As PBS reports, transit ridership appears strong even though gas prices have been falling. Or at least ridership was strong through September, the last reliable count:
More than 2.8 billion trips were taken from July through September—an increase of 6.5 percent over the third quarter of 2007. In that time, there was an increase in ridership of 8.5 percent on light rail (streetcars), 7.2 percent on buses, 6.3 percent on commuter rail and 5.2 percent on subways.
Last year, 10.3 billion trips were taken on U.S. public transit—the highest number of trips taken in fifty years.
But how can this be? Hasn’t everyone heard that falling gas prices mean that we’ll soon be driving Ford F-150s on two-hour commutes from the exurbs? Won’t gas consumption start increasing dramatically?
Maybe, but I think not. At least not right away. Here’s why…
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1.) Demand does respond to price—really it does — but there’s a lag time. The big changes in demand take a while to kick in. For example, when prices rise you maybe cut a few discretionary trips right away, but you probably won’t buy or sell a car overnight. You may tweak your work schedule to telecommute on Fridays, but you likely won’t move your residence or job location right away.
(An aside: consumers have historically seen gas prices as inherently volatile and unpredictable: if prices are high today, they’ll likely be lower next month. I’d bet a pile of money that consistently high prices—and the belief that prices will remain high—can change consumer response in not-entirely-understood ways.)
2.) Income may matter more than price. (In economist-speak, income elasticity of demand is probably higher than price elasticity of demand when it comes to gasoline.) In other words, people respond to gas prices, but they respond even more to changes in income. When wages go up, people drive bigger cars and they drive them more miles. But when wages go down—as they almost certainly are now—people respond by trimming their sails. We tend to opt for efficiency and look to save a few bucks by taking the bus when we can, maybe even ditching a car altogether.
These reasons were often supplied to assert that Americans would never, ever, ever stop guzzling fuel. But of course when gas prices spiked in mid-2008 it turned out that Americans are pretty darn resourceful. (Though it did take a while for the resourcefulness to have a measurable effect.) We drove fewer miles, and we drove slower. We started taking transit in numbers. And when we drove we switched to our more fuel efficiency vehicles. In short, for all these reasons and some others, gasoline consumption dropped.
Naturally, these same things can happen in reverse. But in order for them to we’ll probably need to see not only low prices but also a strong economy—and even then we’ll need time to see the effect. Folks who moved to a walkable neighborhood won’t soon be leaving. And some folks who traded in a car for a bus pass will find that they prefer getting about by transit. (That is, if transit service can be maintained in an era of crushing budgetary constraints.)
Only time will tell. It will be interesting to see what fourth quarter transit ridership is like. My guess is that it stays reasonably strong. Your predictions in the comments, please, and I’ll meet you back here in ’09 for an update.
I’d like to throw out one more possible answer to this: People realized they like taking public transit! That’s how it went for me back in 2003. I had to take the bus because my car was in the shop and I didn’t have enough money to rent a car. And I discovered that I really liked taking the bus, since I could relax all the way to work and I didn’t have to worry about traffic. I could get things done, or not, if I wanted to. It was great. It could just be that a lot of folks can see past the “stigma” of public transit and would rather improve their quality of life instead of their material image.
Yo, cuz!! I agree – transit trips are much groovier than a stressful drive. Even if a bus trip takes longer, it feels like less of a transit trip is simply wasted.
To: Jamie and Clark – YES, YES and YES!I totally agree.It’s interesting how certain (albeit entirely different) people can have very similar situations! ;-)What happened to me was… In the past, I was – like most Angelenos – a “standard” auto driver; but thanks to the fact that my car is quite old – I had to give it for repairs. And one time, my car had to undergo an extensive repair that took more than a week; so I was forced to use public transit. But, as I got used to it – I realized it was quite enjoyable! And… the closer it got to the day I had to pick-up my car, the less I wanted to get back in it! – That’s because I got so much used to riding the bus (and taking the subway), and found it MUCH more relaxing than being stressed behind the wheel.So, when I finally picked-up my car, I realized “well, wait a minute… Why SHOULD I get back to driving?! No way!” So, that was a turning point, and I gradually switched to using mass transit. Even though I do drive about once or twice a month, the rest of the time I ride the bus and subway – it’s so much better, more relaxing, the time is so much more useful (I always read magazines or books while in transit, or do a Sudoku puzzle; whereas driving would obviously not allow doing that), etc., etc. And – what’s also very important – when I go to auditions (I’m a working actor) I never have to worry about parking, since I take the bus or subway. Other fellow actors keep staring at their watch since their parking meter is about to expire (or a car may get towed!), but… I just have a piece of mind… And, if the audition takes longer – then let it be so, there’s no parked car to worry about! And lastly – speaking about money savings – it’s not just the GAS prices that makes driving so expensive, but – how about Monthly Lease (or Finance) costs – that’s hundreds of dollars a month! Or, frequent driving of an old car would require more maintenance (which can also add up!), plus Insurance costs, Parking costs; Violations (moving and parking); etc., etc. So, in the long run using mass transit will indeed save us Thousands of dollars a year!it’s so nice to have a Car-free life ;-)Alek
There’s also the increasing cost of parking. I take the bus to work everyday, but if I need to go downtown for shopping or an event on the weekend, I’ll usually take the bus to avoid the parking cost. However, it will be interesting to see if there’s an effect on transit ridership in the winter months when people have to wait on windy, wet and cold streets.
Another alternative is a taxi—perhaps walk to the store but take a taxi home with the packages. It’s worth considering for those transit trips that have long transfers or coming back late at night. And that would help with the wet/windy street waiting.We have very limited public transit in our rural town/area (although they’re working on expanding it), but my car’s going into the shop next week and, although my insurance company is providing me with a rental car, I’m thinking of taking a taxi instead.
In cities like Portland or Seattle, long cold/wet/windy waits are just another convenient excuse to drive a car. I’ve been car-free for over a decade, and commute by bike/trimet for 99% of my trips. People ask me all the time, “isn’t it too cold/wet/windy?” Rain/hail/sleet/snow, my reponse is the same: 1)Plan accordingly, and 2)Dress appropriately. It’s really not that hard once you’ve gotten used to it. If you absolutely need a car, borrow from a friend or Flexcar! Changing perceptions is the first step.
This is a late response, but I just saw this post. I’m not sure about other transit agencies, but Community Transit (in Snohomish County, just north of Seattle) actually showed a decline in boardings for commuter service to downtown Seattle (-7.3%) and the University of Washington (-2.7%) for Nov. 2008 over Nov. 2007. Boardings on local service has continued to rise, however, showing an 8.2% increase over the same period. I think this shows an interesting split between two different markets served by suburban transit agencies.