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6:37 am
Sat March 22, 2014

Commuters Ditch Cars For Public Transit In Record Numbers

Originally published on Mon March 24, 2014 10:38 am

During the morning rush at Chicago's Union Station, commuter trains pull in, the doors open and a crush of people, newspapers and coffee cups in hand, pour off like a flood.

Financial analyst Nader Kouklan says he makes the trip from the suburbs to Chicago's downtown every day.

"It's easier and just a faster way to get to work, rather than having to deal with the traffic of the morning commute," Kouklan says.

Law student Amalia Romano rides Chicago's Metra line, too.

"I take it because I don't want to pay $16 to park every day," Romano explains.

Romano and Kouklan are among the increasing number of Americans using public transportation. Across the country, public transportation ridership jumped last year to its highest level in more than 50 years.

Metra spokesman Michael Gillis says on a typical workday, the rides people take on Metra total about 300,000. The total for last year was 82 million trips, a 1 percent increase in ridership over 2012.

"Employment had a lot to do with it — just the gradual gains in employment in the region," Gillis says. "Downtown occupancy ticked up a little bit, so that helps."

One other big reason: Chicago sports. A few days after the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup Championship last year, 425,000 people rode Metra to join about 2 million hockey fans at a huge Blackhawks rally downtown.

"That was probably one of the busiest days in Metra history," Gillis says.

Throughout the entire country, just about every public transportation system saw hikes in ridership, according to a recent study from the American Public Transportation Association. President Michael Melaniphy says Americans took 10.7 billion trips on public transportation last year.

"That's huge," Melaniphy says. "This is the highest ridership number we've had in public transportation in 57 years."

Nationally, bus ridership was flat in 2013, due in part to horrible winter weather. However, ridership numbers for subways, elevated trains, street cars and trolleys were up.

"Cities under 100,000 have had ridership increases on average of 3.83 percent," Melaniphy says. "We've seen ridership increases in big cities as well. New York had a huge ridership increase."

Public transit agencies in Ann Arbor, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Flagstaff and Denver were among those reporting record ridership levels. In Utah, where several new transit lines opened around Salt Lake City, the number of people traveling by commuter rail rose a whooping 103 percent over the year before, says Utah Transportation Authority spokesman Remi Barron.

Utah has been on a public transit building boom, Barron says. A new commuter line runs between Salt Lake City and Provo. Three light rail lines run through and around Salt Lake City.

"Our airport line's been particularly popular, especially with skiers and visitors, because now people can get right off the plane, they can hop on the light rail train and they can be downtown in 15 minutes," Barron says.

College student Spencer Saddler takes FrontRunner, UTA's commuter line, about three times a week. He says when he used to drive, he'd often get stuck in traffic.

"It's just really annoying, and you look over and see FrontRunner just racing down the tracks," Saddler says. "Like, I could be sitting in there right now, taking a nap or doing homework."

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Well, coal burning may not be good for air quality, but it seems that more Americans are now hopping on a bus or a train. Last year, public transit ridership jumped to the highest level in more than 50 years. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: May I have your attention, Metra Stop West service customers for your 8:35 to Portland...

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: During the morning rush at Chicago's Union Station, commuter trains pull in, the doors open and a crush of people, newspapers and coffee cups in hand, pour off like a flood. Financial analyst Nader Kouklan says he makes the trip from the suburbs to Chicago's downtown every day.

NADER KOUKLAN: It's easier and just a faster way to get to work, rather than having to deal with the traffic of the morning commute.

CORLEY: Law student Amalia Romano rides Chicago's Metra line too.

AMALIA ROMANO: I take it because I don't want to pay $16 to park every day.

CORLEY: Or, she says, pay high gasoline prices if she drives. Metra spokesman Michael Gillis says on a typical workday the number of rides people take on Metra is about 300,000. And the total for last year was 82 million trips - a 1 percent increase in ridership over 2012.

MICHAEL GILLIS: Employment had a lot to do with it, just the gradual gains in employment in the region. Downtown office occupancy ticked up a little bit, so that helped.

CORLEY: And there was one other big reason: sports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Would you like to say hello to the Chicago Blackhawks hockey players who just won the 2013 Stanley Cup?

(APPLAUSE)

CORLEY: When the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup championship last year, 425,000 people rode Metra that day, many coming into town to join about two million fans at the huge Blackhawks rally held downtown.

GILLIS: So, that was probably one of the busiest days in Metra history.

CORLEY: Throughout the entire country, though, just about every public transportation system so hikes in ridership. That's according to a recent study by the American Public Transportation Association. President Michael Melaniphy says Americans took 10.7 billion trips on public transportation last year.

MICHAEL MELANIPHY: That's huge. This is the highest ridership number we've had in public transportation in 57 years.

CORLEY: No blip, says Melaniphy, just a steady public transit climb. Nationally, bus ridership was flat in 2013, due in part to horrible winter weather. However, the numbers for subways, elevated trains, street cars and trolleys were up. Again, Michael Melaniphy.

MELANIPHY: Cities under 100,000 have had ridership increases on average of 3.83 percent. We've seen ridership increases in big cities as we and New York, had a ridership increase.

CORLEY: Public transit agencies in Ann Arbor, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Flagstaff and Denver were among those reporting record ridership levels. And in Utah, which added several new transit lines around Salt Lake City, the number of people traveling by commuter rail went up a whopping...

REMI BARRON: A hundred and three percent over the years before.

CORLEY: Utah Transportation Authority, or UTA, spokesman Remi Barron says Utah's been on a public transit building boom. A new commuter line runs between Salt Lake City and Provo, and there are new light rail lines.

BARRON: Our airport line's been particular popular, especially with skiers and visitors because now people can get right off the plane, they can hop onto the light rail train and they can be downtown in 15 minutes.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN BELL RINGING)

CORLEY: The UTA's commuter line is called the Frontrunner. It's a train Spencer Saddler, a college student, takes about three times a week. He says when he used to drive, he'd get stuck in traffic a lot.

SPENCER SADDLER: It was just really annoying. And you look over and you see Frontrunner just racing down the tracks, like, I could be sitting in there right now taking a nap or doing homework.

CORLEY: UTA is one of many transit systems that expects ridership to continue to grow this year. The Public Transit Association says it's because there is a fundamental change in how people move about their communities.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN BELL RINGING)

CORLEY: Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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