NEW YORK (Reuters) - The number of Americans hopping buses and grabbing subway straps has climbed to the highest level in half a century as soaring gasoline costs push more commuters to take mass transit.
U.S. mass transit ridership began to surge when gasoline hit the $3 a gallon level in 2005 and has continued to rise steadily ever since as pump prices top record after record, according to a report released on Monday by the American Public Transit Association.
"As people are struggling with the increase in fuel prices, they have to make adjustments, and one of the ways they are doing that is driving less and taking public transportation more," said William Millar, the president of the APTA.
Mass transit use increased by more than 2 percent in 2007 to the highest level in 50 years, with Americans taking more than 10 billion trips on public transport while the number of vehicle miles traveled was flat in the first 10 months of the year.
Even when gasoline prices dipped last year and some people returned to driving, others appear to have switched to public transport permanently, according to Millar.
"We started seeing gas prices consistently go above $3 a gallon (in 2005) and we noticed that overall transit ridership was going up," Millar said.
"When gas prices moderated, some of those people said, 'Hey, this works pretty good for me, I'll stick with it."'
The largest area of mass transit growth was in light rail use, which includes street cars and trolleys, with a 6 percent increase during 2007. Commuter rails were second with an increase of 5.5 percent in ridership and subway ridership had an increase of 3.1 percent.
Cities with less than 100,000 people also saw a large increase -- 6.4 percent -- in public transportation use.
With many analysts predicting $4 gasoline this summer, mass transit use is likely to become even more popular.
"If past experience is any indication, as the price of fuel goes up and particularly as it hits a psychological milestone, which I expect $4 is, I would expect that we would see a spurt in ridership," Millar said.