Thursday, December 7, 2006

Bay Area increasing transit ridership

San Francisco CA - Ridership figures look good for public transit in the Bay Area. The various transit operations that serve the area report record ridership levels and are celebrating the ridership numbers as well as a study showing that Americans are driving less.

The question is this. Are we celebrating too soon? Transit ridership numbers have always been fickle. Many times, the ridership gains a transit system receives are lost when they sit back and think the ridership gains are permanent.

BART spokesman Linton Johnson stated "...this latest shift in commuting habits could be permanent."

That could be but I've heard this very line before, many times in fact, over the past 40 years. The problem has always been the lack of ability to adjust quickly to ridership trends. What happened in the Bay Area could have been the perfect storm that drove riders to the transit systems. What needs to be considered is this, can these transit systems hang onto the ridership gains?

Given the observations of 40 years of public transit and studying transit services when private operations were king, I would say probably not. The stars aligned this time to boost the ridership however it is up to the transit systems to keep these new riders now. Public transit has proven itself to be too slow to adjust to changes in commuter habits. Much of the lag in response time is simply because of the bureaucracy factor in a government agency. During this lag time, your ridership gains drift away and back into their cars.

On the same day, there were extremely conflicting news reports on gas prices and how it effects driver's habits. The first news report out of Houston was widely picked up by most of the papers outside of the United States indicated that high fuel prices were dramatically effecting our driving habits and using it as an excuse to support more fuel taxes in their own countries. The second news report from the University of California at Davis stated that high fuel prices barely made a dent in our driving habits.

The Bay Area transit systems are relying on the first news report to support their supposition that people are going to stay riding transit. In actuality, the second news report is more likely closer to the fact which is that our driving habits aren't dramatically effected by the higher fuel prices.

Public transit systems should not just sit back and think that these new commuter habits are permanent. That is a bad move. They need to keep on top of the ridership trends and make adjustments quickly to keep the ridership. To think that this is a permanent trend will only result in these systems losing the ridership gains they currently have.

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