Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The predictable relationship between oil prices and transit ridership

In 2008, the cost of oil and gasoline hit record highs. And with them, public transit ridership also hit all-time peaks. It was in headlines across North America for months, as records continued to be broken for ridership. Then, when oil prices came back to earth, driving went back up and transit ridership back down.

Now, with unrest throughout much of north Africa and the middle east, the cost of oil is going up once again. And once again, people are looking at public transit as a way to avoid paying the higher prices for gasoline. From CBS News:
In Pasadena, Calif., Jackie Gilberto rides the rails to her job in downtown Los Angeles.

So why did she ditch her car?

"About three months ago in November when I realized I was spending about $400 a month in gas," Gilberto said.

The train costs Gilberto $62 per month, and she now has plenty of company. Rail ridership in Los Angeles is up 8 percent versus last year -- from 273,756 in January 2010 to 298,180 last January, according to the local transit authority.

The city says these numbers are because of gas prices. Trouble in the Middle East caused pump prices to climb for the 21st straight day Tuesday, adding nearly a penny at the end of the day for $3.517 per gallon.
Environmentally speaking, it's a good thing: If the price of oil gets so high that it begins to reflect the environmental cost associated with burning it off, it will push people to alternative (and greener) transportation options, like walking, cycling, and--of course--public transit.

In Ottawa, the transit system is already pretty darn close to its capacity. Building light-rail is going to increase capacity, but it's still a long way off; if oil prices continue to rise and demand for public transit follows suit, how will OC Transpo respond?

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