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Encore: Examining commuters' sluggish return to mass transit

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Despite record-high gas prices, people are not exactly flocking to public transit. Riders say they're still nervous about crowds and COVID. They're concerned about safety in general. Saul Gonzalez of member station KQED has a closer look at the sluggish return to mass transit. Angeles.

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SAUL GONZALEZ, BYLINE: At a filling station in south LA, regular gas is going for $6.59 a gallon, and Kristen Smith (ph) is not happy about what she's spending to partially fill her SUV.

KRISTEN SMITH: I'm only going to put 50 because it'll be, like, 175 for me to fill my truck up. It's ridiculous (laughter).

GONZALEZ: Is public transportation an option for you?

SMITH: (Laughter) Absolutely not (laughter).

GONZALEZ: And Smith is not the only one here who thinks public transit is an absurd alternative. I asked Jimmy Francisco (ph) the same question at the next pump.

Have you considered public transportation as an option?

JIMMY FRANCISCO: No. That's the reason why I got the car.

GONZALEZ: Well, this is LA, but it's also drivers across the country. Matt Dickens, director of research at the American Public Transportation Association, says that historically, high gas prices just create a modest increase in public transportation ridership.

MATT DICKENS: Gas prices might go up 20 or 30%, and we see maybe a, you know, 2 or 3% change in ridership.

GONZALEZ: Even with high gas prices, mass transit ridership is still only about 60% of its pre-pandemic levels. Dickens says public transit agencies are in for a long recovery.

DICKENS: In terms of the pandemic, I think a lot of agencies anticipated that it was going to be a sort of several-year trip back to something resembling more normal.

GONZALEZ: Why aren't more people returning to buses and trains? Well, one big reason has been fear of transit crime and violence in cities like New York.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The search continues this morning for the man wanted for killing a subway passenger Sunday afternoon.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Police say it appears to be a random attack, and it has some people in the city fearful of mass transit once again.

GONZALEZ: Kristen Smith, the SUV driver in LA, acknowledges that she's scared of public transit.

SMITH: For my safety, you know, I definitely wouldn't ride the train now because, you know, there's a lot of homeless, a lot of - you know, they be on there screaming. Like, we just tried to take the train to go to the Dodger Stadium, and it was crazy. They were fighting on the train. So no, no, no.

GONZALEZ: But transit advocates say safety concerns about public transportation are overblown by media reports. They argue a better focus would be on transit fundamentals - better service, more routes and cleaner vehicles.

JESSICA MEANEY: Right now, we're on the busiest bus line in Los Angeles. It's the 207. We're heading down - south down Western.

GONZALEZ: That's Jessica Meaney with Investing in Place, an organization that advocates for LA bus riders.

MEANEY: We're talking about people, at least in Los Angeles, with the least amount of time, social capital and access to power.

GONZALEZ: Meaney says public transportation planners often spend money on projects that don't benefit the greatest number of passengers. She points to LA's mass transit agency. Like other cities, it got more than a billion dollars in pandemic funds this year, but still cut bus routes.

MEANEY: And I would argue our region has really abandoned investing in improving our bus system. We had better bus service in the '90s than we have now.

GONZALEZ: LA County's transportation agency said in a statement to NPR that it's working to restore bus services but faces a shortage of hundreds of drivers. This is an issue facing mass transit agencies across the country. Meaney points out that the passengers on the bus we're on may not have another transportation option. That's why, she says, improving public transit is a matter of basic dignity and respect.

For NPR News, I'm Saul Gonzalez in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Saul Gonzalez