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No Drive to Mass Transit

Times Staff Writers

Raul Mercado loves his 2002 eight-cylinder silver Mustang convertible but hates the high cost of operating it.

As gas prices hit record highs in recent weeks, the security guard has been shelling out $40 each time he fills the tank.

To save money, he bikes or walks to the beach instead of driving, switched from high-grade to medium-grade gasoline and forgoes big-chain gas stations for independents that offer lower prices.

But leave the Mustang at his Long Beach home and take the bus to work in Inglewood? No way.

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“I have to pay,” Mercado said. Public transportation “takes too long.”

Mercado’s situation underscores why so many motorists stick with their daily commutes even as gas prices approach $3 for regular. They might complain loudly about the high price of filling up but insist that other forms of transportation -- carpooling, buses, trains and subways -- are for someone else.

“The convenience factor is not there,” said Mike St. John, who commutes from Oxnard to a firefighting job in Los Angeles. “I work differing shifts, and the train schedules don’t fit.”

Transit experts said high gas prices might prompt drivers to rethink that weekend trip to Las Vegas or a quick drive to the mall. But changing commuting patterns is another matter.

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“That’s a really difficult change to make for most people,” said Genevieve Giuliano, professor of transportation policy and planning at USC. “If they take the bus, it takes twice as long to get to work and it affects everything else they do during the day.”

Officials at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Metrolink say rising gas prices lure some new riders, but they don’t always stay with the transit system for long. MTA officials said ridership on its rail lines rose 14% between June 2004 and June 2005.

A survey conducted by Metrolink two years ago found that 10% of new riders considered the trains a way to cut back on fuel costs. But six months later, only 50% of those respondents were still riding regularly, said Denise Tyrrell, a Metrolink spokeswoman.

“When gas prices are the reason, they don’t stick with it,” she said. “The changes that consumers make is in their vehicle choice. They’ll buy a fuel-efficient vehicle before they’ll ride the train or some other form of mass transit.”

Riding a Metrolink train also is more of a “lifestyle choice” made by professional workers who have more flexibility with their schedules, she said.

Southern California’s mass transit system is much less far-reaching than those in many Eastern cities, forcing people who want to use trains or subways to commute from their home to the stations. And even those who live relatively close to mass transit stops say bus and train rides usually take longer than driving solo.

Lars Perner, a marketing professor at San Diego State University, said many consumers also assume that gas prices will fall in the near future and that all they have to do is ride out the current wave of increases.

Though gas prices have fluctuated over the last five years, their long-term pattern has been to increase, according to averages tracked by the Automobile Club of Southern California.

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In February 2000, the average price for a gallon of gas in Southern California was just under $1.50, the Auto Club said. A new record high of $2.69 a gallon was reached Thursday.

Grumbling abounds. But motorists interviewed in recent days said they weren’t ready to give up the convenience and comfort of their vehicles.

Victor Fernandez, 58, a Long Beach security guard who makes a 150-mile round trip commute daily, said he hasn’t changed his habits.

“I need my car,” he said of his 1999 Chevy Blazer. “Public transportation is too slow for me ... I don’t stop my usual things. It’s just that gas needs to go down.”

Nancy Tamay, 24, said the rising price of gas has hit her pocketbook hard enough that she has tried to reduce her driving on weekends, such as running errands closer to home.

“I just want to stay home,” said Tamay, a caregiver for the elderly in Bell. “Sometimes I want to go shopping to the mall, but I stay home.”

Another way motorists are saving money is by searching for bargain stations. At the Costco filling station in Oxnard recently, vehicles in six lanes lined up seven deep to save 10 cents a gallon.

St. John paid $60 to fill the tank of his GMC truck. He uses a second vehicle, a Honda Accord, for his work commute, he said.

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“It’s on the consumer’s back,” he said of the high fuel prices. “There’s nothing we can do but take it.”

The gas price spike has some drivers thinking about getting more fuel-efficient cars.

Marilyn and Dan Mongo of Carlsbad in San Diego County said they would buy a gas-electric hybrid vehicle when a broader range became available. Currently, only a few models are available from Toyota, Honda and Ford. Hybrids tend to get much better gas mileage than regular vehicles.

“We sold our Infiniti because it only got 19 miles per gallon,” Marilyn Mongo said. “We still have our Cadillac Escalade, but we’ll definitely look at the hybrids when they’re available.”

Although the vast majority of commuters remain in their cars, there are signs that at least some people are giving mass transit a try.

This year’s increase in rail ridership at the MTA is “largely because of gas” prices, said spokesman Marc Littman. “Our rail lines have had 100,000 more boardings.”

William McCoy decided to change his daily commute about two months ago. As he strolled onto a Red Line train at the Metro/7th Street station Friday morning, McCoy said he made the switch after realizing gas was costing him $60 a week to drive from his home in Compton to his job in Century City.

“When I saw the bank statement, I said, ‘That’s enough. That’s more than enough,’ ” said McCoy, 42, director of security at a Louis Vuitton store.

He switched from the comfort of 45 minutes each day in his Cadillac sedan for a two-train, two-bus jaunt that takes more than 1 1/2 hours, but said he has had no regrets: “It’s worth it.”

Marysa Smith of Palos Verdes said she can’t use public transit for her job selling awnings. She needs a van to haul her equipment to county fairs and commercial exhibits, she said.

But she would take trains for nonbusiness trips more often if they were more plentiful and efficient, she said.

“I grew up in Europe and trains went everywhere,” said Smith, 45, a Polish immigrant. “Some of my best memories as a girl were of riding trains.”

Jim Miller owns three cars, a Toyota 4-Runner, a station wagon and a van that he uses for his job selling used car warranties.

He chooses which vehicle to drive depending on how far he’s going, he said. “I don’t even worry about it,” he said. “The only thing to do is make more money.”

If gas prices continue to rise, experts predict more commuters will at least try mass transit. But they are more likely to cut their gas consumption in other ways.

Wealthier motorists in particular have less motivation to change. “People with high incomes, truth be told, it’s going to take a long time for them to change,” said Giuliano, the USC professor. “It would have to get dramatically more expensive for us to see a significant change in the traffic levels on freeways.”

Times staff writers Natasha Lee and Jack Leonard contributed to this report.


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