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Invisible Transit Riders

March 13, 2014 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

Transit advocates celebrated this week's news that U.S. urban rail, bus and other public transportation vehicles provided 10.7 billion rides in 2013, a level not seen since 1956. It's too bad that this count misses hundreds of millions more transit trips that would show even greater movement away from private motoring by American travelers.

"There is a fundamental shift going on in the way we move about our communities," Michael Melaniphy, CEO of the American Public Transportation Association, said in a news release accompanying the new statistics. "Community leaders know that public transportation investment drives community growth and economic revitalization."

All true, as far as it goes. Emboldened by the new statistics, the APTA is calling for doubling federal transit funding by 2020 to more than $22 billion a year. It could make a better case for this aggressive agenda with more accurate counting of current transit patronage.

The APTA's figures, which are considered authoritative, omit more than 20 million annual rides in Minnesota, counting only those on Metro Transit and three suburban providers. APTA spokeswoman Virginia Miller told me that the national trade group's annual report compiled figures just from those of its members that responded to an survey. "Ninety percent of the transit trips in North America are on our member systems," she said.

Even with an unlikely 100 percent member response, that leaves a billion or more rides unaccounted for nationwide. And that's a critical problem, because it exaggerates autocentric claims of transit's supposedly trivial fraction of U.S. travel. For example, USA TODAY's report of the latest figures noted that transit's mode share remains well below the 12.6 percent recorded in 1960.

At a reported 5 percent in 2012, the rate has been rising since at least 2000. With complete numbers, it was probably close to 6 percent last year. But even with all the under-counting, the New York Times reported, transit ridership is up 37 percent since 1995, "well ahead of a 20 percent growth in population and a 23 percent increase in vehicle miles traveled."

The auto and road-building industries wouldn't stand for under-reported statistics on driving. Neither should transit interests when it comes to ridership. Meanwhile, who are all the invisible transit patrons?

In Greater Minnesota, based on 2012 figures from the state Department of Transportation, they are 7.6 million in regional centers such as Duluth, Rochester and St. Cloud, plus almost 4 million others in small cities and rural areas. These include more than 200,000 users of 89 independent elderly and disabled transit services. Only one of Minnesota's 87 counties remains without any transit service at all, but riders in nearly 80 of them aren't reflected in the APTA count.

Twin Cities phantom riders last year included 3.3 million on Metropolitan Council suburban contract routes that are not a part of Metro Transit, nearly 3 million University of Minnesota intercampus shuttlers, 1.8 million disabled Metro Mobility patrons and more than half a million dial-a-ride and vanpool users. Instead of the 85.4 million rides that were reported to APTA, the real 2013 total for the metro area was 94.3 million.

Even with the shutdown of the Ramsey Star Express and Rush Line suburban bus services, total metro transit ridership increased by 435,000 from the 2012 figures shown above. The biggest gainer was the much-maligned Northstar commuter rail, up 11 percent to more than 787,000. Its strong growth on a route from Minneapolis to exurban Big Lake was reflected in smaller increases on systems serving outer-ring suburban Apple Valley, Burnsville, Eden Prairie, Maple Grove, Plymouth and Savage.

As the Times pointed out, surging transit ridership is all the more significant now because it exceeds previous recent peaks recorded in 2008, when the U.S. economy crashed and gasoline rose above $4 a gallon. An average at the pump well below that last year "undermines the conventional wisdom that transit use rises when those prices exceed a certain threshold," the Times noted.

Nationwide, some of the reported ridership hikes came from new infrastructure and greater service frequencies. This build-it-and-they-will come phenomenon mimics road-building that fed rising driving in decades past. Interestingly, however, Minnesota's transit gains last year came despite little in the way of new services and the loss of a couple. Just wait, though, and see what the June launch of the Central Corridor Green Line light rail does for this year's numbers.

We know the APTA will count that ridership. Instead of trying to defend its incomplete statistics, the nation's most important transit advocacy group and source of statistics also should find a way to accurately report the full and growing impact of safe, efficient, economical and environmentally friendly public transit on American life.

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  • Dale says:

    March 13, 2014 at 9:20 am

    Now if only there were viable transit options near me…and I am in Bloomington, no out in the sticks.  There is no “local” transit options within Bloomington.  The only bus service near me is express routes to Downtown Minneapolis.  I wish there was a transit option that I could use to the library or to shopping centers, all of which are in the 3 to 6 mile range from my home.