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Travelers Turn to Public Transit

Ridership Surges as Gas Prices Fuel Exodus From Cars, with the highest ridership gains on light rail.

By Lena H. Sun

Published in the Washington Post on June 3, 2008.

Soaring gas prices are pushing more Americans to take public transit, with streetcars, trolleys and other light rail experiencing a 10.3 percent increase in ridership for the first quarter of the year, according to a report released yesterday by the American Public Transportation Association.

Americans took 2.6 billion trips on all modes of public transportation, including subways and buses, in the first three months of 2008, a 3.3 percent increase, or almost 85 million more trips than in the same period last year, the report said.

"There's no doubt that the high gas prices are motivating people to change their travel behavior," APTA President William Millar said in a statement.

The national average for unleaded gasoline yesterday was $3.97, up from $3.61 a month ago and $3.16 a year ago, according to AAA.

The ridership increase is noteworthy because it occurred when the economy was declining, said APTA, a transportation industry group. Sixty percent of transit trips are work-related, so for ridership to jump when the economy is flat or on the decline signals an increase in demand that is likely to continue if gas prices remain high, said Rob Padgette, APTA's director of policy, development and research. "It is a significant number," he said.

Even more noteworthy, Padgette said, is that ridership at many transit agencies increased despite higher fares. In Washington, Metro's ridership has steadily increased even though the agency raised fares and fees in January, the largest increase in its history. In April, ridership increased 4.3 percent over the same period the year before.

"That's a stunning thing and says to us that demand is there even if we raise fares," Padgette said, referring to the national statistics. "We haven't had this situation before where the ground is shifting underneath us. Fuel prices are at a totally different level than ever before, and we are facing surging demand."

At the same time, high fuel and electricity costs are constraining transit's ability to respond as quickly to meet demand, he said, highlighting the need for greater federal investment in transit.

APTA said the first-quarter increases continued a trend from last year, when Americans took the highest number of trips on public transportation - 10.3 billion - in 50 years. The U.S. Transportation Department reported last month that in March, Americans drove 11 billion fewer miles than in March 2007, a decline of 4.3 percent and the first time since 1979 that traffic has dropped from one March to the next.

There is often a lag between gas price increases and transit ridership increases because it takes time for "folks who are not regular transit riders to make that first step," Padgette said.

When people ditch their cars, public transportation increases tend to show up first on long-haul trips, such as commuter and light rail, rather than buses or heavy rail, such as subways, he said.

Among light-rail systems, Baltimore recorded a 16.8 percent increase in the first quarter, Minneapolis went up 16.4 percent, St. Louis increased 15.6 percent and San Francisco rose 12.2 percent.

Commuter rail posted the second largest ridership increase at 5.7 percent. The six commuter rail systems with a double-digit ridership growth rate in the first three months of 2008 were in Seattle (27.9 percent), Harrisburg, Pa. (17 percent), Oakland, Calif. (15.8 percent), Stockton, Calif. (13.9 percent), Pompano Beach, Fla. (12.9 percent) and Philadelphia (10.4 percent).

In the Washington area, the transit agencies that provide longer-haul trips are experiencing significant ridership increases. Loudoun County's commuter bus system posted a 23 percent increase in April over the same period last year. Ridership was also up 12 percent in April on Virginia Railway Express, and the Maryland Transit Administration reported a 15 percent increase in ridership in April on the 15 commuter routes into Washington.

Across the country, heavy-rail ridership increased 4.4 percent in the first quarter. The systems with the biggest increases included New York City, the nation's busiest subway, with a 5 percent increase; Boston, with an 8.8 percent increase; and San Francisco, with a 4.5 percent increase.