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The Source for Public Transportation News and Analysis May 6, 2011
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As Gas Prices Increase, So Does Transit Use; Nationwide, Agencies Weigh In
BY SUSAN BERLIN, Senior Editor

Many U.S. public transportation agencies are watching their ridership increase as gasoline prices skyrocket—but no two systems are seeing exactly the same situation. With experts predicting a continued rise in gas prices, in future issues Passenger Transport will track how this affects ridership. Here are a few recent examples from across the nation.

Chuck Cohen, executive director of Palm Tran in West Palm Beach, FL, described how March ridership on his system’s buses was 11 percent higher than the previous March. “Certainly, the rising gas prices can be a reason for some of that ridership increase,” he said. “There’s no question: if you look at our ridership during the year, it has spiked recently.”

Cohen also said Palm Tran has dealt with buses packed to capacity on an occasional basis in the past, but this situation is becoming more usual. “Luckily, it doesn’t happen every day,” he said, “but the buses are fuller, we’re seeing a lot more standees.”  For the longer term, the agency is beginning to look at options such as possibly purchasing articulated buses.

The North County Transit District in Oceanside, CA, gives rising gasoline prices—currently well above $4 per gallon in California—much of the credit for its noteworthy ridership growth. Alex Wiggins, communications director, cited his agency’s March statistics: ridership on Coaster commuter rail was 13.7 percent higher than in March 2010, while Sprinter light rail showed an 8.2 percent increase. Breeze bus ridership grew by 1.7 percent for the month.

“I see little doubt that high gas prices are helping to drive the ridership numbers up,” Wiggins noted. “In addition, we took a creative step and lowered our fares for Coaster and buses; the fare media for our buses also can be used for Sprinter.”

In Nashville, TN, both the Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) and the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) reported a continuing trend of growth.

RTA ridership in March was 39 percent higher than the same month in 2010, including 48 percent growth on its buses and 40 percent on Music City Star commuter rail, which reported a record 25,321 passenger trips. MTA’s bus routes provided almost 13 percent more trips in March 2011 than in March 2010.

Paul Ballard, chief executive officer of MTA and RTA, cited the fuel price situation as a major reason for the increased ridership, but not the only one. “We had a tough winter here with a number of snowstorms,” he explained, “and people began using our services and stayed with them after the weather improved.”

He also cited the area’s Easy Ride program, through which employers subsidize their employees’ commute with transit passes.

The Triangle Transit Authority (TTA) in Research Triangle Park, NC, reported a 21 percent ridership increase in March compared with the same month in 2010, resulting in the largest number of rides in a single month in the system’s history: 124,277. The previous high occurred in October 2008, during the last increase in gasoline prices.

“We’re finding that we have more people riding us now when our fuel prices are lower now than they were in 2008,” said TTA Communications Officer Brad Schulz, explaining that gas prices in his region are at $3.80-3.85 a gallon, not yet above $4 as they were in 2008. “We think that speaks to the current economic condition: more people are seeing transit and the economic savings they can reap from using transit.”

Schulz noted that TTA has added service and expanded its service area since the last time gas prices rose: “We feel that’s also had an impact because people are finding transit more accessible to them than it was before. We feel that the economic condition, the cost of fuel, and our ability to provide service in areas we did not serve several years ago have actually benefited us.”

Ray Amoruso, chief of planning for Hampton Roads Transit in Hampton, VA, speculated that, “given the tight job economy and job market, more people are coming back to transit, perhaps not using a second car. Higher fuel prices may mean that drivers are becoming more judicious in their use of transit.”
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