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a glaring trend toward transit

By enelson
Monday, December 4th, 2006 at 8:09 pm in BART, Buses, driving, Transit vs. driving.

bart-glare.jpgNews flash: While chatting with BART’s Linton Johnson this evening, I learned that ridership was up for the first quarter of fiscal year 2007 over last year’s July-through-September quarter. People entered and exited the faregates an average 338,897 on weekdays, a 3-percent boost over last year’s 329,369.

But wait, there’s more: I asked Linton to check this against past quarters, and after a few minutes of hmmming on the phone, we had a winner!

Fresh on the heels of setting its all-time Saturday and Turkey Day record ridership, BART has busted its all-time quarterly ridership record, and the trend indicates that it’s likely to break the 12-month record of 331,586 set in FY 2001.

One of the things you gotta love about BART is that every time somebody enters a faregate, ridership numbers get recorded by the computer and Mr. Johnson can punch up nearly instantaneous stats for the area’s insatiable transportation journalists.

Regrettably, it was too late to get a meaningful story into any of our papers, but I’ll do my best to make tomorrow’s story as packed with indispensable analysis as I can fit into 20 inches of copy.

And it is meaningful, really.

I had heard, peripherally, last week that for the first time ever, Americans were driving fewer miles, if only by a little. What’s amazing about that is that miles traveled in our cars and SUVs has only gone in one direction for a quarter century or so.

At the same time, people are taking transit more. Mind you, publi9c transit commuters outside of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut still amount to a small fraction of overall commuters, but this could be a turning point of historic proportions.

Mr. BART and I concurred that this trend started with this summer’s high gas prices and kept on going through the pre-election gas price dive. Now that I think about it, the quarter in question was mostly pricey, so maybe the jury is still out until we get the next quarter’s figures.

Still, I think that ol’ elasticity conversion point may have arrived: Americans are mad as hell and they’re not going to not take transit anymore.

For those of you who have taken transit all along, try to be nicer than usual. There are a lot of new folks on the train and the bus, and we shouldn’t scare them away while gas is still below $2.50 a gallon. 

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11 Responses to “a glaring trend toward transit”

  1. South Bay Resident Says:

    Congratulations to BART for pausing the decline in their share of commute traffic to San Francisco. It seems to be a good year for public transit with Caltrain and VTA also registering big ridership gains. However, it seems unlikely that we’ve reached any kind of turning point for several reasons.

    - People overreact to gas price spikes. That is, they change their behavior briefly, but in the longer run (even if prices stay high for a while) they revert to driving which is still cheaper for most commuters, especially if you value your time. If you don’t believe me, run the numbers for your commute. Unless you work in downtown SF or Oakland, driving will probably turn out to be the better deal.

    - Most of the housing and job growth is occuring in areas outside the small patch of the Bay Area where transit is useful as anything other than welfare. In San Francisco and parts of the east bay, public transit moves a significant number of people. This isn’t true in the suburban east bay or in the south bay. A great example of this is VTA’s light rail system which moves 40,000 or so people per day. This is fewer people than are moved by some bus lines in San Francisco. In fact, if you ripped out the light rail tracks and paved the ROW with one lane in each direction it would actually cary more people.

    - Most people don’t want to live in the kind of place they would have to live in so that they would use transit. Everyone supports policies that encourage other people to live in cramped, high density housing near their jobs, but nobody wants to be the one who has to put up with a 400 square foot apartment across the street from a rendering plant. One of the big differences between the 1950′s (the last time transit had more than a niche role in American cities) and now is that we have gotten used to much more space per person. The typical new (suburban) house in 1950 was a mere 983 square feet, which was a dramatic improvement on what had come before. Today, the average american, who has a smaller family, buys an average new home of 2350 square feet. Unless we’re willing to accept a dramatic decline in our living standards, I don’t see transit as being a big part of the future in the U.S.

  2. South Bay Resident Says:

    oops, I made an error. The average house size in the Western U.S. for 2005 is 2422 ft^2, which is somewhat larger than I stated before.

  3. FTSandy Says:

    I have a question about the fourth paragraph from the end:

    “At the same time, people are taking transit more. Mind you, people outside of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut still amount to a small fraction of commuters, but this could be a turning point of historic proportions.”

    Do you mean “small fraction of TRANSIT commuters”? Or is the entire rest of the country telecommuting?

  4. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Sandy, thanks for catching that confused thought, which I have attempted to clarify. Considering that it takes 1 hour and 40 minutes to get from Rockridge to Fairfield right now, I sincerely invite the rest of the country to telecommute at the earliest opportunity.

  5. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Also, a caveat for that record quarter cited for BART: Linton Johnson points out that BART’s core ridership, i.e., not including the new San Francisco International Airport/Millbrae extension that opened in 2003, was actually higher in 2001. So while ridership has been climbing steadily, we have to give the infamous SFO extension a good bit of credit for the ridership record.

  6. South Bay Resident Says:

    Unfortunately, most of the new riders added by BART on the SFO extension were already taking the much less expensive buses provided by SamTrans.

  7. transit-dependent Says:

    I want to second South Bay Resident’s comment. Airline workers were given money to make up for the increased costs of BART, but airport wokers (who are lower-paid) were not.

    Also, NYC’s subway ridership hit its all-time high; the last subway ridership record there was from the 70s.

  8. Capricious Commuter Says:

    T-D, I’m not at all surprised that NYC subways are not in record territory. They’ve been around longer than BART, long enough to see the days when car ownership wasn’t as high as it has become. Such historic reality is even more glaring when it comes to railroad ridership. If you go back before the days of Amtrak, you can throw all the records out the window. Train ridership in the 1940s was very high, especially on a per-capita basis. Or so I’m told.

  9. david vartanoff Says:

    New York Subway ridership is way up. And as to 1940′s ridership full employment and gas rationing during WW II “distorted” the market but CalTrain several years ago claimed to have surpassed the WW II figures.

  10. Roy Nakadegawa P.E. Says:

    I would not attribute the “Transit Record ridership could be attributed to aging baby boomers driving less” as mentioned in your (Dec. 6 news article’s) sub-title but the simple fact in what you also quoted of my friend Pisarski that car ownership is increasing. Meaning more cars are in use and congestion is rising. Also our economy is improving and along with congestion, they both have a greater bearing on transit use than on miles driven.

    Roy Nakadegawa P.E.
    Fromer BART & AC Transit Board Member of 32 years
    And worked with Pisarski on a review Board overseeing a Transit Reseach Report

  11. Capricious Commuter Says:

    You have a point about increased auto ownership, Roy, but your friend Alan Pisarski did volunteer that theory about boomers and immigrants being a bit more partial to transit that other folks. The point of the article was not that we’re all going transit-crazy, but that the death-grip that the automobile has on us seems to be loosening a bit.

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