With more trains and buses to take, and the appeal of using travel time for pursuits other than dodging traffic, Americans are taking greater advantage of a renaissance in public transit, according to a report released Monday.
The number of rides taken on public buses, trains and subways has fully recovered from a dip during the Great Recession. And with services restored following economy-driven cutbacks, ridership appears set to resume what had been a steady increase.
In 2013, the number of trips stood at nearly 10.7 billion nationally, the highest since 1956, according to data compiled by the American Public Transportation Association.
Of course, the nation's population has been expanding, so there are more people to ride the rails and buses. The association's numbers don't mean that the average U.S. resident is taking public transit more often than in the 1950s, when investments in highways and a growth in car ownership began enticing Americans to move away from cities and heralded a decline in mass transit.
But even accounting for population growth, the transportation association argues, a wider segment of Americans are using mass transit, which now offers them more choices.
Since 1995, transit ridership is up 37 percent. During that time, the US population has increased about 20 percent, and vehicle miles traveled are up about 23 percent.
"People are making a fundamental shift to having options" aside from a car in how they get around, said Michael Melaniphy, president and CEO of the public transportation association. "This is a long-term trend. This isn't just a blip."
Transit advocates argue that the public increasingly values the ability to get around without a car. As evidence, they cite a widespread return to urban centers and the movement to concentrate new development around transit hubs.
"People want to work and live along transit lines," Melaniphy said. "Businesses, universities and housing are all moving along those corridors."
The increased ridership is not universal. Transit agencies in Tennessee, Kentucky, Portland, Ore., Milwaukee and Boston, for example, reported falling ridership rates. And voters in cities such as Atlanta have rejected taxes for transit improvements.
Even with the ridership rebound, public transit accounts for a small fraction of all trips taken nationally -- about 2 or 3 percent, according to Michael Manville, a professor of city and regional planning at Cornell University.
He questions whether the nation is ditching its cars in favor of public transit.
"For most public-policy purposes, our concern is not with more transit use but less driving," Manville said. "If we are concerned about pollution and carbon emissions and traffic accidents and congestion, then transit is only beneficial to the extent people drive less because of it."
Federal data suggest that Americans (and Europeans) are driving less. That doesn't necessarily mean they are taking the bus or train more, said professor Marlon Boarnet of the University of Southern California.
"Is it a change in attitudes? Possibly so," said Boarnet, who recently published a study suggesting that residents near one of the city's new light rail lines drove less. "People may in fact be more open to taking other modes."
Or they could be walking or biking -- or deciding not to travel.
The transportation association partly credited an expansion of bus and train networks for the growth in ridership.
Ridership on Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority light-rail trains increased 6 percent over 2012, as the public took advantage of an expanded network of lines. Overall, LA Metro gained 9 million trips to reach 478 million in 2013, the transportation association said.
Standing on a platform at Union Station near downtown, Kaylen Gordon said she has seen trains get more crowded since she started her commute to school across Los Angeles four years ago.
"Now they're really packed," Gordon, 18, said of the two light rail and one subway lines that take her from South Los Angeles to the city's northeast, a ride that typically takes an hour and a half.
If the high school senior had a car, she said, she wouldn't use it every day to get to class. The time she has on the train to catch up on homework, text, read or relax is a nice way to unwind.
Among the other transit systems in California with record ridership was the Caltrain commuter rail service that connects San Francisco with Silicon Valley.
Houston, which has been more notable for its sprawl than its public transportation offerings, had a large ridership gain. So did Seattle, Miami, Denver and San Diego.
The New York area's behemoth transit network saw the greatest gain, accounting for one in three trips nationally.
In Seattle, Jim Jarosz said his family got rid of their second car five years ago. As a teacher, he uses downtime on the bus or light rail to plan class lessons and check his phone.
"I found it a lot more convenient," he said. "A lot less hassle than driving and trying to find parking. Plus I like the feeling of being a little greener."