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MIJ: Free transit day, gas prices, draw throngs to buses in Marin
Friday 20 Jun 2008, 05:02
Filed under: Marin

Mark Prado
Article Launched: 06/19/2008 05:18:16 PM PDT

IT WAS standing-room only on the Route 80 bus down Highway 101 from San Rafael to San Francisco on Thursday morning as people took advantage of the “Spare the Air” free transit day around the Bay Area.

But it was not only the free day that put more passengers on the buses. Rising gas prices have boosted ridership as people abandon their cars, according to Golden Gate Transit officials.

“It’s tougher to get a seat now, especially when heading home after a long day at work,” said Wendy Wong of San Anselmo, a regular on Route 24 who commutes into San Francisco.

Since winter, ridership on Golden Gate Transit buses has steadily increased from 544,685 riders in December to 650,201 last month, an increase of 17 percent. In April alone, there was an 11.5 increase in ridership over April 2007.

“I’m seeing a lot more riders on here, and I’m getting a lot more questions,” said 35-year driver Michael Fowler, a San Rafael resident who pilots Route 42 to the East Bay. “They don’t know where to go. They don’t know what stop to get off at. That’s how I know they are new.”

More than 30 transit agencies in the Bay Area offered free rides Thursday in an effort to lure drivers from cars and help ease the pain of $4.60-a-gallon gas. That included riders on Route 80, which heads south on Highway 101 and over the Golden Gate Bridge to San Francisco.

“I’m riding because it is a free day,” said Ron Greenwood of Santa Rosa. “But I might take it again under the right circumstances.
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Gas is getting more expensive.”

Elaine Goldman of San Rafael drives a hybrid, but still likes the bus.

“The free day is great,” she said. “It exposes the people to the bus as a way to get around.”

Mario Crawford of Marin City agreed.

“Anytime something is free, people are going to take advantage of it,” he said. “It’s a good thing, especially when people are out there spending $4 or $5 for a gallon of gas.”

Mimi Newton of Fairfax enjoyed the free ride Thursday, but she is a regular bus rider and has noticed an increase in passengers on other days.

“It is crowded more often, and I’d suspect it’s the gas prices,” she said.

Golden Gate Transit District spokeswoman Mary Currie is not surprised to see ridership on the rise.

“This bus fare is $4.55 to take it from San Rafael into San Francisco, but if you use TransLink or a ticket book, you get 20 percent off of that. That’s the price of a gallon of gas,” she said. “And you save the bridge toll off of that, so there is a savings. There are a lot more people standing on buses these days.”

On the Golden Gate Bridge, auto traffic dipped 1.2 percent in March and April, with gas prices likely “a contributing factor,” Currie said.

But ferry ridership is down 7 percent when compared with last year. Officials suspect that’s because the high-speed M.V. Mendocino ferry has been taken out of service for maintenance this spring for longer than expected. More work was needed than officials originally thought. It is expected to be back at the end of the month.

“It’s high speed that people want,” Currie said.

There was, however, a 59 percent increase in ferry ridership by noon Thursday, prompted by the free fare. Bus figures were not available.

Commuter Wong hopes the gas prices and likely “congestion” tolls at the Golden Gate Bridge for new transit will bring about a renewed focus on public transportation.

“I hope the cost crunch from high gas prices, as well as the proposed increase on bridge toll fees, will finally push the implementation of more convenient public transportation for everyone,” she said.

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