Gas prices make the bus a fare deal for manyby William Wilcoxen, Minnesota Public Radio
One of the effects of soaring gas prices is a rise in the number of people turning to mass transit. In the Twin Cities, Metro Transit reports ridership has been growing for the past couple of years and that growth has accelerated in the past couple of months.
St. Paul, Minn. — Christine Wade lives in Burnsville, south of the Twin Cities. A few weeks ago she started a new job in Mounds View, north of the Twin Cities. That's also when she became a bus rider.
"I decided I would do it because of gas prices, because I have a car that's not mileage friendly," she says with a laugh.
Wade estimates she'll save about $250 a month by leaving her car at home.
Dave Schaenzer, an engineer who works for Medtronic, also rides bus route 250-M. He's put together a chart graphing a cost comparison of making his commute by bus and by car.
"So for example, with a 26 miles per gallon car - which is about what my car gets for the highway - $3.40 per gallon is the break even point for taking the bus over driving," Schaenzer says. "So, over that point, it's cheaper to take the bus."
Not all commuters will calculate a tipping point for gas prices so precisely, but it's certain that many are reconsidering their transportation options in light of today's gas prices. That's a welcome development for Brian Lamb, the general manager of Metro Transit. Lamb says since the start of 2008, transit ridership in the Twin Cities is up 7 percent over last year and in April and May it's been up nearly 9 percent.
"I sometimes joke that I may be the only person in the state who doesn't mind increased gas prices," Lamb says.
Lamb says people are creatures of habit and therein lies the biggest challenge to boosting transit ridership. Once people get accustomed to driving, it's difficult to get them to change their ways. But sticker shock at the gas pump may be doing the trick for many.
Lamb says Metro Transit is working to retain its new riders with improvements that include an enhanced Web site: "For the first time, people can actually have a tailor-made - based on their starting location and ending location - map generated. Just like you would from MapQuest if you were trying to travel by automobile. That takes a lot of the mystery out of it."
Planners are working on new light rail and commuter rail lines for the Twin Cities and Lamb says Metro Transit wants to increase service to its busiest areas to make buses frequent enough that riders won't need to consult a schedule.
But while ideas for improvements are plentiful, money is not. Since 2002, Metro Transit's main revenue source has been the state motor vehicle sales tax. During that same time, new vehicle sales in Minnesota have declined by 34 percent, according to the research firm Experian Automotive. The drop in sales means less money for Twin Cities transit.
Meanwhile, this year the buses and trains will burn through nearly 8 million gallons of diesel fuel, which is even more expensive than gasoline.
Funding crunches at Metro Transit are not new. Some transit advocates argue that Minnesota has long under-funded its system compared to other metro areas and that consequently the transit alternatives available to today's drivers are not what they could be.
Our commuters on the 250-M from Mounds View enjoy their 30-minute express ride to Minneapolis but they can also vouch for the shortcomings of the Twin Cities system.
Schaenzer formerly worked at Medtronic's Fridley facility and says the only bus service there would have required a two-hour ride.
Wade has a similar story.
"I did work in St. Louis Park at one time and I took the bus," she says. "But it took me like three buses to do what I could do in minutes driving, so I stopped doing it."
Shortcomings notwithstanding, the Twin Cities transit system is getting more use as gas prices rise. The American Public Transit Association reports that's a nationwide trend. A spokesman says automobile trips declined in the first quarter of the year, while transit ridership in the U.S. increased. The Twin Cities' 7 percent first-quarter growth surpassed the national 2 percent increase.
Metro Transit expects to provide about 80 million rides this year. But even those rides may soon cost more. The agency is preparing a proposal to raise fares, with public hearings scheduled to begin in July.
- Morning Edition, 05/23/2008, 7:25 a.m.