Mass transit braces for fed-up drivers

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


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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for years now, most states have denuded their old rail systems and sold the right of ways or turned them into rails to trails, which from my view, is a true waste. the property was given or sold at give away prices. I've only seen one rail to trail success in Florida - near Wakulla from Tallahassee. the rest are ill used or overgrown.

I realize that this conversation is about mass transit, but years ago speed limits were reduced to save on fuel. People and big rig companies can't be hurting that much, they still speed down I-75 at near 80 MPH. many large trucks, SUV's, vans generally have single occupants, people going to or from work.

a comment on the commentary about moving closer to work. you might as well pay the freight for that nice neighborhood, it costs too much in taxes, water, rent or mortgage to live in any city close to work. If I moved into town, my rent would increase by about $300/mo, the utilities would increase around $200/mo, and the living conditions would be poorer as well as having to worry about vandalism and hooligans.

Not only are our local transit systems unprepared for the mode shift from cars to transit, our railroads (both freight and passenger) are up against it as well.

We have ignored our rail systems for decades and allowed them to go underdeveloped at a time when we need them most as an asnwer to what the media trivializes as "pain at the pump". Amtrak is underfunded, as are local commuter rail operations and rail-based local transit systems (light rail, streetcars). They have little or no capital funding to spend on new equipment or infrastructure. Freight railroads are spending $11-billion dollars of their own cash this year to upgrade track and signals and increase capacity. But even that won't begin to address the increasing demand to move freight.

And yet all we hear from some politicians is drill for more oil or let's have a gas tax holiday. We have a crisis on our hands and they come to us with band-aids? We need major investment in our rail systems now and over the next several decades: a rail version, if you will, of what we did for Interstate Highways.

I've been commuting to work by bus and trolley since arriving in San Diego. The service was bearable from 1995 to 2001. But with cut backs, especially over the last two years it's not very efficient. MTS doesn't increase frequencies during commute time and have cut back so many routes that the buses come every 30 minutes until 6PM. After 6PM, it's every hour. They use smaller buses and crams everybody in to the point their press against the doors on many occasions. If you have to start work at 5AM, you have few options: walking, taking a taxi at +$25 each way, or biking. My job is 10 miles away and I need on many occasions have to start at 5AM. I would leave home at 2AM and walk to work to be on time since the first bus won't get there until 6:30AM at the earliest. I've been all around the country and the best transit system I loved was the Santa Clara Transit Agency in San Jose, CA. They practically ran the time. They even had a commute schedule of every 15 minutes that lasted for two hours. San Diego MTS is a broken system.

Utah Transit Authority has good bus service in down town Salt Lake City, in the Avenues and at the University of Utah with they granted students
and faculty discounts beyond what other fare pass holders pay in the amount $6.3 million each year. UTA has destroyed the Bus System in the rest of Salt Lake County. UTA is putting most of their Revenue into Light Rail and FrontRunner Diesel, which is causing more air polution. Utah Transit Authority is in the process of trying to get other ENTITIES to do Transportation for the Disabled and Elderly and it is very likely Property Taxes will be increased. UTA needs to get Accessible Vans and Small Buses to go into neighborhoods to help encourage people to take the bus and take riders to the main bus routes. Utah Transit Authority needs to expand the bus system, increase the frequency of buses and lower fares for all to increase ridership. UTA needs Help! Salt Lake Transit Riders Union Co-Chair

I have been working in the last ten years for two of the largest Public Transportation Authorities in Souther California, both as a bus operator and a bus mechanic, I have come a cross hundreds of employees at both authorities, I am so very sad to admit that most of my co-workers, probably higher than 95% drive their car (SUV) to and from work. If the people who make a decent income from providing public transportation to the masses do not take it themselves, what is the hope that the rest of the population will do likewise?
I am happy to say that I ride a bicycle to work, yes even when it is raining, no I do not recommend to ride in the dark and in the rain. But that is not the point. The point is: move closer to work. Ride a bicycle or walk to work for it is good for your health, soul, the environment, and most importantly for our children.

People again and again complain about mass transit being too inefficent for their commute. The problem is that you live 12 miles from your office -- that is about the entire length of Manhattan!
Everyone lives so far from their office in low-density developments and complains that public transit is 'inefficient' -- but people's demands on public transit is the root cause of that inefficiency.

Now it is not easy for two working people to live near both jobs and a good school, but for people who live further from city centers for cheaper housing and bigger yards -- you have to pay for that luxery in gas and suffer poor transit. There is no reasonable way to fix it.

"Only about 5 percent of American workers commute by bus or train."

At least in San Diego, this small percentage is due to mass transit too so inefficient to serve workers schedules. To make my 12 mile commute would takes 90 minutes and three bus exchanges. With the earliest bus I still arrive 60 minutes late to work.

The mass transit system also doesn't run late enough, or alter its schedule, to accommodate the fans traveling to the baseball games and other large events. You can take mass transit to the event but the last bus and trolley runs before the end of most events.

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