Dear EarthTalk: What's behind the rise in public transit in the U.S. in the last few years, and how does our transit use compare with that of other developed countries? -- Angie Whitby, New Bern, N.C.
Transit ridership is indeed at its highest level in the U.S. in 57 years. According to data collected by the American Public Transportation Association, Americans took 10.7 billion trips on public transportation in 2013 -- the highest number since the 1950s, when many fewer of us owned cars.
And this increase "isn't just a one-year blip," APTA said. Since 1995 -- when Congress passed the landmark ISTEA legislation and other surface transportation bills that greatly increased funding for public transit -- U.S. ridership has risen 37.2 percent, topping both population growth (up 20.3 percent) and vehicle miles traveled (up 22.7 percent). "There's a fundamental shift going on," said APTA's president, Michael Melaniphy. "More and more people are deciding that public transportation is a good option."
A number of factors are contributing to Americans' embrace of transit in recent years. For one, the flow of federal dollars to transportation alternatives since 1995 has meant more options than ever are available to those leaving their cars behind: Melaniphy reported that in the last two years, upward of 70 percent of transit tax initiatives have passed, providing lots more funding for beefing up transit projects coast-to-coast. Another factor is the economic recovery.
"When more people are employed, public transportation ridership increases, since nearly 60 percent of the trips taken on public transportation are for work commutes," Melaniphy said. "People in record numbers are demanding more public transit services and communities are benefiting with strong economic growth."
Despite these gains, the U.S. still lags way behind other developed nations. In a recent issue of The Atlantic, Ralph Buehler cited 2010 statistics showing that, while Americans drive for 85 percent of their daily trips, Europeans opt for cars only 50 to 65 percent of the time. "Longer trip distances only partially explain the difference," reported Buehler, adding that 30 percent of daily trips are shorter than a mile on both continents. "But of those under-one-mile trips, Americans drove almost 70 percent of the time, while Europeans made 70 percent of their short trips by bicycle, foot or public transportation."
The U.S. ranked last in the National Geographic Society's Greendex survey of transit use across 17 developed nations. Only 5 percent of Americans surveyed reported using public transit on a daily basis and only 7 percent reported using it at least once a week. Internationally, 25 percent of respondents reported daily public transportation use, with 41 percent using it at least once a week. According to Greendex, Canadians are more than twice as likely to report weekly or more transit usage than Americans, while Germans are almost five times more likely to use transit at least weekly. Russia topped the list, with 52 percent of respondents using public transit daily and 23 percent using it at least once a week.
Given America's suburban sprawl -- and the car-based infrastructure that has built up to support it -- it's hard to believe the U.S. will ever catch up with other developed countries in transit usage. But that won't stop millions of forward-thinking Americans from trying.