Saturday, August 04, 2007

Go Figure

The more things change, the more they stay the same:
Fuel thirst deepens despite more mass transit

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Lofty gasoline prices have helped push public transit ridership to the highest level since the country spawned its highway system in the 1950s -- but the growth is not enough to drive down demand for motor fuel any time soon.

U.S. public transportation use rose to 10.1 billion rides last year, the most since 1957, when President Dwight Eisenhower signed the interstate highway bill into law, according to the American Public Transportation Association, an industry group.

The trend toward public transit has been driven in part by high retail gasoline prices, which have hit levels above $3 per gallon each summer since hurricanes damaged oil production and refineries along the Gulf of Mexico in 2005.
Now, you gotta figure, with more people riding trains and buses, there might be fewer car trips taken, right?

Um. No.
Even so, the increase in transit use won't put the brakes on rising U.S. gasoline demand, mainly because only about 5 percent of workers who commute in a motorized vehicle use public transport, said Pisarski.

This year gasoline demand is running more than double 1957 levels, according to the Energy Information Administration. U.S. gasoline demand was more than 292 million barrels in May, the last month for which data was available, up from nearly 118 million barrels in May 1957.

Fuel demand is rising as car owners increase personal and business trips, said Pisarski. And people are increasingly both living and working in suburbs, a trend that is hard to service with public transport, he said.
Which may be true, of course. The traffic in suburban areas is noticeably higher than even five years ago. Here in New York, there's been a huge debate in Nassau and Suffolk counties about what to do to improve the load-bearing capacity of highways that don't come anywhere near the city.

The problem? Residents of these counties around the nation moved to the suburbs specifically to get away from the smells, the smoke and the asphalt of the city, so they are foursquare against any kind of improvements. Factor in that many if not most of these exurban areas are already fully developed, leaving precious little land that the county can seize and use to expand the road system anyway, and you begin to see the scope of the problem.

This exodus of jobs from the cities to the suburbs is a pretty recent phenomenon. Although the trend was in place before 2001, the terror attacks of September 11, coupled with the subsequent deliberate manipulation of information by the Bush administration to paint a picture that urban centers were constantly under the imminent threat of attack, created an environment that pushed employers to leave the cities in droves.

This is also reflected in housing prices. For example, a recent study showed that the type of rise in real estate values normally experienced in Manhattan had been occuring in Queens, Brooklyn, Nassau and Suffolk counties, too. Why commute by bus or rail across half the city to your job, when if you move off the island, you can buy a car and drive yourself to work?

And there's a big part of the problem, right there: the fact that, given a choice, more people prefer to be alone on their way to work than to be subject to the whims of a public transit system. In the city, it may be the most efficient and fastest way to get from point A to point B, but that's because it has a budget big enough from a large enough tax base to provide continual and frequent service particularly at rush hours, but also frequent enough away from rush hours that putting in overtime at your job isn't a tragic inconvenience.

Suburban systems would have to rely on a rider base that is far less densely packed together than its city counterpart and the buses (presumably) would have to cover a far bigger area in order to pick up the same number of people that a city bus does. Those two factors alone would make it impossible to achieve the level of service that a city transit system has.

Right now, suburban mass transit is mainly focused on getting people to the city. It would be hard to justify altering many routes to include intrasuburan commutes, but in saying that, it's also important to recognize that many of the suburban office centers themselves are near rail stations or in towns that are feeders to the big city, so it theoretically could be done.

Me, I love the subways. I also love my (dear departed) car, as well. I don't mind taking a train to work (it's only a twenty minute commute) since it afford me a chance to read a little, or even think about what I'm going to yammer on this blog. Driving into Manhattan would only leave me scarred emotionally.

I do understand the appeal, however.

This is a tough nut to crack, to be sure, but it's important. In an era when it's become patently clear that we must wean ourselves off the fossil fuel bottle, we find ourselves using more and more of it.

Humans is funny peoples.