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Mass Transit Use in State Up 6% Last Year

Transportation: Figures from study reflect a national trend. But one critic calls rise 'anemic.'

April 19, 2002|HUGO MARTIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mass transit systems throughout the state, including bus and rail lines in Southern California, enjoyed a 6% increase in ridership last year, reflecting a nationwide growth in transit use, according to a newly released study.

Though transit advocates touted the increase as a sign that the state's continuing investment in mass transit is finally paying off, critics noted that the small boost does not reflect a significant change in overall commuting habits.

The percentage of Californians who drive alone has remained mostly unchanged for nearly a decade, about 70%. Trips on mass transit represent only 5% of all transportation in the state.

"You are talking about a small percentage change on a very small share of all miles traveled," said state Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks), who has long supported investing more in the state's overburdened freeway system. He called the increase "anemic."

Even transit advocates acknowledge that the increase could be partly because of a growing population and demographic changes. Other factors, such as the monthlong strike of bus drivers in Los Angeles County in 2000, could explain why ridership numbers for 2001 were greater.

Still, several transportation experts viewed the rise as a positive sign.

Nationwide, transit ridership has increased gradually since 1996, according to the American Public Transportation Assn.

In California, ridership grew in 2001 by 5.9% or 73.5 million trips, according to the report by the Surface Transportation Policy Project, a nonprofit agency that advocates improved mass transit use.

Spokeswoman Barbara McCann said the increase shows that Californians are willing to use mass transit if government continues to make such systems fast and convenient.

"When you start to have quality transit, people choose it,'' she said.

She added that the two agencies with the largest reported ridership increases were commuter rail services in Northern California that serve commuters who would otherwise drive to work.

Eight of the 10 transit agencies that reported the highest growth rates were in Southern California. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority's ridership grew from 377.6 million in 2000 to 435 million in 2001, an increase of 15.2%, according to the study. That increase accounts for 57 million of the state's 73.5 million gain in ridership.

But transportation officials noted that the MTA bus strike in fall 2000 lowered the overall ridership that year, making the numbers for 2001 seem even higher. For 32 days, more than 4,000 MTA drivers refused to get behind the wheel, bringing the nation's second-largest transit system to a grinding halt.

The 2001 increase in ridership for the MTA can also be attributed to several expansion projects.

The Red Line subway system that starts in downtown Los Angeles was expanded from Hollywood to its final stop in North Hollywood in 2000, at a cost of $1.3 billion. Daily ridership on the system jumped from 63,750 in March 2000 to 119,000 in March 2001.

MTA spokesman Rick Jager said the increase proves that the more convenient and efficient a transit system is, the more people will choose it over driving on congested freeways.

"People are sampling the system and finding that it can work," he said.

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