Steven Maria caught a few rays of Wednesday afternoon sunshine while waiting for his ride.
Maria, a 19-year-old Penn State student, sat on a bench along Beaver Avenue in front of the Centre Area Transportation Authority office — the nerve center for one of the nation’s busiest transit systems.
“I use the bus all the time to get home,” he said.
He’s one of the thousands of riders each day who prove that just because State College is a small town, it doesn’t mean it can’t hold its own with a major metropolis.
According to FiveThirtyEight.com, a polling and blogging website created by well-known statistician Nate Silver, State College has the eighth-highest used transit system per capita in the country.
“Over the last few years, we’ve been able to offer more service to the community in more areas,” said Centre Region Planning Agency senior transportation planner Greg Kausch. “The amount of transit service consumed has grown over the last five to 10 years.
“The news that we’re the eighth-highest consumed doesn’t come as a huge surprise. I think it speaks well to what we do.”
State College, with a 2012 population of 87,702 according to the website, averaged 85 trips per resident in 2013. This amounts to about 7.5 million rides for the year.
“The U.S. has 415 urbanized areas with populations over 65,000,” the website said, “and 70 percent (290) reported data to the National Transit Database in every month of 2013.”
The New York-Newark, N.J. area, with a population of 18.6 million rated No. 1 with 229.8 rides per resident.
State College even topped such urban centers as Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia.
“This is wonderful,” said Centre Area Transportation Authority marketing manager Jacqueline Sheader. CATA ranks third in transit-intensive small communities in Pennsylvania, she said.
CATA handles 35,000 rides a day, she said, with the Loop and Link services accounting for 50 percent of the total ridership. Sheader also said the CATA Pattee Transit Center on Curtin Road and the CATA office at Beaver Avenue and South Allen Street are the busiest stops.
“Riders can transfer to any other bus line from those locations,” she said.
Loop and Link provide a “fare-free campus/downtown circulator and cross-campus shuttle service,” according to the CATA website.
“We expect ridership to increase,” Sheader said. “It’s been steadily increasing for the last dozen years or so, so there’s no reason to expect it to go down.”
The high placing is partly a reflection of growth in the community, Kausch said. Expansion of service over the years has been geared toward new student complexes. New housing projects moving farther out from State College, such as the Villas at Happy Valley in College Township, give CATA the opportunity to provide more service to the residents of those areas.
“I’ve heard anecdotally that younger individuals looking to buy homes are looking for properties with transit services,” he said. “They maybe want to keep the number of cars they own down.”
News of the ranking comes on the heels of CATA’s announcement of a fixed-route annual ridership record high for the 2013-14 fiscal year. According to a news release, ridership climbed to 7.3 million, overtaking the previous record of 7.1 million set in 2009-10.
The release reported a 56.8 percent increase on the W (Valley Vista) Route; 40.2 percent increase on the HP (Toftrees/Scenery Park) Route; and a 32.3 percent increase on the M (Nittany Mall) Route.
Maria lives at the Villas, but unlike some of his fellow passengers, he’s taking a free ride. As a student, he commutes for no fare.
“I see people riding the bus all the time,” he said. “They earned their spots.”