May 04, 2008
Higher gas prices, more transit riders

When I blogged about the new light rail proposal for Austin, I noted that an argument being made in its favor by one of its proponents on Austin City Council was that as gasoline prices continued to climb, they had a responsibility to offer alternatives to driving. That point hasn't been specifically raised in Houston yet, but after seeing today's front page story, I'm thinking it will.

Area residents, who otherwise would never part with their cars, now feel compelled by record fuel costs to look at alternatives, such as carpooling or telecommuting. Many also are turning to mass transit.

Several who were riding Metropolitan Transit Authority Park & Ride buses last week said they were saving wear and tear on their nerves at the same time. The rides are a time to escape with a book, listen to music or catch up on some Zs.

Traffic jams are other peoples' worries.

Last fall, the Chronicle examined two years' worth of monthly boarding data from Metro and monthly gasoline prices in Houston, but found no clear link between them. Both numbers went up and down, seemingly at random. That has changed.

Ridership counts for October through March are up nearly 3 percent compared to the same period 12 months earlier. Metro officials put the actual increase at more than 6 percent when adjusted to reflect more accurate counts made by sensors in the bus and train doors, starting in October.

The price of regular gasoline rose 35 percent during the same period. Boardings for the six months on Park & Ride buses, which travel the long routes that eat deep into commuters' wallets, increased 13 percent over the previous year.

Metro's April data are not out yet, but in March, when gas prices here averaged $3.15 a gallon (32 percent higher than in March 2007), Park & Ride boardings were up 16 percent compared with a year ago.

Metro attributes about 40 percent of that gain to the opening of two new Park & Ride lots in Katy and Baytown, but says the rest is because of higher gas prices.

Metro also saw its boardings shoot up after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Much of that reflected the influx of evacuees to Houston. But there also was a nationwide increase in transit use sparked by the higher fuel prices after the storm, American Public Transportation Association spokeswoman Virginia Miller said.

Fuel prices approached $3 in 2006, then dipped during the summer. But transit use did not go down.

"People had changed their travel habits and were staying with it," Miller said.

She said there may be a "tipping point" at which large numbers of motorists will shift to mass transit, at least for their daily commutes to work, but it is not clear where that point is.

"For a lot of people across the country, $3 and just over $3 was a tipping point, since both 2006 and 2007 were record ridership years," she said.

"It may be that $3.50 is a tipping point for a whole other level of people," Miller continued.

The story focuses on park-and-ride service and doesn't mention light rail, though according to Metro's blog, rail service is up 7.3%; I presume that's compared to last year. But the same calculations about cost work even for shorter in-town trips as they do for the woman from Cypress and her 76-mile round trip to work at the Medical Center. During each of Tiffany's pregnancies, I rode the train from where I work (Smithlands station) to where her ob-gyn practices (Downtown Transit Center) to be with her for checkups. According to Google Maps, it's a six-mile drive each way. If I get 20 miles to the gallon, and if gas is $3.50 a gallon, that 12-mile roundtrip cost me $2.10. That's more than the train fare, and I saved $2 in parking on top of that. Make it a 14-mile round trip and 18 MPG, and you're looking at $2.73 for the cost. And at $4 a gallon, unless you're driving something really fuel-efficient, rail will be more economical for a whole lot of relatively short trips.

So keep this in mind when you hear people say that Houstonians will never change their driving habits, and that the costs of building transit are just too high. Those habits are already changing, and with that the value of more transit increases. We can't afford not to build more.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 04, 2008 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

If we see change at $3.50, just wait about 3 - 5 more years when we are at $7.00 per gallon.

Posted by: Peter Wang on May 4, 2008 9:15 PM

More information is also helpful - Google Transit is pretty nice, especially for cities like Chicago that have pretty good transit service. Looks like it is also integrated with Dallas and Austin's metro systems, but not Houston... yet.

Just type in 2 addresses in the city and then you can select either "drive there" or "take public transit". At one point this produced a cost estimate for driving versus transit as well, but that doesn't seem to be displaying anymore...

Posted by: Mike on May 4, 2008 9:16 PM