6.20.2008

RIDING TRANSIT, A PLEASANT SURPRISE

Am I the only one who gets a skip in my step when I see big numbers at the local gas station? Here's yet another article singing the praises of rising prices at the pump: "Five Reasons to Love $4 Gas." Thanks to Greg Mankiw's blog for the link.

One point I did want to make is that a lot of talk about increased transit ridership as people make the switch from driving seems to have focused on how the numbers now make sense for people to ditch their cars; but it's a lot more nuanced than that. Let's take money out of the picture for a sec - I know, hard to do for an economist. Here's the trade-off: your schedule and your private space but headaches associated with traffic and parking if you drive, versus time to read but planning is required to catch the train on time if you ride transit and you have to share your space with others.

My hope is that as gas has spiked up to $4+, people are making the switch to transit because of the monetary factor. But once they've gotten in the habit of riding transit, many are realizing that the non-monetary fork in the road that I described above is overwhelmingly in favor of ditching the car. I doubt that gas prices will come down, but my point is that even if they did, transit ridership might hold steady, as people decide that they prefer riding transit for qualitative reasons.

I could be dead wrong here: Americans are stereotypically hard-wired to want things on their timetable and to want their own, climate-controlled private space. I'm just offering that the car/transit choice isn't just about which costs more in money, but what our preferences are in terms of the quality and characteristics of the time we spend during our commutes. The assumption for many, absent experiencing both choices firsthand, was that driving was qualitatively better as well as cheaper; now that it's not cheaper and people are testing out riding transit, maybe some'll find out that a transit commute is surprisingly better in quality, and the fact that it is also financially cheaper is a nice side benefit.
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