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Originally published March 10, 2014 at 4:11 PM | Page modified March 10, 2014 at 9:30 PM

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Seattle sees big gains in public transit ridership

The Seattle area saw big gains in public transit ridership last year, as more people boarded buses, trains and subways nationally than at any time since the 1950s.

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The Seattle area saw big gains in public transit ridership last year, as more people boarded buses, trains and subways nationally than at any time since the 1950s.

Record ridership on Sound Transit drove the increase, with about 30.3 million boardings last year, an increase of more than 8 percent from 2012. The agency operates regional buses, the Central Link light rail and the Sounder commuter rail.

Spokesman Bruce Gray attributes the increase to the improving economy: "There's more jobs and more people riding the trains to get to work," he said.

Statistics from the American Public Transportation Association show that King County's bus system saw ridership jump more than 3 percent, as did Kitsap Transit in Bremerton. It was up half of 1 percent in Spokane.

However, the figures also show that bus ridership was down slightly in Olympia, Tacoma, Richland and Vancouver.

It was also down more than 12 percent in Everett. The Everett Transit System cut its service 15 percent in mid-2012 to balance its books, and it stopped offering free rides to seniors and some other populations -- charging them 25 cents instead, said agency spokeswoman Sabina Popa.

"People travel a little differently when they ride for free than when they have to pay a fare, no matter how small it is," she said.

Among the reasons people are boarding more buses and trains are the ripple effect of the Great Recession, as well as the increased use of mobile technology, which allows people to make their trips more productive or entertaining. Technology is also improving accuracy of catching a bus.

Another factor: the migration of people to urban and condensed neighborhoods that are transit-friendly, said Clark Williams-Derry of the Sightline institute, a Seattle-based think tank.

"It's a combination of factors that are affecting the entire nation. Gas prices are still high, cars are still expensive, and insurance is expensive. People are finding that buses are a reasonable alternative for more and more trips," he said. "Now that we have mobile technologies like smartphones and tablets, people can use the bus for more than reading the paper."

But Williams-Derry said it was worrisome that King County may soon have to cut back service due to budget woes. He said King County Metro bus ridership grew three times faster than the county's population.

"It'd be a strange thing because one of the big benefits of buses is that they can help deal with congestion," he said.

Washington State Ferries booked more than 22.5 million passenger trips last year, up a little more than 1 percent from 2012.

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