By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
Gas prices have plummeted during the past several weeks, but commuters do not appear to be returning to their cars, according to transit officials in the region and elsewhere, who say ridership is still increasing.
Transit officials attributed much of the ridership increase earlier this year to skyrocketing gasoline prices. But despite falling pump prices -- from a national average of $4.11 a gallon in July to $1.82 yesterday -- transit ridership is setting records in some parts of the country, officials said.
For the four months ending in October, Metrorail ridership in the Washington region was up 5 percent over the same period last year, senior planner Jim Hughes said. Preliminary data indicate that November rail ridership is up about 3 percent.
Industry officials said the worsening economy is a big factor, as transit is a cheaper alternative.
"You really do save a whole lot of money by giving up the car and taking transit," said Rob Padgette, director of policy and research at the American Public Transportation Association, an industry group. For those who have switched to transit, the cost of fuel is only one factor to consider in hard economic times, he said.
Insurance, depreciation and financing charges are major costs. "If you have two cars sitting in the garage, you can sell one for eight grand and that will help pay the mortgage," he said.
Automakers report steep declines in new car sales. And two weeks ago, the Transportation Department reported that Americans drove 4.4 percent less, or almost 11 billion fewer miles, in September 2008 than in September 2007, the 11th straight month of declining driving.
Bill Powers of Burke, who works in the biological preparedness office at the Department of Homeland Security, switched from driving to vanpooling with 14 others in March, when he started spending $200 a week to gas up his Jeep Commander. He said he's not tempted to go back to driving. "It's still worth it," he said, referring to the savings of the vanpool. "I'm sold on it."
Because the wear and tear on his car has decreased, he said, "I haven't had to do an oil change in five months."
In the meantime, some transit systems are "going gangbusters," Padgette said. The Orange County Transportation Authority in California reported 6.3 million bus boardings in October, the highest in the agency's history. In Dallas, average weekday rail ridership was 71,400 in October, nearly 12 percent more than in the previous October.
In the Washington region, average weekday ridership on Metrorail was about 765,000 trips for that period, up about 30,000 trips from the previous year. Metrobus ridership was also up 5 percent for the period.
On the rail, ridership continues to be up during the evenings and weekends as people take the subway for shopping and entertainment in addition to getting to work, Hughes said. Preliminary data show that November rail ridership is up about 3 percent, he said.
Last year, Metro carried a record number of riders, and the numbers seem to indicate "they're still here," he said. "I think it's great."
Harder to figure out, he said, is how the continuing economic turmoil is going to affect ridership. Significant layoffs could hurt ridership by spring, but in the short term, ridership is expected to be strong. In the run-up to the presidential inauguration, hotel employees and other service industry workers are expected to rely on the bus and subway to get to and from their jobs.
Gas prices tend to affect the riders who have the longest commutes, such as those who use commuter rail. But Virginia and Maryland commuter rail services say ridership is strong. Ridership on the MARC system for October was up 7.5 percent overall compared with the same period last year, officials said. Average daily ridership for the month was 33,575.
Average daily ridership on Virginia Railway Express, which runs trains between Manassas and Fredericksburg and Union Station, for the four months ending in October was 15,709, up 12 percent from the same period last year, said Jennifer Straub, deputy chief executive officer.
In Loudoun County, ridership on county-run commuter buses "is still trending significantly ahead of last year," county transit chief Nancy Gourley said. In October, the average daily ridership was 3,643, up 25 percent from the year before. Data for the first 13 days of November, the latest available, also show a more than 25 percent increase from the previous year, she said.
Transit ridership tends to drop in November and December because of the holidays, so January is typically the "next time people change their habits," she said.
But Loudoun officials are budgeting that ridership will grow 15 percent next year. "When people change their habits, they often stick with them," Gourley said.
That also seems to be the case with ride-sharing postings on the regional Commuter Connections bulletin board on the Internet. Nick Ramfos, chief of Commuter Connections, said ride-sharing postings rose sharply in September -- a 107 percent increase over the previous September-- because the Web-based service started a ride-matching system. In October, postings were up 42 percent over the previous October, consistent with similar increases in July and August.
Some people might go back to driving if prices keep falling, he said. "But people are contacting us, and that hasn't let up," he said.
And for area residents, there is always that other factor that makes alternatives to driving more attractive.
"Traffic is still out there," Ramfos said.
Staff writer Jonathan Mummolo and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.