NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


January 23, 2008

With world crude oil prices hovering near $100 per barrel and cost at the gas pump exceeding $3 per gallon, all the ingredients would seem to be in place for dramatic changes in our daily commuting patterns, with millions of Americans shifting from private cars to public transit.

That's the way markets are supposed to work: Higher prices encourage consumers to seek less-costly alternatives, says John Semmens, a research fellow at the Independent Institute.

  • Inflation-adjusted gasoline prices more than doubled during the 1995-2005 period; in theory, an increase of this magnitude should have driven many Americans to alternate modes of transportation.
  • Instead, auto travel increased 23 percent; this was twice as fast as the 11 percent population growth.
  • As for the notion that rising fuel costs would inspire people to use public transportation, the data do not support this theory, either; while gasoline prices were doubling, public transportation ridership increased by only 7 percent.

Why are Americans continuing to forgo public transportation?  There are several reasons, says Semmens:

  • Americans like the freedom to come and go as they please, on their own schedules.
  • Americans also value their time; public transportation is slow compared with auto travel; the typical trip takes twice as long as driving a car.
  • Many Americans -- even those with limited budgets -- are making a conscious choice: They're willing to pay extra for the convenience and time savings associated with autos because they can cut back elsewhere.

The hope that rising gasoline prices or increased gasoline taxes will substantially increase public transportation use is unrealistic, says Semmens.  Far from being disparaged as an "energy waster," the automobile should be hailed for its ability to save our most precious resource: time.

Source: John Semmens, "Fuel hikes won't spur public transit; People's time is too precious to give up cars," Dallas Morning News, January 22, 2008.


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