The pandemic hollowed out ridership on US public transport systems, but a recent rise in petrol prices is coaxing some passengers back.

Several large rail and bus systems have reported increases in business, even though passengers remain far fewer than before Covid-19 shut down cities in 2020.

Transit executives point to several factors behind the rebound including the decline of the Omicron coronavirus variant and employers who want workers back in offices.

Another reason is that petrol prices are averaging $4.24 a gallon in the US, up from $3.54 a month ago and $2.64 at the start of 2020, according to AAA, a motorist group.

Line chart of Weekly average price per gallon ($) showing US petrol prices are up 57 per cent year on year

San Diego, California, raised passenger forecasts after weekday journeys reached nearly 200,000 in the week ending March 18, up 8 per cent from February and 26 per cent from January. The city’s petrol prices are averaging $5.98 a gallon, among the highest in the nation.

“This sustained growth coupled with recent ridership spikes prove that people are motivated to save money and still know that transit is a safe and affordable way to get around,” said Sharon Cooney, chief executive of the San Diego transit system.

Further north in San Francisco, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system recorded 125,804 average weekday journeys, up 15 per cent from a month ago.

New York City averaged 3.2mn subway journeys, 6 per cent higher than a month ago and 35 per cent higher than in January. In Boston, subway use is 4 per cent higher from month to month.

“Definitely, ridership continues to go up as gas prices have gone up. We will see . . . how that trend continues,” said Janno Lieber, chief of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority at a press conference in mid-March.

Historically, a spike in gasoline prices has pushed more people on to public transport. A study conducted by Bradley Lane at the University of Texas examined US cities from 2002 to 2009 and found that for every 10 per cent increase in petrol prices, rail saw an increase of 8 per cent in ridership while bus use increased 4 per cent on average.

“We’re seeing more people get back to the office as the threat of Omicron has receded . . . that’s certainly a factor,” said Paul Skoutelas, president of the American Public Transportation Association. “But there’s no question that the most impactful and the most prominent, visible sign has been the surging prices of gasoline. And there’s no question that when that happens, people begin to look around for alternatives.”

A nationwide survey from Morning Consult found that 15 per cent of Americans who see petrol prices as a significant factor in their vehicle purchasing decisions increased their use of public transportation last month. The research group expects higher vehicle costs and growing comfort around occupying shared spaces together will boost transit ridership.

Line chart of Share of US adults who are ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ comfortable doing the following (%) showing Comfort with taking public transit is growing

Nationwide, weekday car trips fell 2 per cent from February 27 to March 6, just when petrol prices started to soar, according to Inrix, a data analytics company.

Even before the pandemic, public transport accounted for a modest share of US travel. The low-density, spread-out pattern of many US metropolitan areas undercuts the use of trains and buses.

“For most Americans, there isn’t transit there to take. Or if there is, it is so inconvenient,” said Lane. “That’s the biggest problem with and the biggest thing that limits the attraction to transit when gasoline prices are high.”

Transit ridership fell by as much as 80 per cent during the height of pandemic lockdowns, according to the American Public Transportation Association, and remains lower than before 2020.

In New York, subway and bus ridership is roughly 40 per cent below 2019 averages despite car and truck movement across bridges and tunnels nearing or even surpassing pre-pandemic levels.

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