With gas prices on the Vineyard hovering above $4.50 a gallon for regular and almost $5 a gallon for premium — some of the highest fuel costs in the nation — more Islanders are leaving their cars at home and taking the Martha’s Vineyard Transit Authority busses.
Spokesmen for the transit authority said this week ridership for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, is projected to eclipse the one million mark for the first time, almost certainly a direct result of the record high costs at the pump. And with more people taking the bus to get to work, buy groceries or go to the beach, the transit authority is setting new records for ridership on an almost monthly basis.
“I think all of a sudden people who never considered taking the bus are giving it a second thought,” said transit authority general manager Angela Grant. “I think our whole society is a little stressed out with $4 a gallon for gas and more people are taking a deep breath, leaving the cars at home and taking public transit.”
The number of passengers on transit authority busses through the end of April for the current fiscal year totaled 803,228 — up 88,222, or over 12 per cent — from the same period last year. With ridership yet to be tallied for May and June, traditionally two of the busiest months, the total number of passengers could reach as high as 1.1 million.
Whatever the final numbers, total ridership for the current fiscal year is expected to crush last year’s total of 918,898, which itself was an all-time record and up 12 per cent from the previous year. While the transit authority is already a runaway success story — having nearly tripled its ridership since 2001 — the rising price of gas is expected to continue to boost ridership in the months to come.
“If you think about it, an annual bus pass costs $100, which allows you to take unlimited trips anywhere on the Island. And for most cars, [$100] is the cost of about two fill-ups of gas, and for other cars that barely fills the tank. For car owners, it now has come down to economics — taking the bus saves money,” Mrs. Grant said.
An analysis of the numbers shows more year-round residents are using public transit, Mrs. Grant said. The number of passengers who ride the bus in the off-season has more than doubled in the past three years. Increased ridership also parallels the increase in gas prices which began early this year.
Ridership in February, the first month that saw a substantial increase in gas prices, was up a whopping 46 per cent over last year; the numbers continued to climb in March and April, with increases of 32 and 35 per cent respectively. If the trend continues, it will be a banner summer for public transit on the Vineyard by any standard.
The transit authority has responded by adding more busses and routes.
“In the peak season the routes along Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road and the one to Aquinnah are already at capacity; we have to run a trailer bus [to Aquinnah] to pick up the overflow . . . but in terms of public transit, having too many passengers is a good problem to have,” Mrs. Grant said.
The trend of more people taking the bus is also being seen on the national level. Many American motorists are changing their driving habits and purchasing smaller and more fuel efficient cars.
Tom McCurdy, owner of McCurdy Motorcars in Vineyard Haven, the Island’s only full service car dealership, said he has seen buying habits change with the surging gas prices. Impulse buyers have grown scarce, he said; customers now tend to take a test drive and then go home, do their homework and seriously consider the purchase before committing.
“I think consumers are waiting to see what’s going on with the economy before they buy [a car]. I actually tell people to go home and think it over first because I understand their concerns; they almost always come back to buy the car, but there is definitely less spontaneity and more thought that goes into a purchase now,” he said.
Mr. McCurdy said he has not seen increased interest in hybrid cars, although he has sold more of that type of car over the past year. He said people now have a keen interest in gas mileage.
“That’s one of the first things people are asking now . . . how is this [car] on gas? Some people have also come in wanting to trade a bigger sport utility type vehicle for a smaller car so they can save on gas,” he said.
Ironically, some think high gas prices may prove a boost to summer tourism on the Vineyard, with more people taking vacations closer to home.
David Raposa, director of public affairs for AAA of Southern New England, said the trend, dubbed close-to-home vacationing, is being predicted in resort locations across New England. He said a recent survey conducted by the automobile club found that 60 per cent of those polled did not plan to alter their vacation plans, while the other 40 per cent said they changed their plans to stay closer to home.
“It’s hard to say how this trend will affect a place like the Vineyard, because it’s an Island, but I think it’s reasonable that a $15-round trip ticket on the ferry is preferable to driving across the country or buying an expensive plane ticket to a place like Florida,” he said, adding:
“People may be seeking attractive tourist destinations in their back yard, places they can go for one day or two, and then go home that same night.”
Mrs. Grant predicts there will be a spike in day-trippers this summer, which in turn will lead to more people riding the bus.