Bad news at the gas pump is good news for mass transit

By Dogtown Commoner | Posted at 1:20 pm, December 16th, 2007 | Topic: oakland, economics, the press

Contrary to the widespread myth that Americans will never get out of their cars, behavior does seem to be changing as people start to accept that high gas prices are here to stay. From the Oakland Tribune:

Commuters are turning to public transportation in record numbers as gasoline prices seem to have gotten comfortable at or above $3 a gallon.

Unlike past surges in transit ridership, this one doesn’t have the help of a major freeway disruption like the Labor Day weekend closure of the Bay Bridge in August or the collapse of a MacArthur Maze ramp in April.

On Nov. 14 and Dec. 7, BART had its second and third biggest days, with 382,865 and 381,499 people inserting tickets on their way out of the system, respectively.

“This year’s going to be our biggest year ever,” said BART spokesman Linton Johnson, adding it would be on the heels of breaking the barrier of 100 million trips for the system’s last fiscal year, which ended June 30.

The jump has been noticed at other transit agencies, too, especially those that carry longer-distance commuters who have the choice of driving.

Caltrain’s ridership jumped 9.3 percent last month over November 2006. The Gilroy-to-San Francisco route hit a record for that month of 36,454 rides. The Capitol Corridor, which runs from the Sierra foothills to Sacramento, Oakland and San Jose, was up 13 percent from the previous November, to 136,650 riders for the month. Ferry ridership was also rising.

The fact that many people actually will switch from automobile to mass transit given the right combination of incentives and disincentives has been pointed out here several times before, but unlike the previous occasions when the switch was caused by highway or bridge closures, the trend outlined above seems to be driven only by high gasoline prices and perhaps growing awareness of the environmental benefits of public transportation compared to car commuting.

Oddly, the author of the above Tribune article, transportation reporter Erik N. Nelson, doesn’t mention that BART recently announced that it is increasing fares more than 5% starting next month. If, as the figures cited above suggest, people’s transportation choices are guided to some degree by rational cost/benefit analyses, rather than warm and fuzzy attachment to their cars, then you would think that an imminent hike in BART fares would be worth mentioning. I hear people complain all the time that BART is too expensive to make it worth giving up the convenience of their cars, and I would rather see BART pursue increased revenue by further boosting ridership instead of by hiking fares. Thankfully, BART’s fare hike is being accompanied by increased service, so there is reason for some optimism that the disincentive created by the higher prices will be offset by the allure of more frequent trains.