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TheStreet Open House

Bus vs. Train: Is It a Fare Transit Fight?

WASHINGTON ( TheStreet) -- Public transit's a nice option and all, but do buses or trains do more to help a city? It depends on which city you're asking.

Even the most stalwart of public transportation supporters concede that public transportation is local transportation, so it's really up to the local community to decide what its wants. What the majority of local communities want -- or at least the members who head to the voting booths -- is more public transportation, period.

Subways have their merits, but whether they're worth more than buses depends on the cities voting for each kind of system.

The Washington-based transit advocacy clearinghouse at the Center for Transportation excellence has been keeping tabs on transit-related ballot initiatives and found that 87% passed muster with voters already this year. That's ahead of last year's 77% pace that saw 44 out of 57 transit-related ballot measures pass across the country.

That doesn't mean that the nation's firmly behind any one way to ride. According to the American Public Transportation, Americans took more than 3.5 billion trips on the nation's 15 heavy-rail subway systems, 463 million trips on its light rail systems and 446 million on its commuter rail lines. That's an 1.5% and 1.4% increase since 2009 for the first two, respectively, but a 1.3% dropoff for the commuter rail riders. Last year, both Hawaii's Oahu and Virginia's Farifax county approved new rail or rail-related projects.

Bus ridership, however, outpaced trains in subway cities with 3.7 billion trips and trumped all rail with 5.2 billion trips nationwide. Both of those are sharp declines, however, as big-city bus ridership dropped 2.9% and overall transit bus rides fell 2.4%. The only places where buses saw any gains were in cities of 100,000 or less, where ridership jumped 3.3%. California's Alameda County, Michigan's Branch, Genesee, Wayne and Macomb counties and Virginia's Fairfax County all voted for expanded bus service last year, but little Ponderay, Idaho, outdid them all by approving a fare-free, $500,000 bus system.

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