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Public transit ridership rising sharply, advocacy group reports

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A Miami-Dade Metrorail train pulls into a station in Miami. The service's ridership increased by 4.2 percent in the first quarter of 2012.

Rising gas prices apparently helped drive a 5 percent increase in public transit ridership in the first three months of 2012, the biggest first-quarter increase in 13 years, transit figures show.

M. Alex JohnsonNBC stations WGEM of Quincy, Ill., and KTVZ of Bend, Ore., contributed to this report by M. Alex Johnson of msnbc.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

The American Public Transportation Association reported Monday that Americans took almost 125 million more rides on public transit in January, February and March than they did in the same period last year — an increase of 4.98 percent, the largest since the first quarter of 1999.

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Ridership fell sharply after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and had remained relatively stagnant until last year, according to the organization's tallies, which go back to 1996. 

But in the first quarter of last year, the number of rides on trains, light and commuter rail, buses and streetcars began rising year over year — beginning about the time U.S. retail gas prices began their steep climb from an average of $3.10 a gallon in January 2011 to $3.96 a gallon three months later.

Read the full report (.pdf)

"More people are choosing to save money by taking public transportation when gas prices are high," said Michael Melaniphy, president and chief executive of the APTA, a Washington policy group that is lobbying Congress for new surface transportation legislation that would increase spending on public transit.

Karen Friend, manager of Cascades East Transit of central Oregon, said her agency's ridership has increased by 23 percent in the past year.

Saying the increase is probably "due to gas prices," Friend told NBC station KTVZ-TV of Bend, Ore., that "it was to be expected — it definitely was."

But gas prices aren't the only reason for the growth, Melaniphy said in a statement analyzing the APTA figures. With local economies rebounding, more people are commuting to new jobs, some of them on public transportation, he said.

"As we look for positive signs that the economy is recovering, it's great to see that we are having record ridership at public transit systems throughout the country," he said.

One of those systems is the Quincy Transit service in Quincy, Ill., which is racing to build more bus infrastructure to meet record demand. Its ridership jumped from about 400,000 in 2010 to about 500,000 last year, the city reported late last month.

There are some cautions about the APTA figures, however. 

For one thing, passengers are counted each time they board a vehicle, meaning each segment of a trip with transfers — from one bus to another, for example, or from a train to a bus at a transit station — is counted as a separate trip.

And not all transit systems are included in the collation, especially rail systems. For those systems, the organization assumes the same percentage growth it finds for the reporting agencies.

Still, for many people, public options remain vital, said Catherine Hayden of Quincy, Ill.

"If you don't have a car and you have to go someplace and you have to be there — even people that work — they're very dependent on it," Hayden told NBC station WGEM-TV. "I take the bus to the doctor. I take the bus shopping — anything that I need to do."

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