Wednesday, June 11, 2008

When Gas Gets Expensive, Americans Use Public Transportation

So it looks like our first heat wave of 2008 might have broken. It feels a lot better today than it has over the past few days.

How did everyone's commutes go last night in the horrendous heat?

Due to a post-work meeting tonight, Train Rider did not take the commuter rail into Boston this morning.

At the risk of dating myself, I would like to reference the 1992 movie "Singles." In this movie, about a bunch of 20-somethings living in Seattle in the early 90s, actor Campbell Scott portrayed Steve Dunne. Steve worked as a transportation architect and he was pitching the idea of adding a monorail line to the city of Seattle. The city decided they didn't want to add a monorail line.

Now if "Singles" were real life and Seattle still decided to pass on funding a monorail line in the early 1990s, I bet if they could roll back the clock and fund it now, they would. Because guess what, Americans not only want mass transit, they're using it. And our municipalities are having a tough time funding our transportation systems and keeping up with the demands of new riders.

With the rising cost of gas, it seems like public transportation is becoming an emerging issue. Too bad so many metropolitan areas never made public transportation an important service. That is probably because tax payers didn't see the need to fund it. MSNBC ran an interesting article this morning about "Jammed transit systems running on fumes."

Boston/Massachusetts was mentioned in this article.

According to the American Public Transportation Association, mass transit ridership is at its highest point in 50 years. Why? It has become too expensive to drive. This is a trend that is happening coast-to-coast. For the first three months of 2008, Americans took 85 million more trips via bus, subway, commuter rail, and light train rail than during the same period in 2007.

The American Public Transportation Association is concerned that our nation's public transportation systems may not be handle the rising amount of passengers.

While some metropolitan areas have been investing in their public transportation infrastructure, other areas have not. Now that there is an increased demand for public transportation, the infrastructure to provide it might not be there.
“We’re seeing it in a lot of other metropolitan areas where there just [aren’t] viable transit options — places like Indianapolis, Orlando or Raleigh,” said Robert Puentes, a transportation and urban planning scholar with the Brookings Institution, a public policy association in Washington. “They haven’t put the money into it. They haven’t put the resources into it.”

“There are major challenges in most of the older, established transit systems, places like New York or Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston — places that are really starting to show their age,” he said.

The article even mentioned that Washington, DC's Metro system (which I think is one of the best transit systems in this country), is one of the systems showing its age.

For the first time since 1980, the number of miles driven last year fell. This is the point of public transportation - to get cars off the roads.

The rising cost of gas can impact public transit in another way beyond more additional riders. Many transit systems are funded through gasoline taxes. If fewer drivers are filling up, that could mean less money for transportation systems. Some states are increasing their gas tax to help fund their public transit operations. Plus, with more riders, it costs more money to fuel the buses, trains, etc. that the public is using.
It all adds up to a conundrum for government officials — high fuel prices send passengers to mass transit but drive down tax revenue and strain fuel budgets.

Answers aren’t expected any time soon, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said. He added:

“We need a dramatically different energy policy for our country, and that’s not going to happen overnight.”


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, good read. A quibble with this point though:

transit ridership is at its highest point in 50 years. Why? It has become too expensive to drive.

APTA is correct here; they measure transit use as national passenger trips. But attributing this long-term trend to a short-term spike in gas prices is a stretch, I think. In real terms, gas held roughly constant from the 70s to the 2000s. And gas is only a small part of overall cost of car ownership - it just happens to be one of the few marginal costs of driving. What is the long-term trend, of the total cost of car ownership, including depreciation, maintenance, etc., either in real terms, or as percent of average income?

Also, overall volumes of travel by all modes are also at their highest point in 50 years, including autos (until very recently - VMT actually declined a little in 2008 I believe). Another reason for incresed transit use in absolute terms is because service has been expanded. As a share of overall travel, or as a function of overall transit service provided, is the story different?