How High Gas Prices Are Affecting Commuters Gas prices are up across the country, and so are the numbers of people taking public transit. Host Melissa Block checks in with mass-transit officials, ordinary commuters and experts on how fuel costs are changing -- or not -- the way Americans travel.
NPR logo

How High Gas Prices Are Affecting Commuters

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/4962496/4962497" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
How High Gas Prices Are Affecting Commuters

How High Gas Prices Are Affecting Commuters

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/4962496/4962497" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

If you drive, you know you've been paying more to fill up your tank with gasoline. Across the country, in cities large and small, more people have decided that it's just too expensive to drive to work, so they're taking public transit. Take Knoxville, Tennessee, where bus ridership in September was up 15 percent over the same time last year. Belinda Boyd plans routes and schedules for Knoxville-Area Transit.

Ms. BELINDA BOYD (Knoxville-Area Transit): The magic number is $3 a gallon. When gas got to $3 a gallon, we started getting a huge amount of phone calls from our--in our telephone information office. We had trouble keeping schedules in racks; lots more people started riding. And then the month of September itself is where we sort of looked at the month as a whole and said, `Oh, my gosh, this is a huge increase,' which we--we haven't seen that sort of ridership in over 20 years, actually since Knoxville hosted the World's Fair when we had a whole bunch of different people in town, a lot more people we were carrying. So it's a huge increase for us.

BLOCK: Have you been adding more buses?

Ms. BOYD: We have not added more buses. We have increased the size of buses. This is sort of a double-edged sword for us. We love having the additional ridership, but at the same time, we also are dealing with increased fuel prices. And so we are actually overbudget as well because of the high cost of fuel.

BLOCK: But if you have more riders, I would think your profits are going up. That would help.

Ms. BOYD: It does help some. The fare is not--doesn't cover the entire operating cost. So even though we do have a huge increase in ridership, it's not enough to cover the increased operating costs that we see with fuel.

BLOCK: What do you figure happens if and when gas prices go down substantially? Do you retain these riders, or do they get back in their cars?

Ms. BOYD: I think that's going to be the million-dollar question. This is a really critical time, I think, for transit. We're really trying to be a really good alternative for folks when prices are high, but we also want to say, `We're a really good alternative anyway.' There are so many folks who have really said, `Gosh, we're really enjoying this. I'm really aware of how much I'm saving in gas and how comfortable it is and how fun it is that I'm not experiencing road rage.' So I think we'll capture some. It's just--you know, it's so easy to get in your car and go, but I think people are also finding it's really easy to get on the bus and go, as well.

BLOCK: Belinda Boyd, thanks very much.

Ms. BOYD: Thank you very much.

BLOCK: Belinda Boyd is director of marketing and development for Knoxville-Area Transit.

There are similar stories across the country. In car-crazy Los Angeles, the buses and subways had almost 8 percent more business in August compared with last August. In Dallas, there was an 11-percent jump in bus and light rail use in the first two weeks of September. And in Tulsa, there were 32 percent more bus riders this September than last. In the San Francisco Bay area, BART has added more subway trains during rush hours to meet demand. Here's what a few BART riders have to say about the cost of their commutes.

(Soundbite of announcement)

Unidentified Man: ...(Unintelligible).

Mr. HORACE WASHINGTON: I'm Horace Washington. I'm coming from Oakland. The whole idea of driving is too expensive; too difficult, too expensive.

Ms. YASMINE SAHOVA(ph): My name is Yasmine Sahova. I'm commuting on BART every single day, twice a day. It's much more effective, especially this year.

Mr. OSAF JAFFE(ph): My name is Osaf Jaffe. Between parking costs, gas and bridge toll, it's about the same: $3 over the bridge one way; $6 back and forth on the BART. But a lot of times, it's just more convenient to jump in my car and drive over.

BLOCK: But just because more people are using public transit, it doesn't mean that freeways or highways feel any less crowded at rush hour. Alan Pisarski is the author of the book "Commuting in America." He says there are so many people who drive and comparatively few who take the bus or train, so increases for public transit use are almost imperceptible to people in their cars. But, Pisarski says, drivers have their own ways to cut gas consumption.

Mr. ALAN PISARSKI (Author, "Commuting in America"): One of the first things that you see is that people within their own household, where they have, in effect, a fleet--the majority of households in America have two or more vehicles--they'll shift to the most efficient vehicle. They'll park the sport utility vehicle and use the more fuel-efficient--the smaller car. So that's kind of the first thing they do.

The second thing they do, they start consciously trip-changing and assembling a group of trips, chores, errands and save them up until they can make one round trip. They tend to do that, for instance, more on the way to work, on the way home because you have to be out either way.

And then, third, they begin perhaps what I can fam-pooling, car-pooling within the household, husband, wife or child that works sharing a vehicle to save fuel.

BLOCK: How fickle are we? The patterns that we established during a situation like this, where gas prices are high, do we keep those patterns going when prices come down?

Mr. PISARSKI: Well, it's--I mean, we have a little bit of history to go by, and I think some of it is interesting. The record is that people, when they make these accommodations, are very anxious to shift back as fast as possible. After the '79 oil boycott problems, people snapped back--literally snapped back, an almost instantaneous shift back, to the former modes of behavior. If people see this as temporary, if there is no sense of, `This is permanent; this is long term,' then you'll get that reaction, I think, very effectively, very quickly.

BLOCK: Old habits die hard.

Mr. PISARSKI: Yeah.

BLOCK: Alan Pisarski, thanks very much.

Mr. PISARSKI: Thank you very much.

BLOCK: Alan Pisarski is working on a new edition of his book "Commuting in America."

And one of those drivers who intends to keep on driving is commentator Daniel McGinn. He says for his money, driving to work is still a bargain.

DANIEL McGINN:

I spend a lot of time in my car getting to work. It's a 70-mile commute round-trip, and with gasoline at nearly three bucks a gallon, it's getting kind of expensive. When my wife and I relocated to the Boston suburbs six years ago, we told our realtor what we could spend in a house. He told us to get in the car, drive west and keep going. We now live in a lovely town 30 miles from the city.

There's a charming town with great schools closer to Boston. If we lived there, I'd cut my drive in half. Trouble is to buy a median-priced house there would cost $300,000 more than the house we own. Sure, I'd reduce my commute by 35 miles, saving two gallons of gas and an hour of driving, but buying a house like that would add $1,800 to my monthly mortgage payment. As if I could afford that. The way I look at it, if I commute 150 days a year, excluding the days I'm on the road or work from home, my willingness to drive means I'm saving $144 in mortgage payments every time I make my commute.

OK, so it's not that simple. I'm ignoring the tax deductibility of the mortgage interest, tolls, wear and tear on my car and the mind-numbing psychic costs of sitting in traffic. But most days, I don't regret my commute. The cost of gas is a bargain compared with the cost of close-to-the-city housing. That's why the extra hour I spend commuting may be the most profitable part of my day.

BLOCK: Daniel McGinn is a national correspondent for Newsweek magazine.

We also heard from Alan Pisarski, author of "Commuting in America," commuters in the BART system in San Francisco and Belinda Boyd of Knoxville-Area Transit.

We have heard a lot about bird flu over the last few months. It's spreading among wild and domesticated birds. And although the current avian flu virus only rarely infects people, it might mutate into a form that could spread from person to person, and that possibility worries health agencies around the world. US Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt said today that no nation is adequately prepared for a pandemic avian flu.

ROBERT SIEGEL (Host): With all of the news about bird flu, there are a lot of questions: How serious is the threat? What can be done to contain it? And are we prepared for an outbreak? Well, we want to know what you want to know. Call us or send us your questions, and we'll get you some answers from NPR reporters and from experts.

BLOCK: Here's what you do: Call our ALL THINGS CONSIDERED phone line at (202) 898-2395; again, that's (202) 898-2395. Or you can write to us online. Go to npr.org, and look for the link that says `Send us your questions on bird flu.'

SIEGEL: And remember, we are looking for questions, not opinions. So ask us, and we'll have some answers later in the week.

BLOCK: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.