Rising Gas Prices and the Impact on Public Transit
“Dump the Pump!” is just one of the campaign slogans you’ll find transit agencies using to drive consumers back to public transit amid record-high gas prices. Between global uncertainties and inflation, consumers are experiencing sticker shock as the price of almost everything from groceries to gasoline rises. While it’s still too early to tell what inflation will mean for the transit industry, history shows that it could potentially help the industry that’s been struggling since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
How transit ridership has suffered during the pandemic
The social distancing and stay-at-home orders that followed the start of the pandemic left many people apprehensive of commuting on public transportation because of rising COVID cases. As a result, lower ridership and an increased shortage of transit drivers led many agencies to cut bus and metro lines. In New York, the nation’s largest public transit network, Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), averages around 5.5 million riders a day. However, in April 2020, the agency saw traffic decrease to as few as 200,000 passengers a day.
Now with vaccines and mask mandates changing, traffic has been picking up. The MTA saw ridership surpass three million for the first time since the surge of the omicron variant in February. Additionally, daily ridership on the subways rose three percent from March 1 to March 8.
Throughout the country, agencies are starting to see ridership increase, especially as people return to work in person. For example, during the same period in March, Washington D.C.’s Metrorail’s ridership increased by four percent while San Francisco Bay Area’s BART system rose by seven. While much of this can be attributed to people returning to their pre-pandemic routines, rising gas prices may also be a key player in increased ridership.
The rise of gas prices and possibly ridership
Gas prices are the highest they’ve been since the 2008 financial crisis. This time high prices are due to several issues, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the continuing pandemic, and the highest inflation levels in 40 years. With gas prices as high as they are, now’s the perfect time to convince consumers to shift to public transit. In California, where gas prices are as high as $6, the Los Angeles Metro temporarily cut the cost of unlimited daily fares in half to $3.50 and monthly passes to $50 to attract riders.
While higher gas prices are staggered across the country, cities with denser populations and better public transit offerings have thus far experienced faster increases in ridership compared to cities where more people rely on cars. Historically, high gas prices have motivated some consumers to shift to public transit. A 2011 study found that after gas prices increased following Hurricane Katrina, bus ridership increased by four percent, while rail saw an eight percent increase. However, it’s still relatively early to tell what will happen next in the world of public transit, mainly since ridership is only at 62 percent of what it was before the pandemic.
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