BART had its highest ridership ever Saturday in yet another sign that public transit, boosted recently by high gasoline prices, is steadily recovering from a half-century of doldrums caused by America's car culture.

Bay Area throngs crowded an augmented supply of BART trains Saturday to get to Fleet Week events, a Cal Bears game in Berkeley and several concerts and other events. Passengers set an all-time record of 229,314 rides, eclipsing the previous Saturday record of 218,393 set Feb. 11, which featured San Francisco's Chinese New Year parade.

"People have gotten a lot more in tune with public transit and the need for it," said BART board member Lynette Sweet, whose district stretches from San Francisco's Embarcadero to MacArthur Station in Oakland. "People would rather enjoy the event and not have to worry about the hassle of the car and the traffic."

That sentiment was echoed Monday morning at the annual meeting of the American Public Transportation Association in San Jose.

"In the past 10 years, public transportation has grown by more than 25 percent," association President William Millar said. Many Americans who grew up with the automobile, especially in the fast-growing West and South, "discovered that this is not enough."

After U.S. public transit ridership peaked in 1946 at 23 billion trips a year, cheap gas and automobiles supplanted it in the 1950s and 1960s to the point that by 1972, public transit ridership had sunk to 6.6 billion trips.


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From 1995 through 2005, however, trips grew from 7.8 billion to 9.7 billion, according to the association. At the same time, the number of highway miles traveled have not kept pace, rising only 22.5 percent to 2.4 trillion miles.

Last year's figures appear to have brought the nation back to 1950s levels, although with a much larger population of commuters transit still represents a relatively small portion of the overall commuting public. According to the 2005 American Family Survey by the Census Bureau, only 9.4 percent of 2.1 million Bay Area households used public transit to get to work, while 69.2 percent drove alone.

Especially heartening to policy-makers and activists eager to reduce America's appetite for oil and resulting environmental damage is that people who tried transit during this summer's $3-a-gallon-plus gasoline seem to have decided it's not so bad.

Ridership on BART — the only public transit agency in the Bay Area that can quickly track ridership — averaged 2 percent higher in August than the agency expected, BART spokesman Linton Johnson said. The increased ridership also reaped a windfall of $22 million in fares, or 5 percent more than budgeted.

Contact transportation reporter Erik Nelson at enelson@angnewspapers.com and read his Capricious Commuter blog at http://www.ibabuzz.com/transportation.