Transit use increased by nearly 126 million rides -- almost a 5 percent increase -- from the first quarter of 2011 to first quarter of 2012, despite the fact that many transit agencies cut service and increased fares during the same time period.

The increase marks the biggest increase in first quarter transit usage since at least 1996, based on the American Public Transportation Association's records.

Interestingly, during the same time period that transit usage increased, many transit agencies across the country were suffering from financial distress that negatively affected service.

Half the country's transit agencies cut service or raised fares in response to the recession and many laid off workers in response to strained budgets, according to a survey of APTA members last year.

Despite those factors -- which would seemingly make transit less attractive for riders -- passengers are increasingly using public transportation.

The trend affected multiple modes of transit, with heavy rail ridership increasing 5.5 percent, and bus ridership increasing 4.5 percent.

The increase in bus trips, which account for more than half of all public transit trips, was particularly significant. Bus ridership was on the decline in 2009 and 2010, and only rebounded slightly in 2011 before its increase this year. Transit agencies in Dallas, Oakland, Calif., Arlington Heights, Ill., Boston and Saint Louis, Mo., all reported year-over-year jumps of more than 10 percent in bus trips.

“Buses typically cover a larger space than trains, geographically," said David Goldberg, a spokesman for advoacy group Transportation for America. "They do the heavy lifting. That’s why buses are getting a larger share of this increased ridership."

APTA officials attributed the overall increase in ridership to two factors: rising gas prices have made transit a more attractive alternative than driving; and improvements in employment mean more Americans are traveling to work using all modes of transportation, including transit. Therese McMillan, Federal Railroad deputy administrator, said on a conference call with reporters that the numbers show transit "emerging as part of an overall vibrant American community."

As public transit use increases across the country, driving is decreasing. Americans are driving 6 percent fewer miles today than they were in 2004.  The trend is even more pronounced among 16 to 34-year-olds, who are driving 23 percent less miles today and have increased their public transit miles by 40 percent, according to Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo.

"The fundamental premise, or theme, is that America’s travel habits are undergoing tremendous change," said APTA President and CEO Michael Melaniphy.

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