Even as Gas Prices Fall, More People Are Turning to Transit

From Streetsblog Network member Mobilizing the Region, the blog of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, come some numbers that members of Congress should look at closely as they consider transit funding in the stimulus package:

It seems that even as gasoline prices are starting to come down, the economic recession is suppressing driving.  Vehicle miles traveled typically fall with the GDP, but what differs this time around is that transit ridership is not suffering — and, in fact, is even growing in most places.  An American Public Transportation Association official told MTR that as Americans
shifted to transit to save on gas, they “discovered” the benefits and convenience of transit.  Significant unemployment could dampen the growth in transit ridership in coming months, but for now Americans are still piling onto buses and trains.

driving_us_11.jpgDriving fell throughout the U.S. in November 2008.

Good facts to know when you make your calls to Congress in support of Rep. Jerry Nadler’s amendment to the stimulus.

Also today around the network: Ryan Avent on The Bellows writes about how falling prices for raw materials and the slump in home and commercial construction make this an ideal time to invest in infrastructure:

[T]he bottom
line is this: when the economy recovers, resources will again approach
full utilization. And when that happens, governments will have to pay
more to build needed projects, and government investment will crowd out
some private investment. Fiscal stimulus skeptics focus their ire on
the potential for government waste in spending, and that potential is
there. A full accounting would also consider the opportunity cost of
failing to invest now while costs are low and there’s plenty of slack
in the system. There’s a very good case that the best way to save
taxpayer money over the long-term is to build as much infrastructure as
possible right now.

Plus: Bike PGH reports on the mayor of Pittsburgh’s call for more bike racks, and Making Places reports on the first meeting of the DIYcity group, which is aimed at making cities more user-friendly through Web 2.0 technology.

  • Yes, the recession is helping to suppress driving. But I would be cautious about inferring too much from FHWA estimates of VMT since they’re largely derived from data on gasoline usage and may not sufficiently account for changes in the fleet of on-orad vehicles.

    Moreover, the “legacy” of the run-up in gas prices from Dec. 2007 ($3.07) to the July 2008 peak ($4.14) is having an impact on gas usage, alongside the recession. Some of the decisions made in response to that increase — switching to less-guzzling vehicles, rethinking the “need” to make so many car trips, etc. — are remaining in effect. I suspect, however, that one component of these changes — switching to transit — will tend to be swamped by the decline in transit use that ordinarily occurs in a recession as fewer people have jobs to commute to, shopping declines, etc. So I would be cautious about assuming any growth in transit in 2009.

    BTW, the spreadsheet relating U.S. gasoline consumption to changes in gas prices and overall economic activity that I maintain and Web-post monthly may be of interest to hard-core quantifier-types on this list.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Nonetheless, at least in NYC as I recall transit fell first in past recessions and rose last in the booms.

    That is, in the boom people drove until the traffic and parking was so bad they couldn’t take anymore, and then switched to transit. And in the bust, as some people could no longer drive, driving became easier, attracting others.

    We’ll have to see what happened.

  • Wish I’d read this before calling their offices, but perhaps the most important thing is simply that one person called on this side of the issue.

  • *one MORE person, that is.

  • Michelle Ernst

    We should have cited our sources in this piece…the VMT data are taken from FHWA’s Traffic Volume Trends (http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/ohim/tvtw/tvtpage.cfm). This is one of my favorite transportation data sources (yes, I’m an incurable data geek).

    Importantly, these VMT data are NOT derived from gasoline usage, but from “4,000 continuous traffic counting locations nationwide.”

    This data is flawed in it’s own special way, but is a pretty reliable indicator of current national travel trends.

  • Michelle is being a little too modest. Just to be clear, we did say that the data comes from Traffic Volume Trends when the article was originally posted. No incurable data geek would forget to cite a source so dear to her heart.

  • Nope, it’d make you suspect a “cure” was beginning to take hold…


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