Public Transit Looking More Attractive in the Face of Record Gas Prices

chicago public transit

Image courtesy of frozenchipmunk via flickr

The upshot of the record gas prices we're seeing has been the sometimes meteoric rise in the number of drivers switching over to public transit. And, as we learn today from a prominent piece in the NYT, it's become a national trend — one that has especially picked up steam in many of the Southwest's car-happy metropolitan areas (hi Los Angeles). Indeed, as another recent piece in the LAT points out, usage statistics for the MTA have gone through the roof:

"After declining at the end of 2007, L.A. rail and bus ridership started rising in January. From January to March, average weekday boardings were up 16% on the Red Line rail system, 13% on the Blue Line and 17% on the Gold Line, which set a record for highest average weekday boardings in March with 22,231. Bus ridership grew 8% from January to March."With gas prices expected to continue their rise over the coming months — some analysts predict the price of a barrel of gasoline could reach $150-200 by year's end — these encouraging trends will likely prove to be more than just a flash in the pan. The relative staying power of these trends, however, will largely depend on consumers' changing perceptions of gas costs: In other words, will they switch back to cars once they become accustomed to a new era of $4+ gallon petroleum?

Ryan Avent, writing about these trends in his always incisive blog, The Bellows, muses:

"If consumers expect gas costs to plateau, then they will become used to them, and the math may work out in favor of shelling out for a new car. If expectations become such that gas price increases will continue–will continue, actually, to increase by more than incomes or the rate of inflation–then this could change. Those willing to make a large upfront expense to save on gas will begin to think about a home convenient to transit rather than a new automobile.

But a big factor in this calculation is the very limited supply of homes convenient to transit, based on the very limited supply of transit stations. Those limits push the cost of transit-accessible homes up rapidly, forcing most commuters to seek other options. And unfortunately, those least able to afford a shiny new hybrid will also be those who are the first to be priced out of transit-oriented housing, rental or owner-occupied."

It's possible (and to be hoped for) that as public transit becomes a more viable option for more individuals, cities and developers will focus on building more homes next to transportation hubs — as is currently the case for L.A.'s bustling, artsy downtown area.

In tracking these trends, of course, it's always important to remember that public transit remains a non-factor for many American consumers — especially when you compare usage statistics in the U.S. to those in the E.U. (when are we going to get all those spiffy high-speed rail lines?); as such, we're starting from a low threshold.

The 50% hike in gas prices since the beginning of the year, for example, has contributed to a reduction of roughly 5% in total miles driven, as Political Animal's Kevin Drum notes:

"This is nothing to sneeze at. Sure, considering that gasoline prices have gone up about 50% since the beginning of last year, even 5% might not seem like much of a reduction. But if you add in population growth, it means that per capita miles driven is down about 6% compared to last year. If you then compare it to the 1.5% annual growth we've been experiencing for the past decade, it means that per capita driving is down about 7-8% from its trendline. That's the first time this has happened in a long time."

It's true that even a 5% decline is "nothing to sneeze at," but it makes you wonder what it would take to get a more substantial decline — say around 15-20% — aside from more and better transit options (and, yes, I realize this is purely wishful thinking).

Via ::The Bellows: Adjustments (blog), ::Political Animal: Oil Prices and Driving Habits... (blog)

See also: ::Gasoline is Soooo Cheap, ::How to Green Your Public Transportation