Rising Gas Prices Could Send More Americans Back To Public Transit

By David Freudberg

Apr. 8, 2011

Most people in metropolitan areas face choices when we travel — to go by car or to use public transit? These decisions have a huge impact on our wallets, on the environment and on our quality of life. We’ll explore these issues in Passengers, a two-part radio documentary airing on WGBH Radio's Humankind at 6-7 pm, Sunday, Apr. 10 and Sunday, Apr. 17 on 89.7 FM. Here, series producer David Freudberg introduces one of the issues covered by the documentary.

An MBTA train at Green Street Station. (stevegarfield/Flickr)

The last time America underwent a spike in gasoline prices, in the spring of 2008, public transportation experienced a five-decade high in ridership. Millions of people made the calculation that using buses and trains is far more affordable than the combined cost of owning, fueling, insuring, maintaining and parking a car.
Now in 2011, gas prices have risen dramatically, a trend that could continue -- especially with unrest in the Middle East, a rich source of petroleum.

More resources: 

LISTEN: Passengers, Pt. 1

LISTEN: Passengers, Pt. 2

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New England gas prices have already jumped 31% in the past year, averaging $3.67 per gallon, as of the first week of April, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Pain at the pump could send more Americans back to public transit – but are the country’s transit systems, already worn down by slashed budgets and growing demand, well-equipped to handle increased demand?
Many public transit systems rely on local sales tax revenue, which, in some locales, has declined sharply with the slow economy. As a result, transit systems throughout the country have laid off drivers and other workers, cut back routes and number of trips, and, in some cases, also raised fares at the same time.
While such cuts reduce the supply of public transportation, they’re unlikely to affect demand.  In metropolitan areas, about a third of people do not have access to car. As a result, in Chicago, where budget pressure caused an 18% cut in bus service last year, ridership declined by only 1%, because people are dependent on public transit.
It worries a man we interviewed at the bus depot in Boston’s Dudley Square.
“I live check by check, day by day and, you know, and I depend on the public transportation,” he said. “I depend on this to get me to where I’m going.  But yet still I have to leave my house earlier and earlier every day so I can get to work on time, because for the simple fact the buses are always late, always late.  4:30 comes early in the morning, and if I don’t catch that first bus to go to work, I’m late.”
At the same time, there are signs that many young people are embracing public transportation more eagerly than many of their parents did – which could place further demands on the system. “(Younger people) see cars as much more restrictive, in the sense that you’re stuck behind the wheel.  It’s much more expensive than traveling on a bus,” says DePaul University metropolitan planner Joseph Schweitermann.
“And not to mention the flexibility they now have on a bus or train, you know, to kind of seamlessly continue their work, their social interactions, their, you know, their chill out time, texting people.  And so the car is seen as kind of this big apparatus you’ve got to take with you when you go somewhere, which isn’t necessarily what they want to do,” Schweitermann said.
We’ll explore the role public transportation can play in building a more livable nation in a 2-part radio documentary, Passengers, airing Sunday, Apr. 10 and Sunday, Apr. 17 on 89.7 FM.

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