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Has $4 gas increased AMTRAN’s ridership?

by Eric Wolf, AMTRAN General Manager

Monday, August 4, 2008 | Categories:

From friends to elected officials to the media, everyone is constantly asking me, “With gas at $4.00 a gallon, isn't AMTRAN's ridership up?” Well it is up, but only a little, and here's why.

The service isn't good enough. We don't have a long enough service day, currently starting around 7:00 a.m. and ending around 5:00 p.m. We don't have enough frequency with buses that only run once an hour. It's just not convenient enough for working people to use.

Getting people to work

Blair County has a retail-based economy, and retail employees are bus riders across the nation. About 30% of our ridership are people using the bus to get to and from work. But we have a lot more people who would like to ride AMTRAN to work if they could. However, with buses once an hour, they tell us “I can either get to work 45 minutes early or 15 minutes late.” That just isn't convenient enough to be attractive. Their boss tries to be flexible, but the store has to open when it has to open, and it has to stay open until 9:00 p.m. Altoona Mayor Wayne Hippo has initiated a “Ride the Bus to Work” promotion with AMTRAN and WTAJ TV-10 for August 18-23. We hope that the promotion will help us create some special “work routes” to add to our existing “AMTRAN to Work” bus, a once-daily trip that gets people to work every morning.

Transit as a genuine alternative

However, if we want AMTRAN to be a real option for people to get out of their cars and take the bus to work, we need to have buses at least twice an hour, not once an hour, and we need to run them later in the evening to get people home when their retail, service, or health care shift is over. That is going to take investment by the federal, state, and local government.

The European Model

When friends or elected officials come back from a trip to Europe, they invariably rave about the virtues of public transportation there - from buses to streetcars to intercity rail. They ask me why it's so much better over there. Well, it's better because they never stopped investing in it. Over the past 50 years, the United States has built the best highway system anywhere in the world. Of course, we need to continue to maintain and improve our highways, but we are so far behind the rest of the world with our bus and train systems.

Highways vs. Buses and Trains

Unfortunately, transportation funding is often viewed as an either/or proposition. We can either invest in highways or in public transportation. However, a number of countries including Germany have managed to do both. Germany's autobahns were President Eisenhower's inspiration for the Interstate Highway System, and they are still the envy of the world today. Meanwhile, Germany's I.C.E. high-speed rail system connects German cities to France, Switzerland, Austria, the Netherlands, and Belgium with speeds in excess of 200 miles per hour.

What are our priorities?

Until the American people decide that they want a complete transportation system like Germany, not just a partial one like the U.S., until they send a clear message to their elected officials that they want to see investment in our train and bus systems, we will be stuck where we are today. Paying $4.00 a gallon for gas seems to be changing how people think. We will see if it's the tipping point for how we invest in public transportation.