Rising Gasoline Costs Drive Demand for Public Transit

The American Public Transit Association’s (APTA) annual report, released yesterday, finds that use of public transit in the United States has reached its highest level since 1956. By the numbers:
  • Public transit ridership is up 37.2 percent since 1995, outpacing population growth, which is up 20.3 percent, and vehicle miles traveled (VMT), which is up 22.7 percent.
  • While vehicle miles traveled on roads has increased 0.3 percent since 2012, public transportation use increased by 1.1 percent in the same time frame.
  • 2013 was the eighth year in a row during which more than 10 billion trips were taken on public transportation systems nationwide.
  • More than 10.65 billion passenger trips were taken on transit systems during 2013, surpassing the post-1950s peak of 10.59 million in 2008, when gas prices rose to $4—$5 a gallon.
Michael Melaniphy, president of the association, argues that the current sustained trend is about more than gas prices. “Now gas is averaging well under $4 a gallon, the economy is coming back and people are riding transit in record numbers,” said Melaniphy. “We’re seeing a fundamental shift in how people are moving about their communities.” A few points on this statement. First, saying that gas is cheap at nearly $4 a gallon reflects the short memory of American consumers. While gas prices did rise above $4 per gallon in 2013 in many parts of the country, especially the Midwest, prices were happily below $2 per gallon less than a decade ago. In fact, the price of oil has increased from $20 to $100 per barrel since the 1990s. It’s no coincidence that APTA’s figures suggest that public transit usage has also been rising steadily during this period. Unfortunately, due to the five-fold increase in oil prices over the past decade and a half, the economic benefits of using less oil have largely been lost.  Annual household spending on gasoline has remained at record highs even as the volume of petroleum consumed by the nation as a whole has fallen marginally from highs near 21 million barrels per day to around 19 million barrels per day. APTA’s research suggest that alongside—or perhaps, as a result of—rising oil costs, changes in urban demographics and public perception are playing a large role in this shift toward more use of public transport. Many members of the public, especially younger people, have come to see public transit as a viable alternative to the automobile for perhaps the first time in history. Data reported to APTA by regional transit authorities show that ridership is increasing during off-peak hours, suggesting that people are using public transportation for recreational trips, not just commuting. However, a continued decrease in oil dependence through expanded use of public transit is not a foregone conclusion. Ridership has increased more in areas where infrastructure improvements have yielded higher-quality transit options. Riders value cleanliness, security, reliability, and ease of use. Free transfers and other promotions help to increase off-peak usage. Finally, APTA suggests that stronger economic growth is playing an important role in the increased use of public transit. According to the report, as more people are using the systems to get to an increasing number of jobs, transit agencies are nurturing growth by expanding their systems or improving services. “We’re seeing that where cities have invested in transit, their unemployment rates have dropped, and employment is going up because people can get there,” Melaniphy stated.