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Transit ridership jumped last year as road travel fell

Associated Press / March 9, 2009
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WASHINGTON - Americans hopped on buses, subways, and commuter trains more last year amid record-high gas prices and drove less on the nation's highways, according to industry figures to be released today.

Analysts disagree on whether the number of riders - the most since 1956 - was boosted temporarily by the recession.

People made 10.7 billion trips on public transit in 2008, a 4 percent increase over 2007, according to the American Public Transportation Association. Over the same time, Americans drove 3.6 percent less on the nation's highways.

Gas prices peaked at more than $4 in July before falling, but ridership remained strong. In 1956, Americans made nearly 11 billion trips.

However, the percentage was much higher because the country had far fewer people - about 170 million compared with some 306 million today - and not as many cars.

Still, driving accounted for more than 90 percent of commuters' trips, said Robert Poole, director of transportation studies for the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank.

The swooning economy should be hurting ridership as workers lose their jobs, and cash-strapped transit agencies raise fares and cut service, said William W. Millar, the transportation association's president. However, he believes many who are trying mass transit are sticking with it despite the economy.

"I think there's no doubt that many people have found transit is a good thing," Millar said.

Poole said the real test will be if gas prices remain low as the economy improves. For most commuters who live and work in the suburbs, public transportation is inconvenient, he said.

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