Transit agencies look to make gas prices drive return business

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Empty subway cars awaiting and empty station on an oddly lit afternoon.

(NewsNation) — As gas prices surge to all-time highs, public transportation agencies across the country are hoping to win back commuters who left during the COVID-19 pandemic by offering reduced fares and expanding service.

On Thursday, the national average for regular gas hit $5 per gallon for the first time ever, according to GasBuddy.

That reality has left an opening for transit agencies — many of which have been plagued by rising crime and worker shortages — that haven’t seen ridership numbers fully recover since the pandemic began.

After falling to 20% of pre-pandemic levels in April 2020, public transportation ridership nationwide has recovered to slightly more than 60% of previous levels, according to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA).

Now, some of the nation’s largest mass transit agencies are using high gas prices as an incentive to get riders back.

Chicago

In July, Chicago’s Metra commuter rail system will begin offering monthly unlimited ride passes for $100 as part of a new pilot program. It’s the latest attempt to get suburban commuters back on mass transit after the system’s quarterly ridership fell as much as 95% during the pandemic.

The new flat-rate “Super Saver” pass marks a significant discount from the current monthly pass which costs between $116 and $295 depending on the distance traveled.

“High gas prices already make Metra an affordable option versus driving, but this new monthly ‘Super Saver’ pass makes the choice even clearer,” said Metra Executive Director/CEO Jim Derwinski in a press release.

As gas prices stood Thursday, ($5.86/gallon in DuPage County), the average driver commuting daily from suburban Naperville to downtown Chicago (approximately 35 miles) is likely spending more than $400 per month on fuel alone.

Los Angeles

In Los Angeles, where the average price for a gallon of gas is $6.42, according to AAA, commuters have been slow to return to the city’s public transit system.

After nearly two years of free bus rides, the Los Angeles Metro system began charging riders again in January. Single and multi-day passes, however, remain half-off through July 20.

As of April, total systemwide Metro ridership was up more than 13% from the start of the year.

The nearly 790,000 weekday daily boardings marks an almost 120% increase from April 2020 but remains far below the 1.2 million daily boardings in April 2019.

In an appeal to suburban commuters, Southern California’s Metrolink commuter rail system added 26 trains to its schedule in April after reducing service during the pandemic.

Officials pointed to rising fuel costs as one of the main reasons for the decision.

“With soaring gas prices and excessive traffic congestion, it was important that we bring back more service now as people are returning to the office and traveling for leisure and more,” said Metrolink Board Chair Ara Najarian in a statement.

other agencies

In March, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), which serves the Greater Boston area, approved a number of fare changes. The price for an unlimited day pass will drop from $12.75 to $11 on July 1. The agency also made the 5-day flex pass a permanent option — a ticket intended to attract hybrid workers.

Smaller transit systems across the Midwest have also taken steps to ease transportation costs. Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority (DART) is offering $1 bus fares through the end of the month.

Not all agencies have adjusted prices but that doesn’t mean they’re ignoring the fuel spike. The transit agency in Cleveland is preparing for more riders because of higher gas prices.

Others, such as Milwaukee County’s mass transit system, have been quick to point out high prices on social media. And Fort Wayne, Indiana’s, system has vowed not to raise rates in order to remain affordable for those struggling to keep up with costs.

around the world

Across the Atlantic, European countries, long known for their world-class public transit, have slashed prices in response to rising transportation costs.

Last month, German authorities approved a plan that will allow people to use local transit across the country for just $9.50 (9 euros) per month. The initiative effectively cuts fares by more than 90% in some cities.

In Ireland, public transit fares were slashed for the first time in nearly 75 years back in May.

“This fare reduction will go some way to easing some of the financial strain that households are experiencing,” Ireland’s Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan said in a statement.

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