MARTA CEO Not Worried About Falling Gas Prices. But Should He Be?

Audio version of this story here.

If you ask MARTA CEO Keith Parker how the transit system is doing, he’ll do a bit of bragging.

An audio version of this story

“Ridership is up. Revenues are up. Clayton [County] has joined. Crime is trending in the right direction,” he said Thursday at a media briefing, adding the transit system is the strongest it’s been in years.

But with numerous new initiatives on tap for the fiscal year, could lower gas prices pose a threat to ridership?

“There has been historically a correlation between transit ridership and gas prices,” Parker said. “A very strong correlation, as a matter of fact.”

Parker said the system saw bumps in ridership when gas prices reached $3.50, and again at $4.00 a gallon – prices he calls a “painful level.”

But in recent weeks, gas prices have fallen well below that, and they continue to spiral downward.

Parker doesn’t seem concerned.

“We will monitor closely what happens as gas prices go down; however, we think we are still positioning ourselves in the right way.”

That positioning includes new transit routes, new equipment, and consumer-friendly technology. Parker said more people want to ride MARTA because of the improvements the system has made.

But University of Maryland asst. professor of urban planning, Hiro Iseki, said MARTA should worry because a lot of its riders take the bus.  “It seems people who are currently taking busses have [an] immediate response” to falling gas prices, he said.   

Rail riders, on the other hand, are slower to abandon the system because of gas pricing.

[For a recent report on the effects of falling gas prices on major transit systems, check out this study from the Mineta Transportation Institute.]

But the bigger threat, perhaps, is MARTA’s plan to further develop “transit oriented developments.” Those are the live/work mid-rise buildings like the ones at Lindbergh. Iseki points to data showing people are less interested in moving to those developments when gas is cheap and they can commute from suburbs.

Meanwhile, MARTA announced Thursday plans to develop transit-oriented developments at Oakland City and Arts Center.