Americans took nearly 10.7 billion trips on public buses, trains and subways in 2013, the most since 1956, according to ridership data released by the American Public Transportation Association.
But Wisconsin residents have been using public transportation less, taking 65.7 million trips in 2012 compared with 76.4 million trips in 2000, according to the state Department of Transportation. It did not yet have statewide figures for 2013.
A handful of Wisconsin communities were included in the APTA report, which showed fewer people climbing onto buses in Milwaukee, Racine and Port Washington. Madison's buses saw a few more riders.
Al Stanek, the parking and transit systems manager for the city of Racine, said its system has been attracting fewer riders since it reduced services and raised fares in response to a 10 percent across-the-board state funding cut for public transportation services in 2012. The Belle Urban System, which serves Racine, cut services again in 2013. Overall, it has reduced its hours by more than 10 percent in two years.
"In the middle of the day, we went to buses running just once an hour," Stanek said. "It's about the bare minimum you can provide service. If you missed the bus, now you'd be standing out in the cold for an hour, an hour and a half."
Milwaukee County was able to avoid similar cuts in bus service by getting a federal grant that runs out this year, said Brendan Conway, spokesman for Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele. But the county had already been raising fares and cutting services for more than a decade.
Buses in the Milwaukee area now travel 22 percent fewer miles than they did in 2000, according to report released late last year by the nonpartisan, nonprofit Public Policy Forum. As a result, many Milwaukee residents who live in areas with high unemployment can't get to jobs that might be available to them in fast-growing suburbs.
Wisconsin also discourages commuters with its lack of rail service and rapid transit, which could include buses with dedicated lanes and fewer stops, said Rob Henken, the Public Policy Forum's president. Rail services showed the biggest gains in riders in the APTA report, he noted.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker killed a high-speed rail project planned under former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle to connect Madison and Milwaukee.
The current two-year state budget crafted by Walker and Republican lawmakers will increase mass transit funding by 4 percent in 2015. It also provided an extra $250,000 per year for van and other services for elderly and disabled residents who can't use regular public transportation.
The state now spends $2.75 million on such services, which are among its most pressing transportation needs, said Gary R. Goyke, legislative director for the Wisconsin Urban and Rural Transit Association. Unlike many other states, Wisconsin has a large number of senior citizens who live in rural areas where they would be stranded without public transportation, he said.
"The only other option is that you get a ride from a family member or a friend," he said.
Transit officials in communities that have been able to avoid service cuts said they have seen more people riding buses in the past five years. La Crosse saw bus ridership increase 3.1 percent from 2012 to 2013, and Valley Transit, which serves Appleton and the Fox Valley, had its two busiest years in 2012 and 2013.
People who began riding during the recession "realized how efficient it was and less stressful, they stayed on when the economy picked up," said Keith Lee, interim transit manager in La Crosse.