June 15, 2008
Demand for mass transit growing

I alluded to this in the post on the new commuter rail plans here, but this MSNBC article makes it clear that demand for transit is booming across the country as gas prices rise.

Mass transit ridership is at its highest point in 50 years, according to research by the American Public Transportation Association. For many riders, it just got too expensive to drive.

"I do it to save gas whenever I can," said Cody Nunez, a student at Pasco High School in Kennewick, Wash. "I don't want to be paying $50 every week."


The story is the same everywhere: In Seattle, commuter rail ridership recorded the biggest jump in the nation during the first quarter, with 28 percent more riders than during the same time last year. Ridership in Harrisburg, Pa., rose 17 percent. In Oakland, Calif., it rose 15.8 percent.

Nationwide, Americans took 2.6 billion bus, subway, commuter rail and light rail trips in the first three months of the year, 85 million more than in the same period in 2007, the American Public Transportation Association said. But it's not clear that the nation's transit systems are able to handle the load.

While many major cities cities have invested heavily in mass transit over the past 15 years, many more have not. Now that people are demanding service, there isn't the infrastructure to provide it.

"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."

Even those big cities with robust systems are struggling, Puentes said.

"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.

Houston is in the position of expanding its transit system, thanks to the commuter rail proposals and the Metro Solutions plan. It's a shame more of these pieces aren't already in place, but at least they're on their way, and hopefully more will come as Metro moves to the next phase beyond the 2012 plan.

Mass transit is supposed to get cars off the road, and it's working: For the first time since 1980, the number of miles driven fell last year, from 3.014 trillion to 3.003 trillion, according to the Federal Highway Administration. The drop continued by another 2.3 percent in the first quarter of this year, the FHA said.

Meanwhile, 61 percent of drivers said in a poll by Quinnipiac University last month that they had cut back significantly on how much they drove because of high gas prices.

In the San Francisco Bay area, one of the most congested regions in the country, traffic has decreased while ridership on Bay Area Rapid Transit, ferries and buses has risen, said Bijan Sartipi, a district director for California Transportation Department.

Maybe, just maybe, it's time to stop thinking in terms of transit as a way to ease traffic congestion, and to start thinking of it as a genuine alternative to driving and a car-based lifestyle. People flocked to the far-flung suburbs and put up with long commutes and the need to drive everywhere for everything in part because it made economic sense: Even with the cost of all that driving factored in, the cheaper housing cost made it worthwhile. But with $4-per-gallon gas, that equation gets upended. The monthly cost of an automobile, even one that's paid off, can be several hundred dollars; it's certainly a lot more now than it was as little as a year ago. How much more mortgage could you afford if you had one less vehicle to gas, insure, and maintain? I'm guessing that the more-expensive real estate closer in would start to look a lot better to people if it meant they could downsize their garages.

Now of course, that isn't going to be a truly viable option for most people right now, because Houston's transit infrastructure is still lacking. But it will be more robust in five years' time, and it can be even more so in another five years. The transition may be painful, but doing the same old thing and hoping gas prices come down isn't going to help. The problem isn't going away.

There are plenty of challenges for the meantime:

[I]ncreased ridership means higher costs for transit systems. That's because it takes more fuel to move more passengers, and transit systems aren't getting a break at the pump.

Wichita Transit in Kansas, which has seen a 22 percent increase in ridership, has raised its weekly fuel purchase to 8,000 gallons. One recent delivery cost 30 cents a gallon more than it had the week before, officials said.

That caused the bus service to ask the city council for $210,000 from a reserve fund, money it said was needed to keep buses on the street until July.

"The fuel prices have gone up so dramatically and drastically that even the dramatic increase in ridership is not making up as far as our fuel debt is concerned and our ability to purchase fuel," said Michael Vinson, the system's acting director.

Metro is in good shape for diesel fuel prices this fiscal year, but after that it gets ugly.

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.

"With gas at this level, rail and public transit has got to be a bigger and bigger part of our future," Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine said.

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."

Well, Step One would be to redirect some federal highway funds to transit projects. The need is there and the trend is clear. And given that there are clear differences in policy ideas on this issue between the Presidential candidates, there's at least a good chance we'll see a change of direction soon (thanks to MOMocrats for the link). Ryan Avent has more.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on June 15, 2008 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

I couldn't agree more. I just wish Houston would look into the metro-link in St. Louis. They could take notes. Done right, (ie: St. Louis) Kingwood, Woodlands, Clear Lake, and especially Katy, would all do well with mass transit. But, it can't be the fiasco that we have seen thus far from Houston.

Posted by: Patty Pinkley on June 15, 2008 10:31 AM

Charles, let's talk about those far-flung suburbs.

I live 20 miles from work. If I were to move inward, so I would be 5 miles from work, I would save 30 miles per day, 150 miles per week, 7200 miles per year.

But I'd be moving from Cy-Fair to Memorial-ish (I work in Westchase). I'd be assuming maybe $200,000 in new debt. My property taxes would double. My additional monthly out-of-pocket cashflow would be about about $1,180, or $14,160 per year. After tax deductions, let's say $10,200 per year.

Let's then ditch one car, the one that I drive least. Probably save $420 per month, on average. It's a cheap car.

Total net additional cash outflow $5180 per year.

I would be paying $0.72 per mile to get rid of those commute miles, in other words. Moving in to get rid of commute miles would not be a good economic decision at this time.

It might, however, be a good decision to take if gas were about $9 per gallon, which would bring my car costs up to $0.72 per mile. If I were a solo car commuter.

But I commute only about 1/3 to 1/2 of my commute in the car, the rest being a combo of METRO bus and bicycle. So I do myself a huge favor and insulate my family from a big economic hit by turning the cranks.

In 2010-ish, I'm going to get an electric car from TH!NK, Nissan, or Mitsubishi which will cost about $4.56 at today's prices to charge up to go 125 miles, or 3.6 cents per mile. Let's say electricity quadruples by 2010. OK, $0.144 per mile. Still peanuts.

I just can't see a near-term scenario under which I should move closer in. And I've looked for one.

ALSO RISK! The $5180 per year spent on mortgage and property taxes is NOT going into 401-k, which means my wealth will concentrate in my house, rather than a diversified investment portfolio. Sorry, I'd rather have a liquid (sell it all with a phone call), diversified investment portfolio and live in a cardboard box beneath a freeway overpass than risk being underwater because the real estate market just tanked for whatever reason.

But I would certainly welcome better METRO service into the suburbs, certainly.

Posted by: Peter Wang on June 15, 2008 4:13 PM