Could High Gas Prices Push Riders Back to Public Transit?

The quick ascent of gas prices, at a time of economic uncertainty for many, could be just the boost public transit needs to get back to pre-pandemic levels of ridership. Or not.

3 minute read

March 13, 2022, 5:00 AM PDT

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell

A sign showing gas prices, all at more than $5 a gallon.

Prices for a gallon of gas on March 7, 2022 in San José, California. | Michael Vi / Shutterstock

High gas prices could contribute to a ridership rebound on U.S. public transit systems, according to an article by Savannah Maher for Marketplace, echoing what is surely a common speculation among transportation planners and alternative transportation advocates all over the country.

That possibility is debatable, however, as evidenced by past discussions:

The transportation mix is vastly different in 2022, with the negative effects of ride-hailing companies baked into transit ridership for years now. The pandemic has also inspired increasing numbers of people to ride bikes, thanks in part to the popularity of e-bikes. Recent changes in the American automobile market should also not be discounted in the mode choice equation. Electric cars are much more readily available than they were in the last gas price spike and recession, for example. But even more salient, perhaps, is the consumer trend toward larger and larger vehicles—instead of smaller, more efficient vehicles that would mitigate the effects of a spike in gas prices.

Some transit and bike advocates might see increasing transit and bike use as a silver lining of higher gas prices—the benefits to the environment and the potential for economic mobility as a result of more efficient transportation choices are well documented, but it's critical to remember that these changes are happening in the context of unprecedented wealth inequality (in which cars are both a barrier to, and a necessary enabler of, wealth accumulation), decreasing transit service, and, frankly, a brutal culture war that has co-opted almost all of the involved factors as ideological signifiers. And then there's the pandemic. The examples set by previous gas spike prices should not be considered a reliable predictor of current and future transportation trends in today's political and economic landscape.

Still, signs of increased transit use in recent weeks can be seen all over the country. "A few big-city transit systems, including Washington’s Metro and San Francisco’s BART, have seen slight increases in ridership since the beginning of March," according to Maher, from the article cited at the top of this article. Tri-Rail in South Florida also reports increasing ridership, according to an article by Ryan Hughes for WPTV.

Before rushing to connect recent ridership increases to gas prices, recall that recent ridership increases could also be the result of larger numbers of workers returning to the office.   

James Brasuell

James Brasuell is a writer and editor, producing web, print, and video content on the subjects of planning, urbanism, and mobility. James has managed all editorial content and direction for Planetizen since 2014 and was promoted to editorial director in 2021.

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