WASHINGTON – America’s days as an automobile nation are far from over. But the specter of high gas prices becoming permanent has forced the nation to reassess its “Yeah, right” attitude toward public transportation and to reconsider how Americans get from point A to point B.

In the 1970s, when gas station lines snaked around the corner and gas guzzlers ruled Detroit, Asian automakers flooded the U.S. with smaller, fuel-efficient models. Today, after Detroit’s decade-long romance with gas-quaffing SUVs, U.S. automakers once again are playing catch-up as hot-selling Japanese hybrids snatch precious market share.

Casual observers see a simple case of history repeating itself. But transportation experts say that the current gasoline crisis, which is driven by price, is far different from those of the ’70s, which were crises of availability. In fact, many think that today’s soaring gas prices will have a more lasting impact on what we drive, how we drive and our collective attitude toward investment in mass transit.

At the current rate, the average two-car family could end up spending nearly $7,000 a year to gas up its vehicles, said Stephen Reich, the director of the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida. “That’s unsustainable. At some point the math begins to not work,” Reich said.

Evidence already is mounting of a wholesale change in the way Americans commute. Motorists have driven roughly 30 billion fewer miles over the past six months compared with the same period a year ago, according to federal government estimates. Meanwhile, commuters took 10.3 billion trips on public transportation last year, the most in 50 years – when the population was about 60 percent the current size – according to the American Public Transportation Association. Ridership is up 3.3 percent in the first three months of 2008 and 30 percent since 1995.

Both trends suggest that growing numbers of Americans are reaching their tipping points in how much they’ll spend for the freedom and luxury of personal automobile transportation.

“We’re definitely entering territory we’ve never been before,” Reich said. “So it’s very difficult for me to really understand whether it’s a protracted short-term behavioral change that we always see when there’s some new (gas price) threshold or whether this does represent a tipping point. But from my standpoint, it’s just too early for me to be able to say that.”

Noted transportation consultant Alan Pisarski shares Reich’s reluctance to declare America in the early stages of a commuter revolution. When looking at modes of travel, scale is important, Pisarski said. Mass transit accounts for only 1 percent of U.S. travel, so if it increases 20 percent, “it’s still only 1.2 percent of travel,” Pisarski said.

In addition, the recent decline in automobile travel isn’t the result of people leaving their cars for public transportation. People are simply deferring trips, shortening them and driving less because of the cost.

The economic slowdown also plays a part, Pisarski said. Fewer people with jobs means fewer people driving to work and less economic activity, which results in less vehicle travel, particularly among trucks as fewer goods are purchased and shipped. Recreational travel takes a hit as well, as fewer people drive to the movies, malls and for vacations.

However, the House of Representatives recently passed a bill that would authorize nearly $2 billion worth of investments in public transportation systems. The extra money would help keep fares down and expand service.

In recent years, more cities have embraced public transit funding as urban sprawl drives traffic congestion and rising energy costs put a damper on home values in suburban and exurban areas.

After voters approved a 20-year transit sales tax in 2000, a 20-mile stretch of light rail linking Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa, Ariz., will begin service later this year. In 2004, Phoenix-area voters approved another transportation sales tax to improve highways and add 37 more miles to the light rail system. Arizona business leaders and the governor are pushing for a statewide ballot initiative this fall to raise $42 billion over 30 years for more road and commuter rail projects.

Denver’s $6.1 billion rail system has helped home sales in areas that the line services, and Salt Lake City has built 92 miles of commuter rail in recent years. In the Kansas City area, local leaders are pushing for a $1.2 billion mass transit plan featuring light and commuter rail, streetcars and buses.

If nothing else, the psychological effect of rising gas prices will make the public more willing to embrace mass transit funding in the future, Pisarski said.

“I don’t think there’s any question about that,” he said. “The public does react eventually, and I think we got their attention this time. I think people will say this is obviously something that we have to be better prepared to address.”

But the flurry of activity to pay for transit projects hasn’t swayed Elizabeth Deakin, the director of the University of California Transportation Research Center in Berkeley. She remains skeptical about signs indicating that mass transit is moving to usurp the automobile’s prominence.

“We have a long way to go before we would be a transit nation,” Deakin said.

Most of America’s public transit riders are based in a few large cities. About half of all transit commuters live in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, according to the Congressional Research Service. Collectively, these cities and surrounding areas make up roughly 70 percent of all public transportation trips in the United States.

That’s not surprising, since public transportation works best in areas with at least 15 homes per acre and preferably more, Deakin said. America’s love for low-density housing development makes mass transit less feasible in areas without large urban cores.

If a half-mile radius is the maximum convenient walking distance for a transit station, 7,800 workers would reside in the estimated 400 developed acres encompassing that half-mile radius, Deakin estimates. “If 25 percent take transit to get to work, that is only 2,000 transit commuters, a pretty low number for the transit station … and work trips tend to be half of all trips made by transit,” Deakin said.

“Bottom line: We can get people to select transit when it is convenient, comfortable and a good choice, but if we build all low-density neighborhoods, few people will have a reasonable transit option,” Deakin said.

A lack of trust in the federal, state and local agencies that plan and develop transportation options compounds the problem, Pisarski said.

“You send them the money, it disappears and nothing seems to get better. I think that’s kind of the sense of the public right now,” he said. “So we’re going to have to do more than have a crisis. We’re going to have to gain some credibility with the public and show them that we have some sense of the future that’s responsive.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.