Friday, November 21, 2008

Verdict still out on gas prices' effect on transit use

It seems everyone is commenting on what effect gas prices coming back down to Earth is going to have on the recently-surged transit use, but there isn't much consensus on the issue. I've written about a New York Times article which explored with the issue (and another post can be found here), but it's come up a dozen or more times in the headlines since then.

First off, a few outlets that think people will stick around on buses, even if gas prices go down:

The Register Star article sounds like it would suggest riders in the Rock River Valley will be leaving transit, but it's not because of falling gas prices; rather, they fear service cuts might make people choose cars even while the economic downturn encourages them to stay on the bus. Here's an excerpt from that story:

"People started getting on the bus more as gasoline prices topped $3 a gallon last fall and $4 a gallon this summer. And even though prices have since fallen to near $2 a gallon, RMTD officials think the economic downturn kept cash-strapped residents on public transit.

"But that’s only if service doesn’t get cut. And with state officials late to pay $3.8 million — and counting — in subsidies to RMTD, local officials are considering route cuts, fewer buses or a fare hike. There’s even fear the district could suspend service by the end of the year."
And then, some articles suggesting that people are choosing their cars in favour of bussing:

The LA Times article cited mostly anecdotal evidence, and admitted that not all local transit agencies in the area had suffered ridership slips. Still, they quote plenty of commuters who've reverted to driving, as the following excerpt indicates:

Mass transit ridership among some -- but not all -- local transit agencies has slipped since the summer. Although it's not known how many commuters have returned to driving, there is some anecdotal evidence that not everyone who tried mass transit stuck with it.

"Now that gas prices are down, it's better to drive -- I hate to say it," said Pauline Buchanan, who started taking mass transit from Hollywood to work in Koreatown last spring as gas prices climbed.
To give a Canadian--and even Ottawa--perspective, here's a snippet of the National Post story:

David Jeanes, president of Ottawa-based transit advocacy group Transport 2000, was not surprised by the hike in ridership, but worries how long the trend will continue.

"We were predicting (the start of the school year) would be important, but that's a seasonal trend," Mr. Jeanes said. "What's piled on top of that is the massive shift to transit that resulted from fuel-price increases in the summer."

But, he warned, with the current decline in fuel prices, "we don't know if this will continue."

"People do change their habits fairly quickly based on gas prices. People tend to be reluctant to switch to transit until the price gets very high, but once they switch to transit, whether they switch back when the (gas) price goes down depends on the quality of transit they had."

He said that if people have complaints of overcrowding and unreliable service, they won't hesitate to go back to driving their own vehicles while gas prices remain low.
I would be interested to hear if any readers, whether in Ottawa or elsewhere, will be (or have heard from people who will be) leaving public transit in favour of their cars now that gas prices are back down--or with transit infrastructure stretched to its limits.

EDIT: And earlier today, The New York Times' Green Inc. blog wrote about the Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) system seeing a decline in the "transit hysteria" that resulted from $4/gallon gas.