Sunday, June 8, 2008

In the news: Transit use setting records

Higher gas prices are pushing people all over the world out of their cars and onto public transit. I've written about it before, in May and back in April. Now, we're getting to a point where it's not just getting high; we're setting records.

In Oregon, the local transit authority is reporting the highest transit usage rates and fastest growth rates on record, as per a story in The Oregonian:
As gas prices have risen in recent years, Oregonians are driving less and using transit more. In the first quarter, TriMet's ridership grew by 2.6 percent over the first quarter of 2007, the fastest quarterly growth rate in the last four years, not counting periods when ice storms and new rail lines added capacity.
USAToday had a story about record-breaking usage, citing a 28% rise in the South Florida Rail System:
In 2007, [American Public Transportation Minister William Millar] says, "we had higher numbers than we've seen in 50 years, and the trend is continuing in 2008."


The South Florida rail system, which runs from Miami to Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach, had a 13% increase in riders during the first quarter. In April, travel jumped 28%, says Joe Giulietti of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority.
And the American Press reported on some transit authorities that are having a hard time keeping up with increasing ridership in the face of historical underfunding:
Among the cities registering big increases in the first quarter were Baltimore, where light rail ridership was up 17 percent from the same period a year ago; Seattle, which saw a 28 percent jump in commuter rail passengers; Boston, where subway ridership rose 9 percent; and San Antonio, where the number of bus riders climbed 11 percent.


Also, transit agencies' operating costs are going up for the same reason commuters are leaving their cars home — rising gas prices. In response, many transit agencies are looking at fare increases. And some are even cutting service despite the higher demand, said spokeswoman Virginia Miller, a spokeswoman for the mass transit association.
Letters to the editor of the New York Times, regarding their recent story about rising gas prices, are calling for a drastic change in how we approach transportation:
We need to change our view of transportation and start changing our behavior now. We need to mandate new and higher fuel economy standards now; we need to buy more fuel-efficient vehicles now; we need to plan our trips better now.

But above all, we need to start investing now in new and less polluting energy sources for transportation that do not rely on oil. By this fall we will look back at $4-per-gallon gasoline with nostalgia, wishing for the good old days that price reflected.

Editors at The Denver Post are calling on planners to use this momentum to invest in public transit now, for the sake of the future:

This country has long under-invested in mass transit, mostly because it was a function of supply and demand. Why invest in trains or buses when it's cheaper and more convenient to drive a car? And with RTD [the Regional Transportation District], why invest in more bus routes if some of the current routes are under-used?

But more people are hopping on mass transit across the country and, interestingly enough, the largest spikes in ridership are in areas where cars have traditionally ruled the road, such as Colorado. Cities with long-established transit systems, New York and Boston, have seen 5 percent hikes this year, but the biggest jumps — 10 to 15 percent — are coming in the West and South, according to a piece in last week's Times.

Now would be the ideal time to invest in sustainable, cleaner transit systems.

Finally, Bill Steigerwald of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review thinks that it's about time we take a good, hard look at how mass transit is managed in North America, and maybe make some radical changes:

For an hour, the lone libertarian bit his tongue, praying that someone with a Ph.D. in something or other would say something critical about America's failed mass-transit model.

He waited in vain. No one mentioned a single one of Big Transit's many chronic/congenital defects -- that nearly every major city's system is obscenely expensive, inefficient, mismanaged, over-built, under-used and subsidizes middle-class commuters with costly light-rail lines.

When the lone libertarian finally found the nerve, he did his uncomfortable best to politely shame his fellow salon-goers for their blind acceptance of our obviously third-rate mass-transit industrial complex.

He pointed out that Tokyo's gargantuan transit system -- arguably the world's best -- was about 90 percent private and mostly profitable.

Interesting times.

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