By Laura J. Nelson, January 20, 2015
Riders prepare to board the Metro Red Line at the Metro Center Station
at 7th and Figueroa streets.The effect of cheap gas on transit hasn’t
been studied rigorously.
Since the start of the summer, gasoline prices in Los Angeles County
have tumbled 40%, from more than $4 to $2.52, sparking gleeful social
media posts and long lines at the cheapest gas stations.
enthusiasm is tempered with concern from local transit officials, who
say cheap gasoline takes away a key incentive to ride the bus or train
in a region where commuting is still overwhelmingly done by car. And in
fact, for every month that gas prices declined in 2014, so did the Los
Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority's ridership
figures. In the second half of the year, the number of riders systemwide
fell by 4% compared with 2013.
But, experts say, don't be fooled: Although there appears to be a connection, correlation is not causation.
well documented that transit ridership gets a bump when gas prices
soar. If prices at the pump increase by 100%, people drive about 10%
less, said Marlon Boarnet, a USC urban planning professor. Some of that
decrease in driving leads to higher transit use, but many trips can be
done on foot or in a carpool. Other trips can be eliminated.
effect of cheap gas on transit hasn't been studied as rigorously.
Experts say that's because gasoline prices crater so rarely that there
aren't many opportunities to dig into the data — and because economists
know what to expect.
gas prices don't lead to much of a decrease in ridership, if any,"
Boarnet said. "You're looking at zero to two percentage points change,
In Los Angeles, cheap gas alone doesn't make driving
affordable for low-income residents, Metro's main customer base. Four in
five passengers don't have access to a private vehicle, and more than
half of riders live below the federal poverty threshold: $11,670 for one
person and $23,850 for a family of four.
"Taking transit versus
driving here basically depends on whether you're rich or you're poor,"
said Jan K. Brueckner, a UC Irvine professor who studies urban
economics. "The margin of transit riders affected by lower gas prices is
insuring and repairing cars costs far more than filling the tank. Of
the estimated $8,835 that the average Los Angeles household spent on
transportation in 2012, just 7% went to transit fares and taxis, while
33% went toward gas and 60% toward other vehicle expenses, according to
the most recent data available from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
a slim margin of discretionary transit users shift back to their cars,
the overall effect on Metro ridership should be minimal. That separates
Los Angeles from other major U.S. cities, where subway cars and buses
often show a broad cross-section of income and race.
"If you're looking at Chicago, New York or Washington, D.C., this would be a different question," Brueckner said.
a gas station in Inglewood on Friday, Vanessa Bustillos filled up her
Toyota Tundra pickup in preparation for a drive to Northern California
for the long weekend. At $65 for a full tank, she paid $20 less than she
would have six months ago. "I would have driven anyway," she said. "But
it's nice to save some money."
The biggest influence on transit
ridership is the health of the economy, experts say. During the Great
Recession, as income levels dropped and household budgets tightened,
transit ridership hit record highs across the United States. Some of the
strongest ridership months in 2008 and 2009 corresponded with low fuel
officials note, with some concern, that as the economy rebounds, more
households are buying new cars. In the first 11 months of 2014,
Southland residents registered 8% more new cars than in 2013, according
to the most recent data from L.A. Times/cars.com.
Any minor shifts
in ridership due to lower gas prices won't appear in Metro's ridership
figure for several more months, spokesman Marc Littman said, because the
agency's ridership estimates are based on a six-month average of data
samples taken across all lines in the system.
"When gas prices
spike, we don't see ridership gains until several months later," Littman
said. "It takes a while for this stuff to percolate through."
more likely, experts said, that the fare increase in September led to a
temporary drop in ridership while passengers adjusted to higher costs.
also was the first year that Metro's ridership figures included several
months of data from stations where turnstiles are now locked. For a
year, ending in June, the agency locked fare gates at 40 of the system's
80 rail stations in an attempt to make it more difficult for riders to
board without paying. Analysts say that could lead to fewer people
boarding as well.
"You can't pinpoint which single factor causes
ridership to decrease," said Dan Nguyen, Metro's deputy executive
officer for service performance and scheduling. "But we do need to make
an effort to attract new riders and retain the riders we have."