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Gas prices drive rail use

Ridership on L.A. commuter lines sets records, and traffic on the state's freeways is down from last year.

June 20, 2008|Joanna Lin and Francisco Vara-Orta | Times Staff Writers

Commuter rail ridership broke an all-time record this week, and Caltrans reported a dip in freeway traffic as commuters across California struggled with record gasoline prices.

Metrolink recorded its highest number of riders in a single day Tuesday -- 50,232 -- a 15.6% increase over the volume on the Tuesday of the same week last year. Metro Rail ridership has also risen, shooting up 6% last month over May 2007, with the downtown L.A.-to-Pasadena Gold Line setting an all-time ridership record, said Dave Sotero, a Metro spokesman.

Meanwhile, Caltrans officials said Thursday that traffic on California freeways dropped 1.5% over last year -- the equivalent of a billion fewer miles traveled, said spokesman Derrick Alatorre.

In Los Angeles and Ventura counties combined, Caltrans' traffic sensors found a slight decline in freeway traffic: from 91.7 million miles traveled in March to 91.4 million in May, the most recent data available.

Alatorre said Caltrans engineers expect the downward trend to continue during the summer months, as gas prices remain high. "Statistically speaking, that is not a lot of difference in miles, but it is a lot of gas," he said.

Spikes in gas prices have often brought increases in public transit ridership and even small reductions in traffic -- only to see motorists get back on the road when prices drop.

But the increasingly crowded rail lines are a marked contrast in a region where the car has long been king -- and remains so even with the record gas prices.

Some commuters said Thursday that prices are now so high that they would consider using rail more frequently.

Thair Peterson, an employee at the Metropolitan Water District, switched to using Metro just over a year ago when gas prices hit a "tipping point" of $3.30 a gallon.

"It was a no-brainer," Peterson said, after arriving at Union Station from his Los Feliz residence. Now, he says, gas prices would have to drop below $2 a gallon for him to consider commuting by car again.

California's average gas price jumped 15.5 cents last week to $4.588 a gallon, the U.S. Energy Department said this week. In the last month, California's average has increased nearly 64 cents a gallon, while the U.S. average has risen 29 cents.

The shift in behavior extends beyond Southern California.

Americans drove 1.4 billion fewer highway miles in April compared with the same month last year, and 400 million fewer miles than they did in March, U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters announced this week. Peters also said that gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles are decreasing in popularity, as sales of midsize sport utility vehicles were down 38% year-over-year in May.

"It's absolutely the sticker shock and awe at the gas prices," said Denise Tyrrell, a spokeswoman for Metrolink, the commuter rail service that links downtown L.A. with outlying suburbs. "This is the time of year that we normally have lower ridership, but it's only going up."

Metrolink tends to serve commuters with especially long drives from places such as San Bernardino, Riverside and Orange County. Joel Zlotnik, a spokesman for the Orange County Transportation Authority, said Metrolink ridership in April hit a record high in the county, when the 1-million mark was broken for the first time -- a 6.4% increase over the same month last year.

The MTA's network of rail lines has also seen significant gains. In May, 7,625,541 passengers boarded Metro's two subway lines and three light-rail lines, compared with 7,192,173 boardings last May.

"It's one of the highest one-month spikes on record," Sotero said.

The Gold Line, for example, saw average weekday boarding rise to 23,141 last month from 19,093 in May 2007.

Antral Thomas, 35, started taking the Gold Line from Pasadena to the Red Line in Koreatown a few weeks ago because of rising gas prices.

Although his commute from his residence to the Koreatown restaurant where he works has increased from 30 minutes by car to an hour and a half by train, the money he's saved has paid off.

"I save a lot. It takes $60 to fill my car, and I use that in a week," he said.

Thomas now buys a weekly Metro pass for $17.

Transportation experts are quick to point out that mass-transit riders like Thomas remain part of a tiny minority who use rail instead of their own cars. And it remains an open question whether that will ever change.

James E. Moore, director of USC's transportation engineering program, compared the current uptick to the aftermath of the Northridge earthquake in 1994, when several major roads were closed.

"There was some speculation that once people got used to it, they'd stick with (public) transit," Moore said. "But people don't fail to use transit out of ignorance, they choose the option that is the cheapest for them."

But with gasoline approaching $5 a gallon, the effect may be more permanent.

Michael Miller, 45, used to spend $460 a month at the pump, but now he buys a $230 monthly pass for his daily 2 1/2 -hour commute from Rancho Cucamonga to L.A.

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