APTA | Passenger Transport
December 15, 2008

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Falling Gas Prices Do NOT Translate into Decreases in Ridership

During the months when gas prices kept rising across the U.S. and ridership on public transportation nearly went off the charts, the experts asked: What will happen when the gas prices come down? Will ridership statistics fall as well?
While riders made clear choices during this tumultuous past few months, the jury was still out on whether those choices were temporary or permanent.  Little by little, the jury is filing back in, and the verdict is: people are still choosing to take public transit.

Virginia Railway Express (VRE) commuter rail in Alexandria, VA, posted 998,329 passenger trips for the first three months of Fiscal Year 2009 (July, August, and September), 113,775 more than the same time last year.  “It’s hard to argue with the numbers when you see ridership growing by 12.9 percent,” said VRE Operations Board Chairman John Jenkins. “We are proof positive that when you put a great product out there, people will embrace it. I think people today rely on VRE far more than in past years because it’s a viable alternative to the car, and our performance is such that people are very confident in the riding experience once they try us.”

The Riverside Transit Agency (RTA) in Riverside, CA, saw a record surge in ridership during September, even as gas prices continued to plunge from their summertime highs. RTA buses recorded more than 757,000 boardings in September, a record-setting 28 percent increase compared to September of 2007, while ridership on the CommuterLink express routes showed a 97 percent jump compared with the previous year.  “We are committed to keeping this momentum going and ensuring that our customers continue to receive the same high-quality service they have come to expect,” said RTA Chairman of the Board Karen Spiegel, who called the ridership increases “very exciting news.”

The Washington region continued to experience record ridership levels even as gas prices began dropping. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority announced that its September ridership was 8.1 percent higher than the previous September, and early data indicates that the numbers in November will also rise.

“The fact that ridership has remained strong despite lowering gas prices proves how vital public transportation is in the DC metropolitan area,” said WMATA spokesperson Steven Taubenkibel. “People have continued to rely on Metro because of the service we provide throughout the region—its ease of use and its convenience. Whether it’s rush hour or off-peak travel or sports events or late night evenings, people use mass transit in this region and the numbers speak for themselves. It’s great for mass transit, it’s great for transit in general.”

In Seattle, the increase for Sound Transit in Seattle was 22.2 percent.  “Each time [riders] climb aboard Sounder [Sound Transit commuter rail], they wave goodbye to the costs and stress of driving, and they reduce greenhouse gases and the number of cars on the road,” said Sound Transit Board Chair and Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels.

If these ridership numbers are not confounding enough to experts, they can look at what’s taking place in Miami. To cope with the pressures of high diesel prices and a poor economy, Miami-Dade Transit (MDT) recently raised its fares for only the second time in 17 years. The response?  No perceptible drop in ridership and nearly no complaints from passengers.
Before MDT implemented the new fare, however, the agency and county officials launched an extensive public relations campaign to explain why the increase was needed.
“We had rather an extensive public information campaign, including radio interviews, as well as flyers [in English, Spanish, and Haitian Creole] we passed out at major transit stations to let people know why it was necessary. We were faced with raising fares or eliminating as many as 15 routes. And once people understood that, they were far more accepting of the fare increases,” said MDT spokesman John Labriola.  He added:  “High gas prices were an incentive for people to start using transit. But once started, they discovered it was better than being stuck in traffic and less stressful. So they stayed with us, even as gas prices started to fall.”
Historically, when the economy has gone into a downturn, ridership has decreased.  And the economy has clearly not doing well.  For instance, based on data issued by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the nation lost 284,000 jobs in September and 240,000 in October—and since the beginning of the year, a total of 1.2 million jobs. ADP, a payroll processor, estimated in its latest monthly employment report that private businesses trimmed 250,000 jobs in November on a seasonally adjusted basis, the largest drop in seven years.

So this rise in ridership while the economy falls is unchartered territory for public transit—but should these increases continue for the next several months, it will be a strong indicator that riders have committed to choosing transit over driving.

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