Gas prices down, ridership up

It wasn’t much of a surprise to hear that mass transit ridership was up when gas was selling for $4 a gallon. Now that pump prices are less than half of that, it turns out that ridership is still up.

The 6.5 percent jump in transit ridership over the same period last year marks the largest quarterly increase in public transportation ridership in 25 years, according to a survey to be released today by the American Public Transportation Association.

Ridership growth began hitting record levels last year and continued through the first and second quarters of this year, spurred in large part by gasoline prices that topped $4 a gallon in July, the industry group said. But the third-quarter increase is notable, it said, because gas prices began falling and unemployment rose, trends that tend to drive ridership down.

Instead, ridership has gone up across the board nationwide. More than 2.8 billion trips were taken from July through September, rising 8.5 percent on light rail (streetcars), 7.2 percent on buses, 6.3 percent on commuter rail and 5.2 percent on subways.


Americans drove 4.4 percent less, or almost 11 billion fewer miles, in September compared with September 2007, the 11th straight month of declining driving, according to the Federal Highway Administration. In early July, the national average price for a gallon of gas was $4.11, but it fell steadily through the quarter, dropping to $3.63 at the end of September.

Even though pump prices continue to plummet, transit officials said riders are sticking to buses and trains. Preliminary data for October show the upward trend continuing. In Los Angeles, rail ridership jumped nearly 17 percent in October compared with the same period last year. Loudoun County’s commuter bus ridership rose 25 percent in October over the previous year and more than 25 percent for the first 13 days of November from last year. The national average price for a gallon of gas was $1.73 yesterday.

If it’s convenient and available, transit has a lot of advantages over driving, mostly in that you can do things while riding that you can’t while driving, like sleep, read a book, or surf the web. You can read and respond to email so that’s done before you get to the office. It helps if you have lunch options that don’t require a car, and it helps if you generally don’t have to worry about needing to leave for an emergency like a sick kid, but adjustments can usually be made if need be. I think as with most things, the way one commutes is a habit, and once you get into a new habit it becomes just as familiar and comfortable as the old one. It’s making the switch in the first place that’s hard, and often requires some external factor like a spike in gas prices.

For what’s it’s worth, third-quarter ridership for Houston’s Metro was down for both buses and light rail (both PDF). That decline was almost entirely due to a steep drop in ridership for the month of September. I’ll give you three guesses as to what might have caused that. There was a small drop in August for each as well, for which the cause is somewhat less clear, but if you assign 2007’s number for this September, then the overall ridership for the year is up a bit. We’ll see what happens in the fourth quarter. Link via Atrios.

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One Response to Gas prices down, ridership up

  1. Carey says:

    I don’t think we need three guesses for the cause of ridership in September 🙂

    I think you’re right, the high gas prices got commuters hooked on the big comfy seats on the commuter buses, and now they don’t want to give it up, especially if their office is subsidizing some or all of the cost.

    Also, I’m sure a lot of people canceled their expensive downtown parking contracts in lieu of bus ridership, so they’ve already budgeted the lower cost of commuting. When you take parking into account, riding a bus is still cheaper than cheap gas + parking for most people.

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