Americans Park Cars, Look to Public Transit

If you've recently decided to start commuting to work on public transportation, instead of driving, you've probably already noticed that you're not alone.

As it becomes less affordable to fill up the gas tank, more Americans are turning to buses, subways and commuter trains instead of getting on the highway, according to numbers released Monday by the American Public Transportation Association.

Americans logged 2.6 billion trips on public transportation in the first three months of this year alone, the group's report stated. That's nearly 85 million more trips than people took on public transit during the same period in 2007.

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"Certainly, taking public transit is the quickest way to beat the high gas prices," said Rose Sheridan, vice president of the American Public Transportation Association.

But while public transportation may be a wise economic and environmental choice, today's shift away from cars has some people questioning whether the nation's public transit system can handle the surge.

Robert Puentes, a fellow with the metropolitan policy program at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., said that while increased ridership is "a good problem to have," city transit systems are "in dire need of major investment."

That's not the case in other developed countries.

"Certainly, Europe for decades has invested heavily in public transit," Sheridan said. "And we are seeing now that China and India are right now significantly investing in public transit and expanding their services there."

But in the United States, Puentes said, "Many cities and metropolitan areas are not prepared for the surge."

He pointed to the suburban sprawl of the 1950s as the time when Americans started to rely more on their cars, and a time when national transportation policy started favoring highways.

"The interstates wound up turning into America's main streets," Puentes said. "The nation has built itself over the last 50 years on the promise of cheap driving."

Given how expensive driving is today, Americans are again turning toward public transit.

According to the American Public Transportation Association, last year saw a record 10.3 billion trips on public transportation, the highest number in 50 years.

And at the same time that ridership has increased thus far in 2008, Americans are driving less than ever. According to data from the Federal Highway Administration, vehicle travel was down 2.3 percent in the first three months of 2008.

The Seattle region is one place officials are ramping up investment in public transit. A new light rail station opened Saturday in Mukilteo, a town north of Seattle, and rail service from SEATAC airport to downtown Seattle opens next year. Sound Transit, the Seattle area's regional transit agency, now has more than 14 miles of continuous light rail tracks in place, as well as regional express buses and commuter rail.

Sound Transit's commuter rail is up 27.9 percent in the first quarter of 2008, compared to the first quarter of 2007.

"We've heard over and over again that high gas prices were definitely the thing that got them to consider transit," said Sound Transit spokeswoman Linda Robson. "In order for, I think, transit ridership to continue to grow, particularly here in the Seattle metro region, we're going to have to expand those choices and get a transit option for more people and more places."

This week's report from the American Public Transportation Association showed that travel by light rail, like streetcars and trolleys, has increased, most of all, this year -- up 10.3 percent overall -- especially in cities like Baltimore, Minneapolis, St. Louis and San Francisco. Still recovering from Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans' light rail ridership is skyrocketing back into use with a 476 percent increase in ridership.

Increases in light rail travel are followed by increases in commuter rail travel, up 5.7 percent, as well as subways and elevated train, up 4.4 percent, and bus travel, up 2 percent.

Sheridan said the APTA started seeing increases in ridership when gas prices first started spiking, following Hurricane Katrina. Though the numbers went back down before climbing again, she said many people who tried public transportation stuck with it.

Biking is the other growing option for commuters looking to save money. The country's first bike sharing program begins later this month in Washington, D.C., in hopes of easing traffic congestion. People will be able to pick up a bike at a centrally-located location, pedal away and return it to another location across town.

"The thought was really to add another alternative mode in public transportation," Martina Schmidt, director of Clear Channel Outdoor's SmartBike Program. "The gas prices really added onto it."

This week, the Senate Commerce Committee announced a hearing for later this month to examine the impacts of climate change on transportation, including how increases in passenger traffic are impacting each mode of transportation.