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Dump the Pump?

MATA says public transportation is the answer to high gas prices, but can they convince us?

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One evening last week, I was waiting for the Madison Avenue trolley, listening to music wafting over AutoZone Park and looking at the broken tiles of the station's colorful mural. As what is normally a 20-minute commute by car stretched into an hour and a half, I wondered if the mural wasn't the only thing that was broken.

I was waiting for the trolley as a nod to the third annual national Dump the Pump day on June 19th, an event that MATA spokesperson Alison Burton says is about encouraging people to see if public transit is a good option for them.

"There are a number of benefits to taking public transportation: It helps the environment, takes cars off the road, and reduces green-house gases," she says.

But perhaps the main reason behind people dumping the pump is because the pump is too expensive.

"It goes back to the second week of August 2005 when gas prices first really spiked," says Virginia Miller, a representative of the American Public Transit Association and the group behind the Dump the Pump initiative. Gas hadn't hit $3 a gallon yet, but it wouldn't be long.

"We started hearing that gas was not affordable," Miller says. "What was interesting, besides the increased ridership, was that we began seeing an increase in hits to our websites. It was as if people were going, 'Hmmm, how do I take a bus or train? How much does it cost?'"

Last year, Americans took 10.3 billion trips on public transportation, the highest number in 50 years. More astonishingly, the number of miles traveled by car decreased by billions of miles. And the numbers — no doubt fueled by another dollar a gallon increase since last year — are continuing to trend in that direction.

"This is a very car-oriented country. I think a sea change is going on. This is a modern-day record," Miller says.

About half the people in America don't have access to public transportation, and Miller says an additional 15 to 20 percent don't have access to reliable, frequent public transportation.

Even for those people who do have good public transportation, it can be hard to switch. Miller likens it to a habit and points out that once people get into the habit, they don't break it. When gas prices went back down — briefly — in 2006, ridership on public transit didn't drop.

"They started a new travel habit and stayed with it. They found out it helped them save money; it was convenient and affordable; and it was really nice to let someone else do the driving," Miller says.

And now that gas prices hover around $4 a gallon, more people are investigating public transit.

"Money is a good motivator," Miller says. "Taking public transportation is the quickest way to beat high gas prices."

For Dump the Pump day, more than 30 public transit systems are offering free or reduced fares. Unfortunately, MATA isn't one of them.

During Code Red Ozone days, all fares are 25 cents. On a regular day, Memphians can travel up to 25 miles by a MATA bus for $1.50. If your commute is somewhat shorter, Burton admits it might not be cost effective to take the bus.

"Depending on what your origin and ultimate destinations are, what options you have, and how much time you have, it may not be a good fit for everyone," she says.

I want to like and use public transportation. I do. I love the idea of it. The link between the environment, energy, and global security certainly makes a good case for lowering fuel consumption.

But saving the earth is one thing (and one very abstract thing); self-sacrifice is another (and it's not abstract at all). For people to want to use public transportation, it has to be cost effective and user friendly.

From Overton Square, there are several bus routes to south downtown where I work, but most of them require a 10-cent transfer at MATA's North End terminal. And most of them also take about 40 minutes.

At $3 a roundtrip, I began to do some math. With a $4 price tag for a gallon of gas and a car that gets 22 mpg, it would cost about $1.58 to drive the same commute. (That excludes insurance, car payments, and maintenance, but I don't think MATA's system is so pervasive I'd want to give up my car altogether, so I'd still have those costs.)

Which is what led me to the trolley. At $2 for a roundtrip, it seemed easier and cheaper than the bus. I parked at MATA's park-and-ride lot on Madison (where my car was one of four in the lot when I left and one of three when I returned). When I timed everything right, it took me about 30 minutes. When I didn't, it was double or triple that time.

And I'm not sure that's good enough to drive people to a change.

To calculate your savings by riding public transit — or not — visit the American Public Tranportation Association's calculator at http://www.publictransportation.org/contact/stories/calculator_08.asp.

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