Transit Use Declines As Gas Prices Drop

In 2015, transit ridership went down. The assumption is that this happened because gasoline prices were also down; transit ridership had not declined since 2010. However, both commuter trains and subways were still packed with riders, a phenomenon that was confusing to some because riding the bus is often less expensive than other methods of public transportation.

Approximately 150 million fewer people got on the bus in 2015, but the number of train riders went up a little. Overall, the number of people taking public transportation went down by 1.3 percent from 2014. The American Public Transportation Association noted that ridership was the highest that it had been in almost 60 years in 2014. In addition, the price of gas went down by more than 25 percent in 2015 as compared to 2014.

After an examination of all the billions of transit rides that were taken in 2015, a few points stand out as being important. First, the number of people riding the bus went down by 2.8 percent. The number of people taking a train or subway went up by 0.2 percent. However, the data does not include information from either intercity buses or Amtrak.

Joseph Schwieterman is a professor with DePaul University; he researches urban transportation economics. Schwieterman noted that they did not expect the drop in gasoline prices to affect people’s transportation habits. However, when people found that they did not have to pay as much for gas, they were more likely to drive a car instead of getting on public transportation. After World War II, fewer people decided to get on public transportation as they were busy exploring the highways in their personal vehicles. However, in the past decade, more people are using public transportation. Ridership increased as people struggled to find steady employment.

High gasoline prices did not hurt, either. It was less expensive for people to use public transportation, so they did. However, as fuel costs go down, people change their driving habits, becoming more willing to start up their personal vehicle in the morning.

In cities that are not as large, buses are very common. People use them as a way to get to and from work, but they tend to drive their cars when they want to go shopping or out to a restaurant. This is different than in a larger city, where someone might use the subway to engage in these tasks.  subway

In bigger areas, like New York City, transit use seems to be holding firm. Many people rent or buy in areas that are close to metro stops, which means their habits are harder to break. However, people in other places often have their own car, and when gasoline prices drop, it is natural to get behind the wheel once again.

Rail systems are also frequented by tourists, something that does not happen as much with buses.

Federal tax laws could be another reason for the change in the use of public transportation in 2015. People were given a larger break for parking rather than using the bus or the subway to get to work.

Most metro areas experienced something similar to what happened in the nation overall. For example, in New York, there was a slight increase in the number of people riding the subway. However, bus use went down by 2.5 percent. Also, in Cleveland, the number of people on buses went down by 5.6 percent, although the number of people on the regional heavy rail went up by 3.8 percent.

Morgan Lyons, a spokesperson for DART, indicated that they are pleased with ridership on the light rail. As a result, it is getting some upgrades, included bigger platforms and more rail lines that will extend away from downtown.

Lyons also said that the numbers for bus ridership are not as impressive and he noted that gas prices play a role in those numbers. In addition, more people are riding trains (rather than buses).

One commuter, Miles Palley, goes from San Francisco to Palo Alto during the week. There were times when he would take a train into work, even though it increased his commute by 20 minutes. However, as gas prices have gotten lower, he finds himself driving more than ever before. Because his wallet is not feeling the sting of driving any longer, it simply makes more sense for him to get behind the wheel in the morning.

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