Public transportation use on the rise in D.C. region

More commuters are moving from roads to rails, according to new census data that show public transportation use up across the region.

About 37.5 percent of D.C. residents use public transportation to get to work, compared with 42 percent who drive, according to the 2007-2011 average released by the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. In 1999, 33.2 percent took public transit and 49.4 percent drove.

Montgomery and Arlington counties experienced similar jumps. The percentage of Montgomery residents taking public transit to work rose from 12.6 in 1999 to 15.2 in the latest census data, while Arlington residents went from 23.3 percent to 27.7 percent over the same time period.

The largest percentage-point increase, however, was in Prince George’s County. While commuters there still largely favor the car — 76.7 percent drive to work — public transit rose to 17.6 percent from 11.9 percent in 1999.

“Our numbers have increased dramatically,” said Susan Hubbard, spokeswoman for the Prince George’s County Department of Public Works and Transportation. “It’s much safer and easier to take public transportation.”

Hubbard also pointed to increased environmental awareness and the rising costs of vehicle ownership as reasons for the shift. Nicholas Ramfos, director of alternative commute programs at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, said high gas prices have played a major role in pushing commuters to buses and the Metro.

“People tend to gravitate toward alternative modes of travel,” Ramfos said. “We’re fairly fortunate in this region because we have pretty good infrastructure in terms of the transit network.”

Metro has added eight stations since 2000, bringing its total to 86. That’s not counting the numerous entrances tacked on to existing stations. These changes allow greater access to the system, though more public transit use means a greater toll on infrastructure.

Prince George’s County’s 15 Metro stations have also become a focus for new development. The county saw proposals to revitalize the Greenbelt, Branch Avenue and Largo Town Center stations in the past three months alone.

According to Cheryl Cort, policy director at the Coalition for Smarter Growth, governments aren’t the only ones adjusting for the commuter shift. Employers are looking to be close to public transit options to make employees’ lives easier.

“We need to make sure that transit works on both ends of the trip,” Cort said. “That’s always been a challenge.”

Ramfos said maintaining and adding to the public transportation infrastructure will be one of the region’s biggest hurdles moving forward.

“There are more jobs and more folks moving into the area. The roads can’t expand to meet those growth rates,” he said. “Once you get folks into alternative modes of travel, most of the time they’ll stick with it.”

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