(USA TODAY) Use of public transit is soaring. Transit agencies had record or near-record ridership in the first three months of the year, thanks to high gas prices, a mild winter and, in one city, the Super Bowl.
At least a dozen communities set records for the number of people riding buses, trains and light rail, even though some cut service because of tight budgets, according to the American Public Transportation Association.
More people returning to work helped, says Michael Melaniphy, the association's president and CEO.
He says ridership on what's called heavy rail - subways and elevated trains - increased in 14 of the 15 systems that have such transit. Use of light rail - streetcars and trolleys - rose in 25 of the 27 cities that have it. And 34 of 37 large cities saw increases in bus ridership.
"It's nationwide," Melaniphy says. The result: fuller trains and buses straining the capacity of systems.
In Indianapolis, ridership on IndyGo's 30 bus routes was up 20% in the first three months of this year compared with that period last year, from 2.1 million rides to 2.5 million. Thousands of visitors for the Super Bowl in February, combined with a mild winter that made it easier for people to wait outside for a bus, contributed to the increase, says Bryan Luellen, an IndyGo spokesman. But the agency has a tight budget, he says, and as more riders fill the buses, there is little room to expand.
"There are definitely loads where you can't handle demand, such as during rush hour," he says. Many riders don't have a car or take the bus because it is cheaper than driving.
San Diego's Metropolitan Transit System saw a record first quarter: 21.8 million rides on its three light-rail lines and 89 bus routes. The previous first-quarter record was 21.4 million in 2009.
Passengers such as Milt Phegley, 60, are one reason. Phegley calls himself a "choice rider," someone who could drive to work but chooses to ride the light rail and bus. He says he became a daily rider because of rising gas prices, which averaged $4.35 a gallon in May in California. He said a 40% discount from his employer on the $72 monthly transit pass didn't hurt.
Every month, Phegley says, he sees more riders.
"If you can be flexible and adjust your schedule, it may work for you," he says. "But you need to look at things differently. There may be delays sometimes, and you may not get a seat sometimes."
Transit ridership on the rise
Public transit systems nationwide are breaking records for ridership in the first three months of 2012 compared with first quarter 2011:
City, 2012 ridership, Increase from 2011:
• Indianapolis, 2.5 million, 20%
• Fort Myers, Fla., 1 million, 17%
• Charlotte, 6.8 million, 10%
• Ann Arbor, Mich., 1.7 million, 9%
• Boston, 99.2 million, 8%
• Dayton, Ohio, 2.4 million, 8%
• Ithaca, N.Y., 1.09 million, 6%
• Tampa, 3.7 million, 6%
• Olympia, Wash., 1.3 million, 4%
• San Diego, 21.8 million, 2%
Source: American Public Transportation Association