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Brake on transit: Bad economic times subvert good ridership tallies

Written by Susan Mannella on .

As Charles Dickens might have said, it is the best of times and the worst of times for public transportation in the United States. A recent study by the American Public Transportation Association shows why.

The report by APTA, a long-established advocacy group representing public and private organizations in the industry, reports that Americans took 10.2 billion trips on public transportation in 2009, which was the fourth straight year that trips exceeded 10 billion.

That's good news, but it is dampened by the finding that the ridership figures last year represented a 3.8 percent decrease from the record-breaking tally of 2008.

It's easy to see why. As APTA President William Millar said in a statement: "Considering that nearly 60 percent of riders take public transportation to commute to and from work, it is not surprising that ridership declined in light of the many Americans who lost their jobs last year." It didn't help that gasoline prices fell -- an incentive for some riders to drive themselves -- and cutbacks and fare increases came as a consequence of the economic hard times.

Nevertheless, Mr. Millar, who was executive director of the Port Authority of Allegheny County from 1983 to 1996, is correct in reading the slight decrease optimistically. For despite the economic challenges, public support for public transit remains strong. Overall, public transportation use is up 31 percent since 1995, a figure double the rate of population growth.

It is a sad irony that the public's need and desire for public transportation occurs at the very time that governments at all levels struggle to provide funding in the face of the recession. The danger for public transportation is to be caught in an invidious spiral -- tough economy, decreased public revenue, less funding for public transit, more cutbacks, more fare increases, fewer riders. The Port Authority, which recently raised fares and is about to introduce reorganized schedules, is one of those trying to meet the challenge.

Long after the Great Recession has become a painful memory, more Americans will need better public transportation to make a greener and more efficient nation. Elected officials should take note: In good times or bad, public transit has to keep rolling along.

  

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