Bay Area public transit as popular as ever

Bay Area commuters are slowly undertaking a revolution in the way they travel, an analysis of data shows.

More and more, regional commuters are being turned off by record gas prices and turned on to public transit, ditching cars at home at a higher rate than last year.

BART and Caltrain are both operating with record ridership; other public transit agencies — including VTA, the Golden Gate bus and ferry. and ACE train service — experienced a climb in ridership in March as compared with the same time frame last year.

Drivers, on the other hand, have begun crossing all eight Bay Area bridges, using California highways and pumping gas at a lower rate from last year. Average gas prices this week were two pennies shy of $4 per gallon in San Francisco, its highest rate ever, according to AAA. That has prompted commuters such as Ed Sorenson, who takes Caltrain from his Millbrae office to his San Jose home every weekday, to favor trains over cars.

“It sure beats paying $4 [per gallon] at the pump,” he said.

Nearly all transit agency officials said there was a direct link between rising gas prices and rising ridership numbers. But BART spokesman Linton Johnson disagreed, saying skyrocketing gas prices do not necessarily translate to more riders.

“Because of the economy, we’re concerned that ridership is going to taper off,” Johnson said.

Caltrain has been able to top its previous record ridership set during the dot-com boom even though job growth in the region has yet to reach 2000-2001 highs, said John Grubb, spokesman for the Bay Area Council, a pro-business organization that tracks regional employment.

Grubb said there is a lot of anecdotal evidence to suggest that a new “creative class” of young workers has begun moving to San Francisco for its lifestyle and taking public transit such as Caltrain to work in the Silicon Valley.

But rising ridership brings challenges to transit agencies. Some trains have reached full or nearly full capacity while the system’s on-time performance has dropped from 97 percent to 90 percent, Caltrain spokeswoman Christine Dunn said. She said ridership has climbed 9.3 percent during the last year.

Johnson said daily BART maintenance such as keeping trains clean has become increasingly difficult with the rising number of riders.

The prevailing benefactor of this trend may be the environment. Collectively, BART riders every year prevent a half a billion metric tons of pollutants from spewing into the air, which would fill 5 million hot-air balloons, Johnson said.

“I think people are becoming more concerned about the environment and willing to take that extra step and take public transit,” Dunn said.

mrosenberg@examiner.com

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