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A New Era for Public Transit?

Mark Howard
Executive Editor
The timing of stories by journalists about riding public transportation has traditionally been somewhat more reliable than the transportation itself. Since the 1970s, any time gas prices spike by anything approaching double digits, buses and light-rail cars swarm with reporters dutifully documenting the numbers of new riders leaving their cars at home and falling in love with public transit.

Those affairs have been fleeting, however. Over time, pump shock wears off, people go back to driving and increases in transit ridership level off. This is predictable and understandable given the nature of most American communities, which have structured themselves around people’s ability to move around in automobiles. With a lot of cheap land, our country has grown out rather than up — more than 90% of the structures in America are the first buildings to stand on the ground they occupy. Population densities and distributions in most places simply don’t support extensive European-style transit systems.

This is particularly true in Florida. Despite huge population growth, densities within some metro areas have actually declined since the 1970s. For the explanation, think sprawl.

Now, gas prices north of $4 a gallon find journalists back on the buses and rail cars, dutifully documenting big increases in transit ridership all over the state. In May, the Tri-Rail system in southeast Florida reported it carried the highest number of passengers in a single month since it began service in 1989; since 2006, ridership has increased steadily by double-digit percentages. The story’s the same at most transit systems in the state, including smaller, limited systems like the Treasure Coast Connector in Fort Pierce, which has seen ridership nearly double in the past several years.

Time will tell whether we're at the dawn of some new era for public transit in the U.S.

The trend is pronounced enough that some believe — or hope — that some sort of permanent shift is under way in terms of people’s attitude toward public transportation. My own attitude began shifting, at least in terms of curiosity, at about $3.90 a gallon. I began looking into whether it made any sense — economically, tactically, philosophically — for someone with my transportation needs to ride the bus. And after a few weeks of intermittent bus riding, I can say that it does, at least sometimes.

I’m fortunate to live only about five miles from where I work in downtown St. Petersburg. The cost of driving my car — depending on the cost of gas, insurance, repairs and how I reckon in things like depreciation — ranges from 40 to 60 cents a mile. (The IRS allows 50 cents a mile; the American Automobile Association calculates it at around 58 cents.) So my commuter-related driving costs me somewhere between $960 and about $1,400 a year. If I rode the bus every day, paying $1.50 each way, I’d pay $720. My math assumes a 48-week work-year. And I decided to ignore the subsidies that government provides to both transit systems (fares account for less than 20% of a typical system’s operating costs) and roads (think billions in road construction and maintenance).

At any rate, if I wish, I can cut my commuting costs by somewhere between $240 and $680, with both figures standing to increase as the price of gas rises.

As for tactical considerations, there’s a bus stop about 150 yards from my home. The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority buses, I’ve found, run promptly every 15 minutes and drop me off about the same distance from my office that I walk from the parking lot when I drive. The buses are clean, and a driver was friendly and helpful after I clogged the fare box with 15 dimes on my first ride. I’ve found, like many public transportation neophytes, that it can be relaxing to sightsee or read the paper on the way to work rather than pay attention to traffic lights. I can get on a bus at 8:25 and be sitting in my office at 9. Not too shabby.

As long as I don’t need to get to an appointment or pick up one of my children during the course of the day, bus riding works just fine. If nothing else, the current gas price spiral has led me to a workable alternative to asking somebody for a ride when my car’s in the shop.

Time will tell whether we’re at the dawn of some new era for public transit in the U.S. In the short to medium term, high energy costs will help transit demand by stimulating denser development in downtowns and around other centers for employment and entertainment.

Longer term, our traditional travel habits may reassert themselves. Smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles and the evolution of alternative fuels may lower the perceived cost of driving enough to put more of us back behind the wheel. Public transit also has to overcome the public’s perception of “public.” Witness a TV ad by a job training agency that’s appeared within the past couple of years in Florida markets: A young woman hails a bus, but only to tell the driver that she won’t be needing the bus anymore because she’s found a “real job” and can afford a car.

Meanwhile, I’m happy to leave the driving to someone else — at least a couple of days a week.

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