CLEVELAND – High gasoline prices are turning some drivers into riders, say public transit authorities in several states.
It's a trend that Joe Calabrese, general manager of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (search), expects to continue as long as a gallon of gas remains about $2.
"I know there are people on the bus today that weren't on the bus three years ago," he said.
It's the same story for the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority (search), which operates 72 miles of rail lines between Miami and West Palm Beach, mostly serving business commuters and students.
"We get to know our people," spokeswoman Bonnie Arnold said. "It's just a recurring comment that gas prices have gotten out of hand. Once it goes over $2 we do see an increase down here."
The American Public Transportation Association (search) says no data is available to support whether there's a similar trend nationally. A study on the subject conducted by the Washington-based organization was inconclusive.
However, in an Associated Press-AOL poll conducted last Monday through Wednesday, 58 percent of Americans said they have reduced the amount of driving they do as a result of recent increases in energy prices. The telephone survey of 1,000 adults had a sampling error margin of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Calabrese acknowledges he has only anecdotal evidence, but says a 1.5 percent passenger increase in 2003 and 3.7 percent last year supports his claim. It's only the second back-to-back increase in 25 years — the last one in 1996-97 was the result of a new rail line.
Also, RTA had a 5 percent surge in ridership in the first quarter of 2005, when gas prices really started to climb.
While declining unemployment has increased the use of public transportation in Denver, the Denver Regional Transportation District is confident that gas prices have influenced the recent uptick, spokesman Scott Reed said.
"It's pretty clear the spike in gas prices resulted in a corresponding increase in ridership," Reed said.
More passengers have been using its bus and rail lines for the past year with 5 percent increases in December, January and February, Reed said.
Owen King, 54, has been taking the bus to work in Cleveland for 10 years and knows that recently there's been a little less elbow room.
"I've seen more people than usual and overheard conversations where people are saying gas is out of sight and there's no end in sight," King said.
RTA is trying to grab even more commuters with a radio and billboard advertising campaign urging motorists to "Join the gas protest sit-in" by taking a seat on buses or trains.
But transit authorities still have to pay the same high fuel prices their riders are looking to avoid.
"We're hoping the ridership increase at least offsets costs that we will be incurring," Calabrese said.