With gas prices on the rise in a challenged economy, public transit in the Sacramento and San Francisco areas is starting to see increases in ridership. Californians are increasingly turning to local bus lines and commuter rail to get around.
Yolobus has seen largest ridership increases in the last year. Ridership in April was almost 17 percent higher than the year before, said Erik Reitz, associate transportation planner at Yolo County Transportation District.
“A large part of the increase is higher gas prices,” he said.
There were 146 standing room only trips on Yolobus in April compared to 85 such trips in March 2008, Reitz said. Standing room only trips mean there is at least one person standing on the bus due to filled seats.
Amtrak, which operates the Capitol Corridor commuter trains, partially attributes increased ridership to gasoline prices, said Vernae Graham, Amtrak spokesperson, in an e-mail interview.
“Amtrak‘s systemwide ridership increased by 11 percent, of which we can say that half of that hike can be attributed to the rising cost of fuel,“ Graham said. “The Capitol Corridor route, which runs from Sacramento to San Jose, saw a 13 percent increase.“
In the Bay Area, BART has also seen ridership increases. BART had an average of 365,000 riders each weekday in May, which is 25,000 more than in May 2007, said BART spokesperson Linton Johnson in an e-mail interview.
He said he does not think high gas prices can take all the credit.
“Bottom line, it‘s the cost and convenience of commuting and the economy,” Johnson said. “Gas prices alone aren‘t the sole reason people are moving to transit. They are just one part of the reason.“
In Davis, ridership increases have not been as steep.
Unitrans has only seen a slight 2.5 percent increase in riders, said Unitrans assistant general manager Anthony Palmere. The less-than-dramatic increases might be unique to Davis because of its bike-friendliness, he said. It could also be due to the fact that people have already spent money on parking permits for the year.
Consumers appear to be taking other steps to limit the cost of driving as well.
UC Davis economics professor Christopher Knittel said regardless of ridership numbers, the types of cars people are buying are shifting with increased gas prices.
“People are shifting from SUVs and pick-ups to compacts and sedans,” he said. “It‘s a shift from low-mileage cars to high-mileage cars.“
Fiona Cruz, a sophomore biotechnology major, said the public is recognizing the need for more fuel-efficient vehicles, and filling the tank takes more out of her wallet.
“I drive an SUV, and that sucks. I‘d want a Prius,” she said.
Second-year Italian and medieval studies major Greyson Harris, is feeling the effects of higher driving costs too.
“I used to be able to fill up my car for $40. Now it‘s up to $50 and $60,” he said.
If gas prices stabilize or increase, people will either adjust their budgets or adjust their behaviors and get some transit experience, said Susan Handy, UC Davis professor of environmental science and policy.
“Following the Loma Prieta earthquake, there was a huge shift towards public transit,” she said. “It lasted for a while and then tapered off. There was a similar situation after the Northridge earthquake.“
Patricia Mokhtarian, UC Davis professor of civil and environmental engineering, believes some people will stick with public transit once they‘ve converted, while others will adjust to high gas prices.
“There‘s a spectrum of reactions to increased gas prices,” Mokhtarian said. “Realistically, transit remains an attractive alternative for a small number. Driving will always have a lasting pull.“
SASHA LEKACH can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org XXX.