Californians are riding public transit in record numbers, even in car-crazy Los Angeles, with 25 of the state's 29 largest transit systems showing a growth in ridership last year, statistics released Monday showed.
Stressed-out long-distance commuters apparently fled to trains in large enough numbers to give rail lines in the Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area the state's highest percentage increases, according to data released by the American Public Transit Assn. and the Surface Transportation Policy Project.
Several municipal bus lines in Los Angeles County showed increased ridership in 2000, including Montebello, up 9.3%; Santa Clarita, 8.7%; Torrance, 8.2%; Norwalk, 6.6%; Long Beach, 5.7%; Santa Monica, 4.4%, and Foothill Transit in the San Gabriel Valley, 4.3%.
Officials said a 32-day strike at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority helped boost ridership of those suburban lines. A strong economy also contributed. "When the economy is up, our ridership also grows," said Tom Whittle, general manager of Torrance Transit.
The strike resulted in a 3% decline on MTA buses and trains, according to analysts, but researchers said that if passenger trips were adjusted for the strike, the state's largest transit agency would have shown a 5.8% increase.
After dramatic growth during the 1990s, Orange County Transportation Authority bus ridership grew by less than 1% last year. But Metrolink, the commuter rail service that runs from Orange County to Los Angeles, was up 11.5%, ranking with the state's leaders.
Overall, preliminary estimates indicate that the annual growth rate among the state's largest transit agencies is about 5%, which would translate into 20 million to 30 million additional trips a year. That would put California well above the national growth rate of 3.5%, according to the researchers.
The numbers do not yet challenge California's reputation as the epicenter of the car culture, but the researchers say that ridership on public transit now is higher than the boom years of World War II.
"What you are seeing in California is the reverse of the precipitous decline in transit ridership during the early 1990s," said James Corless, director of the California branch of the Surface Transportation Policy Project. "The economy is doing better, but we've also invested a lot more in transit, and it is paying off."
Among the fastest-growing rail lines was the Altamont Commuter Express, which runs from Stockton to San Jose, which jumped 66% last year. Amtrak's Capitol Corridor, from San Jose to Sacramento, grew by 50%. Bay Area Rapid Transit ridership grew by nearly 13%.
"Those huge jumps are basically a reflection of higher gasoline prices and horrific congestion for those very long commutes," said Stuart Cohen, of the Bay Area Transportation Choices Forum. "People are just throwing in the towel."
Cohen said that in Los Angeles, the MTA, which accounts for nearly half of all the state's bus and rail trips, got a huge payoff from its inauguration of the Rapid bus service in Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley.
The Rapid buses make fewer stops, and use synchronized signals and computerized traffic monitoring to speed cross-city commutes along Wilshire Boulevard and Ventura Boulevard in the Valley.
"Using very inexpensive technology, there was an incredible increase of 25% on the two Rapid bus corridors," Cohen said. "That shows a lot of people will take transit if it will take them where they want to go in a reasonable amount of time. That's why we think speeding up buses is going to give the biggest bang for the buck in Los Angeles and most other areas."
The Rapid bus has been so successful that the MTA is planning to dramatically expand the service to other parts of its system.