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.
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.
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.
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."