Despite a recent drop in gas prices mass transit ridership has climbed this year, in a continuation of a trend that has been apparent since 2007. According to the American Public Transportation Association, via the Washington Post (hat tip to Adam Serwer at TAPPED) all forms of public transit had more riders in the third quarter of this year compared to last year. The Post reports:
Americans rode subways, buses and commuter railroads in record numbers in the third quarter of this year…The 6.5 percent jump in transit ridership over the same period last year marks the largest quarterly increase in public transportation ridership in 25 years…Ridership growth began hitting record levels last year and continued through the first and second quarters of this year, spurred in large part by gasoline prices that topped $4 a gallon in July, the industry group said. But the third-quarter increase is notable, it said, because gas prices began falling and unemployment rose, trends that tend to drive ridership down.
The numbers seem to me to have two very promising possible explanations. The first is simply that American cultural habits and norms are shifting away from car culture independent of gas prices. The other is that once gas prices reach a certain level and people begin making the switch to mass transit they continue to do so even after prices go back down because they want to have a more economical commute in case prices spike again. Either way, this suggests that the public would be willing, even eager, to accept a federal transportation policy that no longer favors driving over transit. With a new administration and the federal transit bill up for renewal this year there is a real opportunity to capitalize on the opportunity presented by the shift in transit choices.
Ben Adler is a journalist in New York. He is a former reporter for Grist, The Nation, Newsweek and Politico, and he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian and The New Republic.