In a year in which gasoline prices hit record levels, mass transit use in the United States also reached its highest mark since 1957, according to industry figures released Monday.
About 10.7 billion rides were taken on mass transit in 2008, up about 4% from the previous year, according to the American Public Transportation Assn., a Washington-based group that represents transit agencies and manufacturers.
It was also a record or very good year for many transit agencies in Southern California. Among the large agencies, Orange County Transportation Authority buses and Metrolink commuter trains both set new records while Foothill Transit buses narrowly missed breaking that agency's previous best from 2003.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority had 486 million riders in 2008 -- not quite measuring up to the 494 million that the agency notched in fiscal year 2006-07. In July 2007, some fares were increased, and bus ridership fell as a result.
Still, agency officials were encouraged that rail ridership spiked as gas prices rose last year.
"We tended to attract more riders on the rail side when gas was $4.50, and the riders stuck around" even when gas prices fell, said Marc Littman, an MTA spokesman. "The rail is more competitive with the auto because it's faster and the fares are still cheap."
Officials at most agencies are encouraged that even with ridership slipping since last summer's peak gas prices, it was still higher in late 2008 than in late 2007 -- an indication that some riders may have given up their cars for transit.
The last time Americans took as many transit rides as they did last year was in 1957. The all-time high for ridership was set in 1946 with 23.5 billion rides.
Ridership then began a long slide through the 1950s and '60s as freeway construction and suburban flight exploded. Ridership bottomed out in 1972 at 6.6 billion and then began to climb as gas prices rose because of the Arab oil embargo.
Officials with the transit association wasted little time trumpeting the new numbers Monday. Their hope: persuade the Obama administration to pour much more money into transit as part of a massive federal transportation spending bill that is due to land before Congress later this year.
"Now, more than ever, the value of public transportation is evident, and the public has clearly demonstrated that they want and need more public transit services," said William Millar, APTA's president, in a statement.
Financially, many transit agencies are struggling. OCTA raised fares about 25% in January and cut 50,000 hours of bus service on Monday because of declining sales tax revenue and cuts in state funding by the Legislature. Metrolink is likely to raise fares this summer, and the MTA is also contemplating serious bus service cuts because of the loss of state money.
Meanwhile, the Bus Riders Union is holding a news conference in Los Angeles today to ask that federal stimulus money be used to purchase new buses, add more bus-only lanes and cut bus fares.
"It's a proven way of attracting ridership," said Manuel Criollo, a spokesman for the group.