Mass transit braces for fed-up drivers

A rider waits to board a subway train in Los Angeles.

TEXT OF STORY

Bob Moon: We Americans aren't the only ones desperate for some relief from rising fuel prices. From truckers and taxi drivers to fishermen, protests continued across Europe today. In France, truckers blockaded refineries and brought traffic to a crawl with slow-moving convoys. In Portugal, fishermen simply left their boats tied up at the docks for a fourth straight day.

Here at home, the Wall Street Journal reported today some employers are switching to a four-day work week to reduce the number of trips to and from the office, and even public transportation is seeing a record jump in ridership. But there's a hitch.

From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Sam Eaton reports.


Sam Eaton: The American Public Transportation Association reported today that the number of people riding buses and trains rose more than 3 percent in first three months of the year. Light rail saw a 10 percent jump.

Association spokesman Mantill Williams says that's breaking records:

Mantill Williams: The last time we've seen these type of numbers is probably back like in the 70s when we had oil embargoes when there was some issues with supply.

Williams says $4 a gallon gasoline appears to be the tipping point, but he says this time, there's no sign of relief.

Williams: So once we move more beyond $4 per gallon, we think that you're gonna see an even bigger increase in ridership.

That sounds like a good thing for the nation's cash-strapped public transportation systems, but transportation engineer Steven Polzin with the University of South Florida says few cities can handle the increased ridership.

Steven Polzin: Just a small shift of drivers to public transportation means a huge increase from public transportation's perspective.

Only about 5 percent of American workers commute by bus or train. Polzin says most of today's transit systems were designed with that in mind, and adding more trains, buses and rails can take decades.

Polzin: It's a little bit like the obesely overweight patient who wants to purchase something off of the programming for $19.95 and get thin in two weeks. Doesn't happen.

Especially when budget shortfalls and rising fuel costs for buses have already caused a fifth of the nation's public transportation systems to cut service.

I'm Sam Eaton for Marketplace.

About the author

Sam Eaton is an independent radio and television journalist. His reporting on complex environmental issues from climate change to population growth has taken him all over the United States and the world.

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