America is on board with public transportation

2014-01-19T00:00:00Z 2014-01-19T00:38:04Z America is on board with public transportationBy Bill Dolan, (219) 662-5328
January 19, 2014 12:00 am  • 

Anyone using the South Shore or other public transportation had better grab the first empty seat.

Ridership grew nationally by 1.5 percent in the third quarter of 2013. That amounts to 39 million more trips taken on rail and bus over the same quarter last year, the American Public Transportation Association recently reported.

Some public transit districts have drawn new crowds by extending their lines into new communities. Some discounted rides to employees of businesses that partnered with the district in return for tax breaks.

Florida's Tri-Rail has turned trips into destinations and scored a 7 percent increase in riders in 2013 in the process.

"We sponsor signature events like Senior Idol," Bonnie Arnold said. She is a spokeswoman for the district, which carries more than 15,000 daily on a 72-mile corridor between West Palm Beach and Miami.

"It models the 'American Idol' format. We usually get 150 seniors who audition with a 3-minute number," she said.

Many of the participants and audience took their first train ride with Tri-Rail. "We get great exposure in all the senior publications. One year we had a 2,000 jump in our ridership just for an event," she said.

They hit another segment of their audience with Rail Fun Day, a family event drawing up to 2,500 people with giveaways and festivities that include the Florida Marlins and the Miami Dolphins.

She said Tri-Rail also promotes its service on selected radio stations and publications to the African-American community during Black History Month and the Latino community during Hispanic History month.

"We have a very diverse ridership. We print our publications in English, Spanish and Creole," she said.

San Diego district is a billboard hit

Rob Schupp, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transit System in San Diego, said like many districts it has few dollars for mass media campaigns, so it finds alternative ways to attract potential customers. The MTA moves 235,000 each day through buses and 53 miles of light rails.

"We use out-of-home advertising. Transit agencies have a ton of their own billboard inventory. We have 500 bus shelters and stops that have advertising kiosks we can use practically free of charge," he said.

They also can wrap their message around their rolling stock. "They generate tons of impressions because our lines parallel major highways, and your job is getting people out of cars and into your trains," Schupp said.

Chicago's Metra has been working hard to reverse ridership numbers that have recently been in a holding pattern. It reports 295,000 trips daily on 11 rail lines radiating out from Chicago to 100 Northeastern Illinois communities.

"We are largely focused on the commuter market," said Meg Reile, a spokeswoman for Chicago's Metra. "We track what new companies are coming into the region as well as existing corporate centers in the suburbs to help them increase their knowledge base of the benefits of using Metra to get to work."

Metra would like to give its numbers a boost by opening the much-discussed Southeast Corridor, a 33-mile line that would run south to Crete.

"Some of the groundwork in the form of federal transportation studies has been done. It's not in the funding cycle yet," she said.

High gas fuels ridership

Dagney Faulk, director of research, for the Center for Business and Economic Research in Muncie, said ridership rises and falls with the price of gasoline.

"Higher gas prices provided an incentive for people to look for substitutes for their automobiles," she said.

Virginia Miller, spokeswoman for the American Public Transportation Association, insists, "The future is bright for public transit.

"We went through a whole era where the car was king and communities were designed with the car in mind. Now, more are talking about sustainability and livable communities," she said. "Having public transit helps that city or town be economically competitive."

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