MANATEE -- Ginger Strittmatter's car broke down and she was forced to rely on Manatee County Area Transit to get to work in East Manatee as a server.
Strittmatter's car is fixed now, but what isn't fixed anymore in her mind is the idea she must have a car.
"I paid $31 for a bus pass good for a month when my car was broke and that beats the hell out of what I am paying now for car insurance and gasoline," Strittmatter said Thursday. "My car insurance is $108 a month and you know what gasoline is."
Strittmatter is far from alone in realizing riding the bus can save money. Bus ridership in Manatee County has risen since 2007, said Chad Butzow, deputy director of the Manatee County Public Works Department, which oversees MCAT.
The extent of the shift from private vehicle to public transit in Manatee County was defined in Wednesday's release of a new study by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
The study indicates the Sarasota-Bradenton area experienced an 80 percent increase in passenger miles on public transit from 2005 to 2010, which is the fourth-largest increase in passenger miles traveled per capita on U.S. public transit in an urban area in that five-year period.
The only areas ahead of Sarasota-Bradenton: McAllen, Texas, New Orleans and Albuquerque, N.M., according to the study.
Strittmatter, who said she enjoyed riding the bus noted: "It's good people-watching and everyone pretty much doesn't bother you." She said she's not surprised by the Sarasota-Bradenton jump in ridership.
"I think the numbers are a fair representation of our economic situation during the recession," Strittmatter said. "People had to sell stuff to keep going."
Bradenton's Craig Davis, who works in the restaurant business, hasn't owned a car for more than two years, he said. He could afford a car, but chooses to go easy on the environment and his bank account.
"I like to hop a bus or ride a bike," he said Thursday as he waited at the MCAT downtown terminal.
Davis and Stritmatter say the only negative is MCAT buses don't run late enough to serve people who work the night shift and some parts of the county still don't have service.
"It stands to reason the numbers have gone up due to the increase in gasoline prices," Davis said. "It's just too expensive to own a car these days when you throw in car and insurance payments and license plate fees. It's a tough nut to crack."
Davis buys a $30 bus pass each month. When he needs to go somewhere the bus doesn't, he hitches a ride from a friend. He figures his monthly car payment would be $500 once insurance, fees and car payments are added up.
"For $60 I can get a Sarasota and Bradenton unlimited bus pass for a month," Davis said. "You can't beat it."
Although statistics from Sarasota were not immediately available, Manatee County Area Transit had about 1.25 million passenger trips in 2006-2007, Butzow said.
Trips stayed at roughly 1.4 million for each the next two years before rising to 1.45 million in 2009-2010 and 1.6 million in 2010-2011 before rising to 1.75 million in 2011-2012, Butzow said.
Although figures for 2012-13 are not in, a modest increase to just below the 2 million mark is expected, Butzow said.
From 2006-11, the average number of miles driven per resident reportedly fell in almost three-quarters of America's largest urban areas.
Manatee County has 58 transit vehicles, including metro buses, trolleys and para-transit vehicles, which run on appointment only, Butzow said.
The MCAT division has 110 county employees and an annual budget of roughly $6.4 million, Butzow said.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter @ RichardDymond.