Transit use hits historic levels in metro, nationally

  • Article by: DAVID PETERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 24, 2014 - 7:39 AM

Nationally, public transit’s hitting numbers not seen since ‘56.

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Due to demographics, high gas prices, a recovering economy and faster, more convenient service, transit use is soaring.

Photo: GLEN STUBBE • gstubbe@startribune.com,

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Each weekday morning, as befits the name, Tim Busse climbs on a bus. It’s a route he calls “wildly successful” — about half full when it leaves Burnsville, but packed every morning after its Bloomington stop. “So packed that people were standing, until we got a much bigger, much nicer motor coach instead of a city bus.”

His son isn’t as happy. By the time he arrives at the same station to hop a bus to college classes, there’s often no place to park.

There’s both pain and progress as the Twin Cities, like the nation, experiences a steep rise in the use of public transit. Nationally, transit use last year hit 10.7 billion, a level not seen since the mid-1950s, and locally, total metro area ridership sneaked past 94 million in 2013, according to data compiled late last week — a jump of 6 million since 2007.

High gas prices, a recovering economy, a multitude of new facilities and faster, more frequent service explain a good deal of the jump so far. And transit advocates say they expect two growing demographic segments to provide continued thrust for years to come.

 

“Millennials and seniors are going to be huge in keeping public transportation hot,” said Virginia Miller, spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C.-based American Public Transportation Association.

“Millennials are texting and on Wi-Fi with their mobile devices and finding that a host of new smartphone applications is demystifying the rider experience by telling them exactly when the bus is coming. And growing numbers of seniors, the older they get, the less they feel like driving at all, or driving at night, or fighting rising congestion.”

Locally, in a year that saw the state’s first Bus Rapid Transit line launched out of Dakota County, the suburban transit service, the Minnesota Valley Transit Authority (MVTA), set a new high of more than 2.7 million rides. From the opposite direction, the Maple Grove transit service’s 836,443 was also a record.

The big player in the area, Metro Transit, didn’t quite hit a record, but it provided 5 million more rides than it had four years earlier.

The next three months will see more advances:

• In Minneapolis and St. Paul, the Green Line light rail linking the downtowns opens in June. The effect will ripple through the whole system: For instance, Northstar commuter rail clients hopping off near Target Field and connecting to light rail will have trains at five-minute intervals instead of 10, said Metro Transit spokesman John Siqveland.

• Suburban Scott County has its first full-fledged indoor-wait transit station ready to go, and on April 1 is staging a public hearing aimed at testing the water on a proposed half-cent sales tax for roads and transit.

• The MVTA board next month is expected to consider a proposal to widen a small experiment with Wi-Fi equipped buses to its entire fleet.

“The pilot has been quite successful,” said spokeswoman Robin Selvig. “We probably can’t expand to the whole fleet all at once, but it’s our goal to do that by the end of the year.”

Gas prices are motivator

Gas prices have been one big stimulant.

Broadly speaking, transit use shot skyward in 2008, when gas prices first topped $4 a gallon.

As prices dropped back and the recession hit, decreasing the size of the workforce, ridership dropped.

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