Since late last year, when oil prices dropped fairly dramatically, transit ridership has fallen a bit – Sound Transit’s systemwide is off about 5,000 weekday riders from last summer’s 60,000. While ridership is still higher than the same time last year, I’ve certainly heard a few people say “hey, ridership’s down,” and through implication, “maybe these impending Metro service cuts won’t be that bad.” Today’s New York Times article (free registration required, sorry) has a fantastic, inflation-adjusted graph of fuel prices that should make it clear fuel prices aren’t staying down at all – the national average is up a dollar since December.

There’s more than one factor here, of course. The recession is increasing unemployment, meaning fewer people are commuting. If our economy continues to slide, we may see a continued decline, but with Washington’s average fuel price back up around $2.75 a gallon, I suspect those with jobs will be looking to leave the car at home once again.

19 Replies to “Transit Ridership May Not Dip Much”

  1. Indeed, once I find work again, (and i am hopeful at this time for an interview I have on Thursday that I will be using transit to get to, for a job that) I will be using transit to commute to work.

    In fact, I like out transit systems so much that I have ruled out the possibility of moving away from here- the transit is just too good. The only other option would be Portland, which has a pretty awesome system, but I’d rather stay here anyway.

    It is for this reason I will not own a car anytime in the near future. In fact, in my opinion a gas powered vehicle cannot compete with a bus. I see it this way: If gas is at $2.50 a gallon, my car would need to get at least 42 mpg, not counting cost of ownership costs for me to be able to justify driving. I get this calculation from taking a non-ST fare to Seattle from Tacoma: 1.75 and figuring that is about 30 miles. When gas was up around 4.50 a gallon last summer it made the Sounder look really good for my transportation dollar. $9.50 to get to Seattle and back? YOU BETCHA!

    My point is that as long as there are buses, I will be on them. As long as there are improvements being made to the systems, other people will be on them. Maybe this is why the 194 to Seattle is always so full.

    1. $1.75 from Seattle to Tacoma? Isn’t it $3 for ST Express? Is there a cheaper option?

      1. Ben,
        Taking the 194 to Federal Way and then transfering to Pierce Transit during off peak times would be $1.75.

    2. Seattle’s transportation system: good? Only comparable to Portland? You don’t travel much, do you…

      1. Honestly? It’s better than most. Sure, it’s not better than major cities, but it’s better than the rest of the state.

      2. It’s better than 90% of the US. Metro won an award for the most comprehensive all-bus transit system in the US. That was in the 80s or early 90s before the light rail bandwagon across the country, but Metro/ST’s total transit service is still more comprehensive than most of the country.

      3. I’m honestly not sure there’s a comparably sized US city with a better system, barring Portland (which is actually quite a bit smaller). Maybe the Twin Cities are comparable, quality-wise, but most of the systems you’d typically think of as better (Boston, SF, NYC, Chicago, DC, even Atlanta) are significantly larger metro areas.

      4. I’ve heard Minneapolis has several 24-hour routes, but that was from somebody who had lived there years earlier so I don’t know if it’s still the case.

        Also, there’s a misconception that only large cities can have a well-used transit system. Both large and small cities in Germany have U-bahns, similar to MAX but underground downtown. And even small cities and rural towns have mainline trains that can take you anywhere in the country including airports.

  2. I suspect those with jobs will be looking to leave the car at home once again.

    The rising oil prices have a direct effect on prolonging or deeping the recession so there’s a certain equilibrium. One could argue that the spike in oil prices are what finally burst the bubble. I also think that there’s going to be no choice in the short term for fares, at least peak fares to rise if Metro is to maintain service levels.

    I think there’s a psychological factor involved as well as just pure economics. When people started seeing $100 totals to fill the tank there was a “I’m not going to take it anymore attitude”. I think $5 gas hit’s people psyche much harder than $4.80 per gallon. Also, people are more likely to change habits with a drastic change than a gradual one.

    In the end it still comes down to a trade off of time vs money but the psychological factor is a trigger for people to reevaluate the situation. If it’s faster and less hassle then lots of people will avail themselves of public transit. When it adds 1/2 an hour or more to each end of the commute most people need a pretty big incentive. It’s like working an hour of overtime. But again it’s the overall hassle factor. A long commute that’s a one seat ride on a bus (or better yet a train) will swing a lot of people over because it’s not “dead time”. I don’t know anybody that likes stop and go driving but if the alternative is 30+ minutes standing on a bus they’ll probably drive.

    What’s crazy is adding off peak low ridership routes now that are only going to drive down overall usage going forward because they postpone or replace high demand service. Plus, every empty bus is a rolling billboard that says “vote no on transit”.

    1. I often wonder why economics seems to ignore those psychological effects. A 5% price shift definitely does not feel the same at every price.

      You have a point about empty buses, but they’re not necessarily as bad as you suggest, at least late in the evening (which is the main time I notice empty or nearly-empty buses). If having that bus allows more people to rely on the bus line to get them home, it can be taking more cars off the road than the number of people actually on the bus, and it adds to a general sense that it’s not necessary to drive around everywhere. It’s another one of those difficult-to-measure psychological effects.

      1. In Europe, people commonly ride the bus home from bars. You need decent night coverage for that to work. I had a friend in Bristol who delivered kegs in a truck during the day, but rode the bus to the pub in the evening. One difference is staggered closing times rather than everything closing at 2am, so a lot of people are leaving the pubs at 11:30 or midnight rather than 2. But still, the night buses are much more comprehensive. London, Glasgow, Duesseldorf (the latter two near Seattle’s size) all have night buses going into the suburbs at least on Friday and Saturday, if not every day.

    2. I agree that transit needs to be added where it is needed and will be used. HOwever politics trump rational plan (subarea-equity, 20-40-40). The 560 West Seattle-Airport-Bellevue comes by my house, I love taking into to the airport, but it rarely has more than 4 people, often 2 in West Seattle. While it would hurt me, we need to put our resources where the ridership is.

      1. I’m a fan of subarea-equity but there needs to be some patience. Expending money on bad service now because it seems equitable is silly. With subarea-equity there is a mechanism where those dollars are bankrolled for future development in that area. It should be a way to avoid the “me to” funding. I think the problem is politicians that want to spend money to get votes. They could care less if the money is spend wisely if it’s doesn’t help them get reelected. Spend anything available and then spin it as bringing home the bacon.

        Overall better expenditure of funds will trump any person shuttle benefits. You’re absolutely right Rob when you say “While it would hurt me, we need to put our resources where the ridership is.” Somehow the idea of “savings” as in bank account needs to be more visible. Right now I feel most of the public sees money spent on tunnels in Seattle and thinks, “hey, they need to spend some money out here before Seattle takes it all”. ST should have a bank account balance page (including, your debt equals…) and make it a prominent part of the homepage.

    1. Yeah, it may not actually require registration on the day of publication, but the link probably will tomorrow, so I went ahead and added the comment so I didn’t have to change it later. :)

      1. Yeah, just now the link from the comment didn’t ask for registration but previous attempts from other links did. Works sort of like ORCA ;-)

        “The manufacturers need high gas prices for people to accept those cars,” said Maryann Keller, an automotive consultant. “Gasoline prices motivate behavior.”
        Almost conspiracy theory thinking but with the feds taking major stakes in GM and Chrystler…. hmmm. The Cash for Clunkers bill is a real pork barrel spending bill. It heavily inventiveses me to send the ’86 Crown Vic 5.8HP police cruiser to the scrap heap by giving me $3,500 to buy a diesel Grand Cherokee ($4,500 if I go for the new V8 Mustang). OK, green is good and getting the Crown Vic off the road is good but the calculations for this bill are stupid. First someone trading in a Crown Vic shouldn’t get a bonus for buying a performance car that gets 23mpg. Second, requiring that the engine and the drivetrain components be crushed is dumb. Maybe there’s not a big market for 1/4 million mile Windsor blocks but in the case of our 2000 GMC AWD Safari crushing a rebuilt transfer case is stupid and most definitely not green. Even the idea of melting down a block that hasn’t been bored is not green. The market will determine when these parts have economic value. Somehow recycling is good if it’s beer cans but bad if it’s driveline components; even if some of those driveline components are common with the cars being bought using the bailout dollars.

    2. Dude, she’s like 15.

      Anyways my gas station is up 40 cents since I last filled. And gas in L.A. is about to break $3/gallon.

      Fun fun fun!

      1. Please, no comments like “the girl in the car is hot” – always inappropriate on a forum like this.

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