March 10, 2014

Quote: A Turning Point in Transit History

It’s not so much what Todd Litman said as where he said it and what it was about:

“A lot of people would prefer to drive less and rely more on walking, cycling and public transit, provided that those are high-quality options,” Mr. Litman said.

That’s from the New York Times, in this March 10th story: Use of Public Transit in U.S. Reaches Highest Level Since 1956, Advocates Report.

The American Public Transportation Association said in a report released on Monday … that 10.65 billion passenger trips were taken on transit systems during the year, surpassing the post-1950s peak of 10.59 billion in 2008, when gas prices rose to $4 to $5 a gallon.

The ridership in 2013, when gas prices were lower than in 2008, undermines the conventional wisdom that transit use rises when those prices exceed a certain threshold, and suggests that other forces are bolstering enthusiasm for public transportation, said Michael Melaniphy, the president of the association. …

From 1995 to 2013, transit ridership rose 37 percent, well ahead of a 20 percent growth in population and a 23 percent increase in vehicle miles traveled, according to the association’s data.

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The year 1956* marks a high point in the history of Motordom: the passage of the Federal-Aid Highway Act in the U.S. Congress – the launch of the interstate freeway system.  And arguably the precipitous decline in transit use.

Hence the significance of this turning point.

The other point, of course, is the irony of our moment, when the success of our commitment to transit is more evident than ever – as Peter Ladner noted: “Among all cities in North America, Metro Vancouver is third, behind only New York and Toronto with their heavy rail subways, for transit trips per person per year. We’re ahead of Montreal, Boston, and Washington D.C.”

How astonishing, then, that we would risk saying no to any further expansion, and then start cutting back existing service to 2003 levels, at the very time the Americans make the link of transit to employment and increased prosperity.

Stronger economic growth is playing an important role in the increased use of public transit, as more people are using the systems to get to an increasing number of jobs, the association reported, and transit agencies are nurturing growth by expanding their systems or improving services.

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* I discussed this in detail in an essay for the Canadian Institute of Planners: The View from ’56, Thoughts on the Short-term Future of Transportation Planning. 

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