Ridin' the Rails: Auto Use Down as Americans Discover Trains

More cities are joining Seattle and jumping on the light rail bandwagon. (Photo: Sound Transit [CC by 1.0]/Flickr)

There are massive changes happening in the way we get around. Americans are plainly driving less and taking buses, subways and trains more. We’re even walking and taking our bikes.

A new report from the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) says that the 10.7 billion transit trips taken in the U.S. in 2008 is not only a new record but also a 4 percent increase from 2007. Since 1995, transit use is up 38 percent — almost triple the 14 percent population increase in that period and also more than the 21 percent increase in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) then.

For 14 straight months, VMT has actually declined, which is a really big deal. And that’s obviously closely related to the slump in new car sales. J.D. Power and Associates projections for 2009 are bleak at 10.6 million retail sales, virtually flat with 2008 (and down more than 2 million from 2007).

Light rail wins the “most improved” award, with an 8.3 percent increase in 2008. It’s no secret that, at least until the full force of the recession hit, cities were lining up to offer local rail service. Systems have been proposed or are under construction in, among others: Phoenix, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Tampa, Atlanta, Hawaii (Kauai and Maui), Louisville, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Raleigh, El Paso, Fort Worth, San Antonio, Norfolk, Madison (Wisconsin) and Spokane.

The recession cuts both ways, the New York Times reports: Systems that raised fares, including those in Cincinnati and Houston, report that ridership is moving in the same direction as the stock market.

Commuter rail is also up, by 4.7 percent, which must mean that most people still have somewhere to commute to. APTA has just launched "Public Transportation Takes Us There,” which is trying to build public support for transit in the new federal surface transportation bill, which replaces current legislation expiring next September. The group says the average commuter can save more than $8,000 annually by taking public transit.

"Every year, public transportation saves 4.2 billion gallons of gasoline and reduces our nation’s carbon emissions by 37 million metric tons," says APTA President William Millar. "Clearly, public transportation is part of the solution for our country’s national goals of energy independence and carbon emissions reduction."

Thinking about your own commute and wondering if you can handle ridin' the rails? Through the magic of time-lapse photography, try this fast ride on the new Seattle-to-Tukwilla light rail extension: