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As rising gas prices make travel more expensive, public transit can help.

  •   3 min read

Americans are tightening their belts in response to surging gas prices — but travel to jobs, healthcare, and essential services can’t be avoided. Data proves that eschewing private vehicles in favor of mass transit can help.

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Inflation shows no sign of slowing down. Gas prices are soaring. And yet people’s travel needs keep growing, especially as more workers head back to the office. This means added transportation costs may start eating up a bigger chunk of workers’ wages, pushing living expenses to new highs. Luckily, public transit can help offset some of these costs. 

A recent estimation shows that car-dependent commuters living in rural or suburban America may expect to pay an extra $2,500 per year at minimum if record-level fuel costs continue to surge. This is hardly chump change — 17% of Americans’ income, or about $10k per year on average, is already set aside for transportation, even before gas price increases. For workers earning minimum wage, today’s reality is especially dire: filling a full tank of gas at the cost of $4.29 (the national average as of March 17) per gallon could mean an entire day’s pay.

We’re already seeing a ripple effect from the gas price increases — in fact, half of Americans report driving less to save money in a new AAA survey. 75% said they plan to adjust their lifestyles to offset the spike at the pump if gas reaches $5, which has already happened in some parts of the US. Gas prices were reported to be as high as $5.79 a gallon in Florida and California this week.

These lifestyle shifts are potentially being reflected in increased public transit ridership, as “choice” riders — those who have access to cars — look for more affordable mobility options. While it is too early to determine how much of these gains can be directly attributed to fuel prices, buses, trains, and on-demand transit all witnessed an upswing in ridership in recent weeks across many parts of the US. Public transit numbers in New York City, Washington, D.C., and the San Francisco Bay Area all rose 3–7% between March 1 and March 8, reported Bloomberg.

The growth trend is even more prominent among modes of on-demand public transit. US ridership on Via-powered services rose 7.7% in the week of March 1st, and, in 40% of these communities, ridership grew by more than 10%. Several few suburban areas — places like Newton, Mass; Cupertino, Calif.; and Suffolk County, New York — even saw increases ranging from 50% to 140%. In addition, many Via-powered cities hit a daily or weekly ride record in the first week of March.

“Spending only $10 a week on commuting has been life-changing.” — Via Jersey City rider

The conversation around ways to mitigate higher fuel costs isn’t a new one. The American Public Transit Association estimated that in 2018, when gas prices also experienced a hike, people who switched from personal vehicle usage to public transit could save more than $10,000 per year — this includes over $2000 in fuel costs, and other expenses like parking, maintenance and tires.

Via Jersey City is an on-demand service providing efficient, affordable public transit in parts of the city without fixed route bus lines. Photo credit: Curb Media.

Many transit agencies see this moment as critical to attracting more riders back on board — especially as the Omicron wave has subsided.

Some, like the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York City, are using creative strategies to get the message across.

Others have started to upgrade their transportation networks by integrating smart, technology-enabled services into the existing system and bridging service gaps — and this can sometimes remove the need to own a car altogether.

As one Via Jersey City rider observed, “My boyfriend and I were spending upwards of $275 a week on ride-hailing services. Via Jersey City has changed it all, and spending only $10 a week on commuting has been life-changing. I had been looking to buy a car for a while, but now I see no need.” 

Today’s ongoing challenges present a unique opportunity for city leaders to double down on reliable, convenient, and equitable methods of transportation. 

It is likely that gas prices will continue to rise throughout the rest of the year. Whether this will spur long-lasting shifts in travel patterns is still unknown — but getting more people back onto public transit in the short term is a promising start. 

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