Late last year, I promised we’d check back for an update on US transit ridership. The new numbers are out today and they’ve never been higher. Here’s the Washington Post:

Despite job losses and falling gasoline prices, record numbers of Americans rode subways, buses and commuter rail last year, boosting public transportation ridership to its highest level in 52 years

It’s not just an annual record either. Even during the last quarter of 2008 — after gasoline prices had plummeted—ridership numbers were significantly higher than they had been the year before. Most likely, the explanation is manifold; it’s in part because of the sour economy and in part because travel habits are “sticky,” an idea I explored a bit last year.

It’s true that fourth quarter ridership numbers were a bit lower than previous quarters in 2008, but some of that decline is likely owing to the holidays when commute trips fall off. The gains in transit ridership are still big and they mirror recent declines in driving. Here are a few interesting tidbits from the American Public Transportation Association’s release:

This represents a 4.0 percent increase over the number of trips taken in 2007 on public transportation, while at the same time, vehicle miles traveled (VMTs) on our nation’s roads declined by 3.6 percent in 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Public transportation use is up 38% percent since 1995, a figure that is almost triple the growth rate of the population (14 percent) and up substantially over the growth rate for the vehicle miles traveled (VMT) on our nation’s highways (21%) for that same period. 

What’s worrisome, however, is that transit agencies across the continent are badly strapped for cash. Even as demand for transit seats climbs, most agencies are facing the prospect of funding shortfalls or service cutbacks.

You can find the full APTA news release here; summary fourth quarter stats and annual comparisons here; and mode-specific fourth quarter stats here.