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Although trips taken on U.S. public transportation systems in 2009 surpassed 10 billion for the fourth straight year with a total of 10.2 billion trips, they represented a 3.8 percent decline compared with the 52-year modern ridership record set in 2008, according to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA).
"Considering that nearly 60 percent of riders take public transportation to commute to and from work, it is not surprising that ridership declined in light of many Americans who lost their jobs last year," APTA President William Millar said in a prepared statement.
Commuter rail showed the steepest drop, with a 5 percent decrease year over year. Heavy-rail ridership dropped 2.6 percent compared with 2008's total and light-rail ridership decreased 0.4 percent year over year.
An official with the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA), which experienced a 13 percent overall drop in ridership in 2009, considers the decrease a reflection of the overall economic climate.
"We've had six or seven years of ridership increases before 2009, so we very much view it as an economic issue," says GCRTA Media Relations Manager Jerry Masek. "Obviously when people don't have to go to work, they're not riding RTA."
Among the nine cities that did show a rise in ridership, Seattle was up 9.2 percent. However, that number can be deceiving, cautions Sound Transit spokesman Bruce Grey.
"One of the main reasons we showed ridership increases in '09 over '08 is because we opened a brand-new light-rail line in July that carried about 2.5 million passengers," he says. "On the commuter rail side, we were down 7 percent."
As for 2010: GCRTA's Masek, for one, is cautiously optimistic that the economy is turning around slowly. On St. Patrick's Day, which typically is GCRTA's biggest ridership day of the year, the agency may have set a record, he says.
"It's still not enough to take to the bank, and we're not going to make any plans to spend it, but when things are up even slightly, it's good," Masek adds.
And although Sound Transit officials still expect to be hit by the economy for at least the first half of the year, "the numbers are going in the right direction," Grey says.