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Their wallets siphoned by high gas prices, more Americans are taking the subway, bus, or commuter train, particularly in Boston, where officials say the number of subway riders is increasing faster than in New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.
MBTA officials said yesterday that the number of rides on the Red, Blue and Orange lines surged almost 10 percent in the first three months of the year, an unusually high increase that they say has put the transit system on track to smash its previous record of 354.1 million rides in 2001.
While MBTA officials hailed the figures as very exciting news, commuters who have given up their cars expressed mixed emotions. They said crowded trains and buses reflect a bitter economic trade-off - the affordability of public transit over the freedom of the road.
"I used to always drive in the morning, but with these gas prices? Forget about it," said John Garceau, a 53-year-old construction worker waiting at South Station for a commuter train to his home in Middleborough yesterday.
"It's downright ridiculous, what with prices now $3.50, $3.75," said Garceau, adding that his wife just bought a Ford Explorer that costs more than $60 to fill with gas. "The way to go, I would say, is the MBTA."
Apparently, thousands of other beleaguered drivers agree. Over the first three months of the year, the number of rides on all branches of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has risen nearly 230,000 - or 6.2 percent over the same period in 2007. The figure includes increases of 5.6 percent on the Green Line, which is considered light rail and is measured separately, 4.8 percent on buses, and 1 percent on the commuter rail.
Virginia Miller, spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C.-based American Public Transportation Association, said transit officials have long known that when gas prices hit $3, it signals a "price point" in the minds of many consumers. AAA of Southern New England said gas prices yesterday hit an average of $3.56 for a gallon of self-serve unleaded in Massachusetts, up 51 cents since the start of the year.
"They say, 'I can't afford that anymore,' and they start looking for other options," Miller said. "Now, we're way beyond $3 - $3.50, $3.75, $4 in some places - so there's a whole other level of people who are going, 'Whoa. This is just too much money, and I'm going to look into taking a bus or train."
MBTA General Manager Daniel A. Grabauskas credited the increase in part to trains, buses, and subway cars that he said are faster, cleaner, and safer than in past years. But he acknowledged the surge also is coming from riders who have been driven by "scary" gas prices to "dump the pump."
"Absolutely, no question, we are seeing gas prices drive up the ridership numbers here in Boston and in transit agencies across the nation," Grabauskas said at a press conference yesterday at Ruggles T station in Roxbury.
The Orange, Red, and Blue lines have seen the biggest increases: 9.5 percent in the first three months of the year compared with the same period last year.
Los Angeles and Washington, by contrast, have seen about 5 percent more subway riders during the period, while Philadelphia has seen about 4 percent more. New York has seen 7 percent more subway riders in the first two months of the year compared with the same period last year. Its March figures were not available yesterday.
The MBTA may be outpacing other systems because Boston has a higher share of its jobs in its downtown than other cities, said David Luberoff, executive director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston at Harvard.
"It's the benefit of having an economically vital downtown and having some [nearby] places served by transit," Luberoff said. "It's the folks who are living relatively close-in who have some access to the subway."
The MBTA, of course, is itself suffering the effects of higher gas prices and will have to pay $16 million more this year to run its transit system, Grabauskas said. The increase will eat away at least some of the increased revenue from the boost in riders, he said.
The system appears to be benefiting from small shifts in people's commuting habits. For years, Mike Avery, who commutes twice a week from South Attleboro to downtown Boston, took the train one day and drove the other day. Now, he takes the train both days.
"You factor in parking, frustration, and gas prices, it's the better way to go," he said yesterday, as he waited for a train home from South Station.
He noted that he seems to have more company, too. "The train is looking more crowded these days," he said. On his 8:20 train yesterday morning, "it was standing room only," he said, "and that's usually not the case."
Geoffrey Campbell, who gives tours of historic sites around Boston Common, drives from his home in Plymouth to the Braintree MBTA station, then takes the Red Line to Park Street.
Yesterday, he said he planned to start driving to the commuter rail station in Kingston, which will save him about 40 miles of driving a day. Campbell, who was riding the Red Line in his uniform of a feathered tricorn hat and blue Revolutionary War coat, said the change made economic sense.
"People don't have the disposable income that they had to dump into the gas tank," he said.