Monday, May 19, 2008 | 2 a.m.
If you want to get an earful about gasoline prices, a good place to start is the Downtown Transit Center.
And once you’re there, a good person to start with is Mario Pawlik.
Disgusted to see gas creeping close to the once-unimaginable price of $4 a gallon, the Las Vegas security guard not only traded in his car for the bus for his commute to work — he’s decided to give up driving altogether.
“I just turned in my plates today — here’s my receipt,” Pawlik said from his perch atop a retaining wall at the Las Vegas Valley’s major bus transfer hub. “I also canceled my insurance. I can’t keep the car in operating condition. Everything has gone up — food, utilities. So you’ve got to cut back where you can.”
In recent months, thousands of others in the valley have, like Pawlik, gotten on the bus. And even if they’re not ready to follow his lead and abandon their automobiles, they’re increasingly opting for public transit to get to work, to shop and for other everyday trips.
Last year, as gas prices crashed through the $3-a-gallon level and kept rising, the Regional Transportation Commission saw bus ridership grow by 4.6 percent to 63.8 million trips, up from 61 million in 2006. That exceeded the average 1 percent increase experienced by large city bus systems nationwide and even surpassed Clark County’s 3.33 percent growth rate, according to Census Bureau estimates.
During the first three months of this year, local bus ridership is up another 3 percent, further evidence that high gas prices are doing what decades of appeals to environmental sensitivity could not — get sizable numbers of Americans out from behind the wheel.
According to the American Public Transportation Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group that represents 400 transit systems nationwide, public transportation use is at its highest level in five decades.
Light rail systems such as streetcars and trolleys had the sharpest ridership increases in 2007 over 2006, roughly 6.1 percent, followed by commuter rail systems (up 5.5 percent) and subways (up 3.1 percent), the group reported. With the exception of systems serving fewer than 100,000 residents, buses lagged in ridership growth.
However, some large cities — Denver, Minneapolis and Seattle among them — had robust bus ridership growth rates in the 6 percent to 8 percent range since January without any special marketing. And in Denver and Seattle, the increases were achieved despite fare hikes.
There is little doubt soaring gas prices are the primary people are not driving as much.
“We typically see an increase in ridership when gas prices spike,” Regional Transportation Commission spokeswoman Tracy Bower said.
Similarly, national transportation association spokeswoman Virginia Miller said: “People don’t change their behavior until they have reason to, and gas prices are a reason to change.”
Higher gas prices also affect transit systems’ bottom lines. Many, though, are insulated from the full brunt of recent price hikes by fuel contracts that lock in costs. Under a one-year contract that expires June 30, the local commission pays $2.16 a gallon for diesel fuel, about half the current price at the pump. The price is going to rise dramatically — to $3.65 per gallon — in the fiscal year that begins July 1.
For consumers, swapping one’s car for the bus or other forms of public transit often is largely a trade-off of convenience for dollars.
It now takes 45 minutes to an hour, for example, for Pawlik to get to work by bus, as opposed to 25 minutes by car. Measured against his savings, he finds that a tolerable difference.
“I’m saving at least $100 a month by taking the bus, and that was with minimum driving,” he said.
When gasoline prices closed in on $3 a gallon two years ago, Roger Buehrer started driving his Buick Park Avenue less than a mile to a strip shopping center at Rainbow Boulevard and Sahara Avenue, parking it there and taking the bus the rest of the way to his job as a spokesman at the Las Vegas Valley Water District, at Charleston and Valley View boulevards.
What used to be a 15-minute commute by car now takes Buehrer 35 minutes to 55 minutes, depending on whether he meets his transfer bus on time at Rainbow and Charleston. But commuting by bus allows him to catch up on favorite books and, more important,to save money on gas with his $40-a-month bus pass.
“I hate driving in traffic, so it’s a wonderful way to get to work,” said Buehrer, 61. “I also love the fact that I’m saving $70 a month. In two months those savings will go up because I’ll be eligible for the senior pass.”
Fellow commuter and restaurant employee Mike Smith estimates that he saves $10 daily by riding the bus.
“I get an all-day pass and I go everywhere,” he said.
Standard one-way bus fares here are $1.25 for adults and 60 cents for riders age 6-17, 62 and older and those who are disabled or have Medicare. Children 5 and younger ride free when accompanied by an adult. Adults can purchase one-day passes for $2.50 and monthly passes for $40. Youths, seniors and disabled passengers may buy the passes for half that price.
The commission is seeking to lure more riders with plans for rapid transit buses along major corridors and new park-and-ride facilities, beginning in the northwest valley.
But it still must go a long way to meet the performance standards of other major cities’ public transit systems.
San Diego’s Metropolitan Transit System, for example, boasts far quicker travel times along many of its routes, some of which include light-rail trolleys. Typifying the travel time gap, a roughly 12-mile bus ride from Tierrasanta, a north-central suburb, to downtown San Diego takes 44 minutes, 27 minutes less than a comparable trip from Fort Apache and Desert Inn roads to Las Vegas City Hall.
It takes 43 minutes to make the nearly eight-mile bus trip from Pecos and Warm Springs roads in Henderson to the MGM Grand. In Cincinnati, rush-hour express buses travel comparable distances from various neighborhoods in about 20 minutes.
Such comparisons come with caveats because route times vary based on traffic congestion, the number of stops and other factors.
Even so, the local transit commission, which reviews its schedules every six months, acknowledges that it could use more buses and routes. Anecdotal but vivid evidence of that came last Wednesday morning, when a Sun reporter and photographer waiting for a southbound bus on Rainbow at Charleston scheduled to arrive every 30 minutes opted instead to walk a mile to Sahara at a casual pace and still beat the bus.
That makes the recent local bus ridership gains all the more impressive — and the evidence of gas prices’ effects on drivers even clearer. Because despite the shortcomings of the system’s routes and schedules, more people are still finding it preferable to the teeth-gnashing and wallet-emptying experience that a trip to the gas station has become.
“We look at demand and available funding and try to use as many buses as we can as frequently as we can,” Bower said. “We’d love to add more routes and vehicles but we don’t have the funding to do that.”
But if gas prices continue to creep higher — and if even more riders continue to use its buses — that could change.