Jokes about Floridians exiting their air-conditioned homes only to enter their air-conditioned cars may be on their way out.
A study released Wednesday by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group found that people living in Florida's most populous areas are driving less, mirroring a national trend among urbanites. And in places like Sarasota, Miami and the Tampa Bay area, people are relying more on public transportation, such as buses and rail, to ferry them around.
The study examined the average number of miles people drive in America's 100 most populous urban areas, analyzing federal transportation and census data from the mid to late 2000s. Of the eight Florida regions studied, some were major cities with rail networks while others were areas where sprawl and skeletal bus systems define the transportation landscape.
In the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, the average miles driven per resident fell by about 7 percent from 2006 to 2011, a figure that nearly matches the national average. Over nearly the same period, the average number of passenger miles traveled — a measure of public transit use — rose by nearly 19 percent. In that instance, the large increase is partly due to the comparatively small number of public transportation riders in the Tampa Bay area that makes any increase register as a spike.
(Passenger miles are calculated by multiplying the number of riders by the number of miles traveled. If a bus is carrying six people and it travels 1 mile, that's 6 passenger miles.)
These trends make sense, said Brad Miller, chief executive of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, as both Pinellas and Hillsborough county bus systems have experienced record ridership levels since the recession.
At the end of September, when both agencies' fiscal years came to a close, PSTA posted a 3 percent ridership jump over 2012. Across the bay, Hillsborough Area Rapid Transit saw an identical increase.
"A lot of the increase has been because of the downturn in the economy," Miller said. Fewer people with jobs means fewer people driving to those jobs and more people taking the bus to save money.
Still, it may not be a recessionary fluke. The study found that among employed people who drive to work, the number of miles driven has fallen.
"The biggest thing is how widespread the decline in driving has been," said Phineas Baxandall, a senior policy analyst for U.S. PIRG. "It's not just cities with big transit systems or places like Chicago or San Francisco; this is really a widespread trend."
In Miami, the average resident drove almost 9 percent fewer miles in 2011 than in 2006. In Jacksonville, miles driven fell by about 11 percent. And in Orlando, they dropped by 6 percent.
That's not to say everyone in these areas is turning to public transportation. In Jacksonville, Orlando and Pensacola, public transit use also fell in those years.
But in the Sarasota-Bradenton area, mass transit use appears to have exploded. The area saw an 80 percent increase in average passenger miles traveled from 2005 to 2010.
Anna M. Phillips can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779.