Public transit use in the U.S. jumped to the highest yearly level since 1956 last year, shrugging off a plunge in gasoline prices.
Ridership for the year was 10.8 billion, up 1 percent from 2013, according to American Public Transportation Association data released today. Public systems gave 2.7 billion rides from October through December, up 1.1 percent from a year earlier.
Transit trips rose as unemployment shrank to the lowest level since 2008. Ridership gained even as retail gasoline prices fell $1.09 a gallon, or 33 percent, in the fourth quarter, showing that transit can remain robust even when the cost of driving is low, said Michael Melaniphy, chief executive officer of the American Public Transportation Association.
“Even with gas prices dropping like a rock, the public is still demanding more transit options.” Melaniphy said by phone Friday. “Millennials are a stronger component of the workforce, and they’re not making a binary choice between transit or car. Now you do all sorts of things in a week. Transportation is really changing, and this speaks to it.”
The data includes rides on buses, subways, trains, trolleys and other routes operated by public transit agencies. It doesn’t include rides in taxis or ride-arranging services like Uber or Lyft.
An improving economy means more people need to get to work, Melaniphy said. Unemployment in the U.S. fell from 6.7 percent at the end of 2013 to 5.6 percent by the end of last year.
“Unemployment is down, jobs are up and transit is up,” Melaniphy said. “All that stuff works together.”
Several systems reported record ridership in 2014. Among them were Bay Area Rapid Transit in Northern California, the King County Department of Transportation in Seattle and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority in Boston.
Several factors drove ridership, from new routes and more frequent service to a World Series run for the San Francisco Giants, whose fans took the train to AT&T Park. Smartphones are helping, as riders can access maps and schedules and in some cases see exactly where trains and buses are while walking to a station.
It’s not surprising that the cheapest pump prices since 2009 didn’t lure people into sport-utility vehicles, said Michael Green, a spokesman for Heathrow, Florida-based AAA, the nation’s largest motoring group. Falling gasoline prices haven’t historically led to more driving, he said.
Retail gasoline tumbled last year with crude, which is down by more than half from the 2014 peak. West Texas Intermediate, which reached more than $107 in June, settled at $49.61 on the New York Mercantile Exchange on Friday.
“As more Americans return to work, you’ll see increases in people both driving and using transit,” Green said.
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