A Public Transit Revolution is Afoot:
Ridership Numbers Rising

Candidate Barack Obama’s campaign has bragged that running mate Senator Joe Biden is a down-to-earth family man who commutes by Amtrak train from Wilmington to Washington.

The Democratic Delaware Senator has been commuting by Amtrak for decades. He has long preferred train travel over driving 109 miles to work, unwittingly also choosing what is universally acknowledged to be the mode of travel with the smallest amount of carbon dioxide emissions.

Biden’s train commute is not a big story in most media. It has not become a beacon of green behavior or a campaign issue, perhaps because it’s so expensive. But these days, even with falling gas prices at the pump, increasing numbers of commuters are flocking to trains, subways, commuter rails, and trolleys. They are choosing public transportation, it seems, because it saves them money and time. Public transportation watchers say they see the beginning of a revolution.

Even a commute like Biden’s, on Amtrak, is starting to stand up well to the cost of driving. Consider this: The most affordable of the Amtrak train lines available to him costs $42 one way on the Northeast Regional – $84 round-trip. Surprisingly, at today’s gas prices, it isn’t that costly anymore. This year the federally established a standard per-mile business deduction for those using their automobiles for work trips at 50.5 cents per mile, a rate designed to take into account fuel and car maintenance. It’s an instructive way to calculate the odds even though deductible business travel doesn’t include commuting to and from the standard work place.

But let’s say for a minute that it did: the same one-way trip by car is worth $55, using the federal rate. In gas alone, at the prices now common in Wilmington and generally higher in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, the drive costs about $13 one-way. Add in another $11 for one-way highway tolls via the most likely route, Interstate 95.

Of course, Biden is known to take the Acela, Amtrak’s cushy business-travel train, which costs $143 one-way. It’s been reported that he receives a discount available to federal employees that isn’t publicized. Still, his weekdays low-carbon choice is a luxury, something most Americans couldn’t consider.

Or could they? Guess what? Biden is a good example of a trend, one that doesn’t always link itself to cost alone.

Railway, Subways, Trolleys Flourishing

Across America, ridership is exploding on commuter rail services, subways, and trolleys. For Amtrak and most other public transportation systems around the United States, ridership has been gaining steadily for three years, since the first gas spike of the summer of 2005. It has not slowed down yet, even as gas prices have eased in the past few months.

“There is a sea change going on out there,” said Virginia Miller, a spokeswoman for the American Public Transportation Association, a trade group in Washington, “as Americans who don’t have to are parking their cars and taking buses and trains in record numbers. This has been going on for a little over three years.”

Amtrak reports the same record-breaking increases in commuter travel. Karina Romero, an Amtrak spokeswoman, said, “We haven’t seen a significant drop in 10 years. It has been growing a little each year, but not at the same levels as this year. This year is unprecedented.”

She is referring there to ridership numbers for fiscal year 2008, which ended September 30. All Amtrak trains taken together increased ridership by 11 percent for a total of 28.7 million riders. The Hiawatha line out of Chicago saw a 26-percent ridership increase. The ridership on the Downeaster train between Portland, Maine, and Boston increased 31 percent. The Keystone Service train between Harrisburg, Pa., Philadelphia, and New York City, grew 19.8 percent as it carried nearly 1.2 million passengers. A train from Sacramento and Oakland to Bakersfield, Ca., increased its ridership by 18 percent. And these are only a few examples.

The increases are just as dramatic in the commuter rail lines, subways, and other metropolitan systems. Miller, of the American Public Transportation Association, a non-profit trade group that has closely tracked usage, cost, and fuel since the 1940s, reported that increases started in the summer of 2005. That was just before Hurricane Katrina, when gas prices began to creep towards the $3 per gallon figure now returning after a run at $4-plus earlier this year. Then, in 2006, when prices did go down, transit ridership did not, she said.

Once Formed, Will ‘A New Habit’ Endure?

“About half the people in this country don’t have any access to public transportation,” Miller said. “They don’t have a choice. For those individuals who have a choice, what’s going on is, there is a huge shift in travel behavior. People are moving from their cars to buses. A new habit is forming. People don’t start a new habit unless they have a really good reason. And what people have discovered over the past three years is that public transportation is the quickest way to beat high gas prices and save money.”

The number of trips on all forms of public transportation (which does not include Amtrak) rose just over 5 percent for the second quarter of 2008, the association reported. It has not tallied third-quarter figures yet, but Miller said that when gas prices began to slide, the association called several city public-transportation systems for an interim report and found that ridership was still rising.

“Back in August, when gas prices were going down we called a dozen systems,” Miller said. “A good number of that small sample were not only seeing increases. All but one were seeing double-digit increases” from August 2007 to August 2008, she said.

The message seems to be pretty clear that America’s typical commute of 25 miles (as the U.S. Census has reported) has become a lot more expensive in the last three years. And people are responding by changing their behavior. Can the public transportation infrastructure respond?

The current financial crisis makes it unclear how many cities can afford to expand public transportation. Commuters might well need to learn deep-breathing techniques to deal with crowded rail cars. Amtrak’s ability to expand isn’t clear either. Amtrak’s budget for the federal fiscal year that started October 1 is still in limbo. Congress has passed legislation funding the federal government at 2008 levels until March. Amtrak’s funding request, spokeswoman Romero said, is $1.67 billion, compared with the current year’s $1.3 billion. Amtrak hopes to work with various states to expand service, the same way it did with Pennsylvania in 2006, when the state and Amtrak worked together to electrify and increase trains along the Harrisburg-Philadelphia route.

Christine Woodside

Christine Woodside is a freelance writer living in Deep River, Connecticut. She is a regular contributor to The Yale Forum. (E-mail: christine@yaleclimatemediaforum.org, Twitter: @chriswoodside)
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