Gas Prices Boost Ridership, Costs for Mass Transit As the cost of gasoline continues to rise, more people are using public transportation. But transit officials have been surprised to see big ridership jumps even in areas where people don't usually take the bus or train — like car-choked Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, N.C. The jump is straining transit agencies' resources.
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Gas Prices Boost Ridership, Costs for Mass Transit

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Gas Prices Boost Ridership, Costs for Mass Transit

Gas Prices Boost Ridership, Costs for Mass Transit

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

As anybody stuck on the highway this morning knows, the number of people who use public transportation in the United States is low. The percentage of people driving cars - much, much higher. But with rising gas prices transit operators from coast-to-coast have reported record-breaking numbers of riders. And that includes some places you might not expect, like North Carolina's Raleigh-Durham area. Traditionally only about two percent of residents in that area are able to use public transit. From North Carolina Public Radio, Jessica Jones reports.

JESSICA JONES: It's 7:15 in the morning and Carrie Brown stands on a Durham sidewalk, waiting to head to work.

(Soundbite of bus)

A bright blue and green bus rolls up to the curb and slings open its doors. About two dozen people climb on, including Brown.

Unidentified Woman: Good morning.

Ms. CARRIE BROWN (North Carolina resident): Good morning. How are you?

JONES: But Brown hasn't been riding the bus for long. She used to drive 50 miles round trip to her information technology job in Raleigh. But a month and a half ago, the single mom of two teenage girls stopped using her car to get to work.

Ms. BROWN: Right at the time that gas prices started I had to put in my budget to put my girls in braces. And so with the gas prices going up, that was cutting the extra money that I was putting towards their braces I had to use for gas.

JONES: Brown says filling her tank cost $100 more every month and she just couldn't afford it.

Ms. BROWN: So I really had to find an alternative way to get to work. And so riding the bus was it.

JONES: And Brown isn't alone. Across the country, people are flocking to bus routes and commuter rail lines in record numbers, especially in the West and the South where public transportation traditionally hasn't been as well used.

Mantill Williams is with the American Public Transportation Association.

Mr. MANTILL WILLIAMS (American Public Transportation Association): We've always wondering, like what point will people actually start changing their behavior. And the closer you get to $4.00, once you go over it, I think that we found that people are actually taking action.

JONES: Williams says, in the first quarter of this year Americans took 85 million more trips on public transportation than they did last year. In Seattle, for example, commuter rail use increased by 28 percent. Raleigh Durham's Triangle Transit is up more than 20 percent.

Mr. DAVID KING (Triangle Transit Authority): The increase in ridership is actually sort of a double-edged sword. On one hand, this is what we've been hoping for. But it's coming at a time when our costs are rising.

JONES: Already there are long lines at bus stops and few empty seats. And park and ride lots fill quickly. Transit officials, like David King of Triangle Transit Authority, have to figure out how to meet that demand without going broke. Their diesel fuel bill has almost doubled over the last year. His agency is now using money designated for a future rail project to keep an old bus fleet in service.

Mr. KING: We're basically dipping into our seed corn, to some extent, to pay for this bus service. In the meantime, we've all got to try to make the best decisions possible about how to do that which we were created to do, which is provide bus service in an era where the demand is outstripping the supply.

JONES: Almost a fifth of the country's transit agencies have decided to cut back service in recent months because of gas prices. Others have increased fares. David King says his agency hasn't decided to do that yet, but if it's necessary he hopes his riders will understand.

For NPR News, I'm Jessica Jones in Durham, North Carolina.

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