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Gas Prices and Mass Transit Ridership Surge

by Kate Trainor on May 10, 2008

GasPricesTransit Gas Prices and Mass Transit Ridership Surge
Mass transit ridership has increased steadily in the Untied States for the past 10 years – a fact depicted in this graphic appearing in today’s New York Times. But the rate of increase has spiked in the early months of 2008, commensurate with the rise in gas prices.

We ran an article in January asking the question, $4 per Gallon Gas a Good Thing? It remained to be seen whether the increased costs of fuel would be enough to change peoples’ transportation habits. After all, $4 is still among the cheapest petrol in the world.

The title of today’s NYT coverage says it all, “Gas Prices Send Surge of Riders to Mass Transit.”

Mass transit systems around the country are seeing standing-room-only crowds on bus lines where seats were once easy to come by. Parking lots at many bus and light rail stations are suddenly overflowing, with commuters in some towns risking a ticket or tow by parking on nearby grassy areas and in vacant lots.

“In almost every transit system I talk to, we’re seeing very high rates of growth the last few months,” said William W. Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association.

“It’s very clear that a significant portion of the increase in transit use is directly caused by people who are looking for alternatives to paying $3.50 a gallon for gas.”


The shortcomings of many regions’ mass transit systems becomes apparent with the increased volume - limited lines, often combined with poor, car-centric community planning, means that many commuters need to drive to stations.

Perhaps the most interesting statistics is that the highest rate of growth is in the South and West – metro areas where mass transit services are weakest and the car has long reigned as king. These are also the areas where commute distances tend to be the longest, and gas consumption the most.

From the NYT:

The increase in transit use coincides with other signs that American motorists are beginning to change their driving habits, including buying smaller vehicles. The Energy Department recently predicted that Americans would consume slightly less gasoline this year than last — for the first yearly decline since 1991.

…“Nobody believed that people would actually give up their cars to ride public transportation,” said Joseph J. Giulietti, executive director of the authority. “But in the last year, and last several months in particular, we have seen exactly that.”

Can I get a hallelujah?

Although one would think this spike in interest in mass transit would translate to better funding and more services, that may not be the result. Prices for the gas and power to run the transit systems has undergone the same price jump. Transit relies on local sales taxes for a portion of the funding – a sum that has been sliced by the nation’s slumping economy. Even the price of steel, necessary for any expansions, is up.

But as more people turn to mass transit, demand for better, more efficient systems is sure to follow. Pressure on the federal government to fund sustainable transportation and to stop subsidizing the car can’t be far behind.

Photo via flickr by Burnt Pixel.


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