behavior.

"Transit dominated this country prior to World War II," White said. "After the war, that changed with the creation of the interstate system and tremendous exurban and suburban development. But now that congestion and sprawl are becoming front-burner issues, there's a change in people's attitudes and patterns.

"This is a harbinger of good times."

Public transit use peaked in 1946, when Americans took 23.4 billion trips on trains, buses and trolleys, said Donna Aggazio, spokeswoman for the American Public Transportation Association. By 1960, that figure had dropped to 9.3 billion, and it declined further as roads and car culture gripped the nation. In 1972, transit ridership hit rock bottom at 6.5 billion trips. Since then, it seesawed until 1995, when it began steadily climbing.

Transit operators and analysts say increases in mass transit ridership are driven by several factors, including heavy public spending on transit, a strong economy, stable fares, innovation among transit systems and growing congestion on roads and highways.

The federal government began heavily investing in mass transit about 10 years ago, sending billions of dollars to communities across the country to launch ferry boats, build tracks and buy trains and trolleys, including special vehicles for the disabled. Meanwhile, many states increased transit funding.

"If you invest in something and provide a good product, people will use it," said Chris Boylan, spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates the New York City subway and bus system as well as Long Island Bus and two commuter railroads. The MTA has spent $34 billion in improvements since 1982, he said. Daily trips number 7.2 million today, compared with 5.1 million three years ago, Boylan said.

Heavy spending on transit is likely to continue. In the Washington area, plans for transportation projects through 2025 call for spending $76 billion, of which $40 billion is dedicated to transit, said Ron Kirby, a transportation planner with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

A rollicking national economy also has boosted ridership. "People ride for a purpose, either making money or spending money," said William Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association.

The economy has allowed fares to remain relatively flat while enabling transit agencies to offer new service or extend existing service, he said. Salt Lake City just opened its first rail system, Phoenix is adding Sunday bus service, and Colorado voters have decided to extend Denver's light-rail system.

Close to home, Metro opened two District stations last year, will extend the Green Line to five stations in Prince George's next year and has aggressive plans to extend rail to Largo and Dulles International Airport.

Many say the transit agencies have attracted riders by becoming more flexible and creative. "The industry has gotten a lot smarter," said Bruce Frame, spokesman for the Federal Transit Administration. In Baltimore, after the transit agency rolled out a $3 transit pass for unlimited one-day travel on trolleys and buses, ridership jumped, said Frame, who lives there.

In Washington, Metro simplified its byzantine bus fare system and eliminated transfer fees in June. Four months later, daily ridership had jumped by more than 60,000 trips, or about 13 percent.

In Virginia, the VRE places a premium on customer service. It has free parking that is constantly expanding, cafe cars and an e-mail service that alerts riders of service problems or changes. VRE reimburses riders for day-care fees if their trains are late and issues a free ticket to any commuter whose train is delayed at least 30 minutes. It averages 9,000 daily passenger trips.

Several transit agencies have been offering up-to-date transit information through Web sites or station signs. Metro has been working for years on such information signs, but software problems have created lengthy delays.

A new trend in transit, called universal access, also is proving highly popular, Millar said. Universal access gives passengers unlimited rides on a transit system in exchange for a flat fee that is usually paid by a third party--a university or housing complex or community, he said.

In State College, Pa., bus ridership shot up 250 percent last year after Pennsylvania State University gave $1 million to the local transit agency to get rid of 40-cent fares and offer unlimited, free travel on routes connecting the campus with the downtown, said Hugh Mose, general manager of the Centre Area Transportation Authority.

"This fall we won't have enough equipment," Mose said. The agency had ordered 10 new buses and just bought six more. Even so, Mose expects to come up short.

Although some say rising fuel prices may have shifted some riders from cars to mass transit, several transit agencies reported ridership already was going up last year when gasoline prices were still less than $1 a gallon.

Meanwhile, sprawl and traffic congestion are making automobile travel less appealing, said Alan Kiepper, a transportation consultant who has run the transit systems in Houston, Atlanta and New York. "Congestion is just getting really, really bad, and people are sick of sitting in their cars and getting nowhere," he said.

Mike Seymour, a 52-year-old public health analyst from Rockville, is one of them. He stopped driving his Chevy van to work in Twinbrook two years ago and started riding the Montgomery Ride-On bus. "My kids were getting up to the age where I no longer had to play taxi driver after work, and I wanted to give our cars a rest," Seymour said. "It's comfortable, and I like to be able to sit and read the paper for 20 minutes."

As it celebrates ridership records, the transit industry wants to keep the momentum up. It's planning a national image campaign similar to the milk industry's "Got Milk?" advertising push.

"Transit still has a negative image in many circles," said White, one of several managers working on the campaign.

"Many people believe that transit is for people who can't afford an automobile. But a number of people--a third of the nation--are in the middle and don't have a strong opinion. We need to reach people in their living rooms and show them that transit is a good choice."


Public transportation ridership nationwide is at its highest level in 40 years, growing 4.5 percent from 1998 to 1999. Motor vehicle travel rose 2 percent during the same period.

National public transportation*, a breakdown of passenger trips

Mode: Heavy rail

1998 (000): 2,522,710

1999 (000): 2,685,998

% change: 6.47%

Mode: Trolleybus

1998 (000): 119,153

1999 (000): 126,469

% change: 6.14

Mode: Demand response

1998 (000): 102,928

1999 (000): 107,791

% change: 4.72

Mode: Bus

1998 (000): 5,161,923

1999 (000): 5,360,392

% change: 3.84

Mode: Commuter rail

1998 (000): 379,388

1999 (000): 393,662

% change: 3.76

Mode: Other

1998 (000): 95,454

1999 (000): 96,864

% change: 1.48

Mode: Light rail

1998 (000): 284,622

1999 (000): 286,671

% change: 0.72

*Heavy rail refers to subway systems. Demand response is transit for the disabled or elderly. Commuter rail refers to trains. Light rail refers to street trolleys.

Total number of public transit trips taken in the United States

Highest year: 1946--23.4 billion

Lowest year: 1972--6.567 billion

Current: 1999--9 billion

The national transportation trend has been echoed in Metrorail's ridership. Thirteen of Metro's top 20 ridership days throughout its 25-year history have occurred since March 1.

Top 20 Metro ridership days

Ridership: 811,257

Date: Jan. 20, 1993

Event: Presidential inauguration

Ridership: 804,146

Date: Oct. 16, 1995

Event: Million Man March

Ridership: 646,788

Date: April 19, 2000

Event: Capitals' Eastern Conference Quarterfinals

Ridership: 637,305

Date: April 8, 1999

Event: Cherry blossoms

Ridership: 621,823

Date: April 6, 2000

Event: No event

Ridership: 621,137

Date: April 27, 2000

Event: No event

Ridership: 620,606

Date: April 7, 2000

Event: No event

Ridership: 619,236

Date: April 18, 2000

Event: No event

Ridership: 617,404

Date: April 7, 1999

Event: Cherry blossoms

Ridership: 615,476

Date: April 13, 2000

Event: Capitals' Eastern Conference Quarterfinals

Ridership: 612,790

Date: March 24, 2000

Event: Cherry blossoms

Ridership: 610,116

Date: Oct. 3, 1997

Event: World Cup soccer; Promise Keepers

Ridership: 607,086

Date: March 30, 2000

Event: No event

Ridership: 605,556

Date: March 15, 2000

Event: No event

Ridership: 605,286

Date: April 20, 2000

Event: No event

Ridership: 604,500

Date: April 12, 2000

Event: No event

Ridership: 604,089

Date: Jan. 20, 1989

Event: Presidential inauguration

Ridership: 603,974

Date: March 16, 2000

Event: No event

Ridership: 603,954

Date: March 23, 2000

Event: Cherry blossoms

Ridership: 603,766

Date: July 20, 1994

Event: Elton John & Billy Joel concert

SOURCES: American Public Transportation Association, Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority

© 2000 The Washington Post Company