USA Today reporter Larry Copeland also pointed to the importance of the improving economy (more people going to work) and changing demographics as a reason for transit's growing popularity, "especially among Baby Boomers, empty-nesters and Millennials, who total about 150 million people."
As for the other reason, American Public Transportation Association President and CEO Michael Melaniphy "says the increase in transit ridership was driven, at least partly, by high gas prices, the volatility of those prices" in addition to the "nation's changing demographics."
The gas price explanation for increased transit ridership is not shared by a State Smart Transportation Initiative report posted here that analyses declining vehicle-miles-traveled. Many reasons are given while fuel prices are categorically rejected.
Copeland cited the Sound Transit light rail in Washington state as an example of the increased ridership. It "soared 12% last year to just over 28 million — a record in the agency's 14-year history, spokesman Bruce Gray says."
Why did 2008 set the record? Americans were unprepared for gas prices over $4.00 gallon. A better comparison for the record might be "the second highest ridership since 1957" according to the APTA press release.
If transit is going to keep up with the increased demand, additional funding will be needed - and the news is good there, according to the press release:
Melaniphy also pointed out that more Americans are supporting public transportation investment, as evidenced by the large number of transit-oriented ballot initiatives that passed in 2012. “Last year 49 out of 62 transit-oriented state and local ballot initiatives passed,” said Melaniphy. “That means there was a nearly 80 percent passage rate. This extremely high rate of success demonstrates how important public transportation is to people and to communities.”
The press release also breaks down the ridership increase into four transit modes:
Curtis Tate of McClatchy Newspapers points out that the improving economy is key to transit usage - and that exposes why not all transit systems are posting ridership increases. "About 60 percent of transit trips are to and from work, according to the public transportation association".
(W)hile many transit systems posted large gains, others saw a decline, reflecting the unevenness of the economic recovery. And declines in the state, local and federal tax revenues that support transit systems have forced many of them to cut back service.