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But beneath the radar, Miller said, what was quietly happening was just as important. “Transit agencies nationally saw huge increases in Web hits as people started to just try to figure out how to even use a bus. And then when gas prices dropped, ridership didn’t drop as much. People needed a catalyst to try it, and once they did, they saw the benefits, like sleeping or reading and not stressing over traffic. We found over and over that when gas spiked and then fell back, many people stayed on public transportation.”
With the U.S. population expected to grow 100 million by 2050, transit will become more appealing, she said. “Do we want them all on the road? Of course not. They’re already congested.”
Tracking Twin Cities numbers, and millennials in particular, is complicated by the irony that sometimes a huge buildup in transit capacity can temporarily depress existing transit numbers.
Amid lots of jumps, for instance, the University of Minnesota bus service ridership plunged by well over a million rides since 2010 after having risen strongly before.
Two explanations, university officials say, include more students living in the multitude of new dwelling units near campus, and Green Line construction through campus that created havoc for buses. Metro Transit says its routes were affected, too.
That could portend some impressive 2014 figures, considering that Blue Line light rail is now producing more than 10 million rides all by itself.
All this is not without strain, riders and transit agencies say.
The switch to a bigger, nicer coach that rider Busse recalls is triggered by mathematics showing a route is under duress, said MVTA’s Selvig, but that’s not always possible.
“The neediest routes trigger uses of 57-seat coaches in place of 40-seat buses,” she said, “and we do that all the time, but sometimes we just don’t have the bigger buses. We’ve had a lot of standees in the last year or so, on a lot of trips.”
As for the over-jammed parking lot in Bloomington, Metro Transit’s Drew Kerr acknowledged the problem but said a more permanent solution is in store with the planned arrival of a ramp not far away when the Orange Line rapid busway on Interstate 35W arrives later in the decade.
Overall, he said, there are spot shortages in places, but 12,000 more spaces systemwide than riders are using. The agency is moving to add spaces in key spots, he said, including 580 at Maplewood Mall last year and the doubling to 1,000 spaces of a Brooklyn Park facility that’s 99 percent full.
“Usage is at its highest in the system’s history,” he said, “but that’s just consistent with what’s happening with riders.”
David Peterson • 952-746-3285