Public Transit Use Reaches Record High

Mar 10, 2014
Originally published on March 10, 2014 4:07 pm

Americans are riding the rails and buses in greater numbers than anytime since the beginning of the suburban sprawl in the 1950s.

A study by the American Public Transportation Association reports nearly 10.7 billion trips were taken last year, which is the highest number of trips since 1956.

The uptick is not confined to cities like New York and Washington, D.C., which have average high populations of ridership. Cities including Seattle, Denver and San Diego have also seen a huge gain as they expand their public transportation offerings.

Cardiff Garcia of The Financial Times joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to discuss the increasing use of public transportation.


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Well, now to transportation. A study released today by the American Public Transportation Association says that 2013 showed record highs in the number of people taking public transit, the highest numbers since the 1950s. Here to tell us more about this is Financial Times reporter Cardiff Garcia, who's with us from New York, as he is each week. Hi, Cardiff.


HOBSON: Well, tell us more about this study, the highest level of public transit use since 1956.

GARCIA: That's right. And by the way, it was up across all categories. It was subways. It was trains. It was trolleys. It was buses - I mean, no category declined. Though I have to say, I'm not surprised by this number. I'm not surprised that we've reached this level of ridership, because this really the result of both short-term and, more interestingly, long-term trends that we've been sort of observing in the socioeconomic landscape for some time now.

HOBSON: Well, let's talk about what those are. And I think the first thing people might think of is gas prices, people perhaps deciding not to take their car on a trip somewhere because it's going to cost them more money. That's what happened in 2008, when we saw a peak before. But gas prices right now are relatively low. I mean, they're in the $3-and-something range, but compared to what we have seen, they're not so high.

GARCIA: That's exactly right. And by the way, that's actually a point in favor of this being part of a longer-term trend, as well. I think the shorter-term trend that really matters here is the economy. So the economy has been steadily recovering for the last few years. It has not been an impressive recovery. The recovery hasn't accelerated the way we'd like, but it's getting better, and that helps, especially when you consider just how much of these trips are just basic commutes.

If you have a job, you have a place to go, you're more likely to take this. You're more likely to take public transportation. The longer-term trends here are what are really fascinating to me. So we have a few things going on. One is urbanization. And we know, for instance, that people are starting to gradually leave the suburbs and head in the direction of the cities.

There was even a big book out by Leigh Gallagher earlier this year called "The End of the Suburbs." Now, this is a slow, evolutionary process rather than a revolutionary process, but it's happening. And it also includes a kind of interesting subcategory of the so-called urban burb, right. So, sort of city-like communities popping up in what are traditionally suburban sprawl areas, places where people can walk, a small downtown where they can take trolleys, where they can take buses, and they can leave their cars behind at home.

But the demographic issue here is also really compelling. So, on the one hand you have the aging population, the baby boomers, retiring. And we know that when people retire, they tend to drive a lot less. They're going to favor walking. They're going to favor public transportation. And they're going to favor going to places where they can just kind of walk around, and then get home very easily.

And, and most intriguingly to me, young people: There's been a tremendous decline in the use of cars by young people, and it's happening all throughout the developed world, not just in the United States, and it's not clear why that's happening. There are a few theories, and one of them, for instance, is that, you know, the kind of car you have no longer is the kind of status symbol that it used to be.

HOBSON: Right. Now it's about your iPhone, or whatever device you're walking around with.

GARCIA: Yeah, that's part of it. It might that younger people are more environmentally minded. It might just be that they've decided that city life is better than suburban life. It's tough to say, but it's a huge trend. It's very dramatic, and I think it's probably almost - well, I think it's almost certainly having an impact on these numbers, as well.

HOBSON: But, of course, not everyone lives in a city where they can use public transit, where they have access to public transit. You are, of course, in New York, which does have a very extensive public transit system, and, in fact, I think the - just the four, five, six lines, the Lexington Avenue lines, have bigger daily ridership than the next two biggest entire systems combined.

But what about that? What about in New York? This study did talk about - specifically about the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

GARCIA: Sure. So, I mean, New York always kind of - when describing what it's like to live here, it always brings to mind a kind of variation of Yogi Berra's old joke, which is that nobody drives here. There's too much traffic.


GARCIA: You know, I mean almost everybody who works in New York takes the subway. And so, I mean, the MTA has obviously recently been targeting younger people, younger riders. They're trying to offer discounts where they can. At the same time, at least for me, the cost of riding the line, of getting the, you know, a longer-term pass has kept climbing.

I mean, I think the issue with New York and maybe with other cities is that right now, they don't quite have to make it all that appealing to ride public transport. Everybody already finds it appealing. You already get enough offsetting benefits from living in the city that you don't need sort of discounts.

That's not to say that there aren't people who would very much benefit from it, especially lower-income families, and New York does have an inequality issue. I'm just saying that until New York sees competition from other cities or until it sees a big outflow of people, I don't think it's going to adjust its prices.

So, it's a fascinating issue, and right now, in fact, the MTA is seeing a big spike in transit riders. So, you know, there's no need to change, I guess.

HOBSON: Well, and many cities are not investing in their infrastructure right now.

GARCIA: That's right. And as I mentioned earlier, I think a lot of the investment that's taking place in public transit is happening in the suburbs, in places where it's relatively new. It would be a relatively convenient way of doing things, or in these urban burbs that I just described.

Something interesting about the study is that it noted a few places that you traditionally associate with driving or with sprawl, places like Miami, people have started taking these kinds of public transit increasingly, and I think that's a really fascinating trend to watch. I think it's still very early. I'm from Tampa, Florida, where it's, you know, it's just not as convenient to take public transit as it is to drive a car. Most people there have cars. But I'd be really fascinated to see if that starts to change, even if it's a very gradual change.

HOBSON: Cardiff Garcia, a reporter with The Financial Times. Cardiff, thanks so much.

GARCIA: Thanks, Jeremy.

HOBSON: And let us know what public transit is like where you are. Do you use it every day? Do you use it occasionally? Do you think that there should be more investment in public transit where you live? You can go to This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.