Ride on: Public transportation use reaches 57-year high, but not in Wisconsin

Lisa Neff, Staff writer

Americans took 10.7 billion trips on public transportation in 2013, which is the highest annual public transit ridership number in 57 years.

“Americans in growing numbers want to have more public transit services in their communities,” said American Public Transit Association board chair Peter Varga, who also is the CEO of The Rapid transit system in Grand Rapids, Mich. “Public transportation systems nationwide — in small, medium and large communities — saw ridership increases. Some reported all-time high ridership numbers.”

But the trend didn’t carry over to Wisconsin: Madison’s system reported a slight bump in bus use, an increase of 1.02 percent, but Port Washington reported a decrease of 2.78 percent. Milwaukee reported a decrease of 2.36 percent and Racine’s system reported bus ridership dropped 3.7 percent, according to APTA.

The public transit agencies reporting record ridership in 2013 included Ann Arbor, Mich.; Cleveland; Denver; Espanola, N.M.; Flagstaff, Ariz.; Fort Myers, Fla.; Indianapolis; Los Angeles; New Orleans; Oakland, Calif.; Pompano Beach, Fla.; Riverside, Calif.; Salt Lake City; San Carlos, Calif.; Tampa, Yuma, Ariz.; and New York City.

Ridership was up 37.2 percent since 1995, outpacing population growth, which was up 20.3 percent, and outpacing vehicle miles, which was up 22.7 percent since 1995.

“There is a fundamental shift going on in the way we move about our communities. People in record numbers are demanding more public transit services and communities are benefiting with strong economic growth,” said APTA president and CEO Michael Melaniphy. “Access to public transportation matters. Community leaders know that public transportation investment drives community growth and economic revitalization.”

Another reason behind the ridership increases is the economic recovery in certain areas. When more people are employed, public transportation ridership increases — nearly 60 percent of the trips taken on public transportation are for work commutes, according to the APTA.

In the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’s most recent report, Wisconsin ranked 35th in job creation.

“The federal investment in public transit is paying off and that is why Congress needs to act this year to pass a new transportation bill,” said Melaniphy.

The report showed:

• Bus ridership increased by 3.8 percent in cities with populations below 100,000. Nationally, bus ridership in communities of all sizes remained stable.

• Large bus systems with increases were reported by Washington, D.C., Houston, Cincinnati and Seattle.

• Subway and elevated train ridership increased by 2.8 percent across the country as eight out of 15 transit systems reported increases.

• Commuter rail ridership increased by 2.1 percent across the country, with 20 out of 28 transit systems reporting increases. With a new rail line that opened in December 2012, commuter rail in Salt Lake City saw an increase of 103.3 percent. Meanwhile, double-digit increases were reported in Austin, Texas; Harrisburg-Philadelphia; Anchorage, Alaska; Lewisville, Texas; Stockton, Calif.; Minneapolis, Minn.; and Portland, Ore.

• For light rail — modern streetcars, trolleys and heritage trolleys — ridership increased 1.6 percent in 2013 with 17 out of 27 transit systems reporting increases.

Wisconsin lags

As for public transportation bus trips, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation says there’s been a decline from 76.4 million in 2000 to 65.7 million in 2012. 

Transportation experts cite state funding cuts as a reason for the decline.

Al Stanek, parking and transit systems manager for Racine, said state cuts led the Belle Urban System to raise its fares but reduce its bus service hours by more than 10 percent in two years. “In the middle of the day, we went to buses running just once an hour,” he said. “It’s about the bare minimum you can provide service. If you missed the bus, now you’d be standing out in the cold for an hour, an hour and a half.”

Milwaukee County avoided cuts in bus service with a federal grant that runs out this year, said Brendan Conway, spokesman for Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele. But the county already had been raising fares and cutting services for more than a decade. Buses in the Milwaukee area travel 22 percent fewer miles than they did in 2000.

Wisconsin also discourages commuters with its lack of rail service and rapid transit, said Rob Henken, president of the Public Policy Forum. Rail services showed the biggest gains in riders in the APTA report, he noted.

Republican Gov. Scott Walker killed a high-speed rail project planned under former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle to connect Madison and Milwaukee.

To deal with the decline in service, a group of 15 state senators has introduced bills aimed at improving public transportation in the state. The proposals would:

• Require the DOT to submit a state rail plan every two years.

• Increase state aid for each class of mass transit systems in the state and restore transit cuts made in 2011.

• Require the DOT to establish a transit capital assistance program.

• Increase funding for the specialized transportation assistance program.

Sponsoring state Sen. Mark Miller, D-Monona, said, “Transit plays such a critical role in the vitality of our communities. The direct benefit to public transit users is enormous. For many Wisconsin residents, their only means of getting to a job, to go to a store or to the polls is by public transit.”

The AP contributed to this report.

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