• Nashville, Tenn., overall up 6.8 percent
• Phoenix light rail, up 6.7 percent
• Riverside, Calif., overall up 8 percent
• Seattle, overall up 12 percent
• Utah commuter rail up 14.74 percent; light rail up 14.73 percent
Cities that reported fewer trips included:
• Washington Metro subway, down 3.2 percent
• Atlanta MARTA subway/elevated rail, down 5.02 percent
Riders as customers Less than 5 years old, Phoenix's light rail line gained nearly 7 percent in riders last year. Experts credit the increase to the train's convenient access to the city convention center, schools, shopping and nighttime entertainment.
"We look at riders as customers and try to design the experience from a customer's point of view," said Valley Metro's Susan Tierney. A special phone number offers riders real-time updates on arrival times. Managers are considering adding Wi-Fi to the trains.
Plans call for Phoenix light rail to expand to 57 miles by 2026 at the earliest, depending on the economy.
Linking up Utah
Utah's young rail system showed a nearly 15 percent gain on both its light rail and commuter rail lines in the Salt Lake City area. A commuter railroad linking the city with Provo opened in 2012, helping commuters avoid annoying vehicle traffic on I-15. Utah's light rail debuted in 2001 and commuter rail in 2008.
This year, two more light rail lines are expected to open for business.
Lawmakers are considering using public transit to battle the region's smog problem. A proposal would offer free access to light rail during January and July, Utah's worst months for smog.
And something else: The shift to embrace public transit appears to have a generational component. Younger people are waiting longer to get their driver's licenses, studies show. Many of these folks are using public transit.
Millennials, age 18 to 34, like McWilliams are more likely to use public transit than older Americans, according to surveys.
"Our parents moved to 'burbs where we grew up riding around in cars," McWilliams said. "My generation is going the other way. It may be as simple as that."