Rising gas prices encouraging some commuters on to Metro trains


October 03, 1990|By Jay Merwin | Jay Merwin,Evening Sun Staff

Metro station parking lots have more cars. Regular commuters notice a few more new faces while riding the Metro trains. But the state can't say yet whether these anecdotes add up to more people leaving their cars for public transit to beat the rising price of gasoline.

Not until September's daily ridership figures are available will the state Mass Transit Administration know whether Milton Cohen, who switched from his car to the train, represents a trend.

And, if he is part of a trend, he is on the cusp of it, since he started taking the train two months ago, just as gas prices were beginning to respond to the Persian Gulf crisis. "I was deciding it was costing too much," Cohen said, remembering his driving days yesterday morning, while waiting at the Milford Mill station.

Now he prefers the quiet, 19-minute train ride to fighting traffic to commute to his job as a salesman in the city.

But, before gas prices forced him to think about the Metro, Cohen said, he "never bothered to think about it."

The savings on gas and parking are an added bonus. "Save $3 or $4 a week, sure," he said.

How many others have followed him for the first time to the station is unclear, but the Mass Transit Administration is keen on finding out, both for Metro and bus ridership. "We're trying to tell people,'MTA makes sense for today,' " said Helen Dale, an agency spokeswoman, repeating the slogan of a new advertising campaign.

Ridership for the first two weeks of September appears to be about the same as for September of 1989, Dale said. Although all the numbers aren't in yet for this September, she assumed that commuters may need more time to switch to mass transit, if they intend to change at all.

Nonetheless, several commuters at Milford Mill yesterday said they had noticed a slight bulge in the crowds.

A man standing on the train platform, who had been riding the train when gas was cheaper, said more commuters seem to precede him to the Metro parking lot these days.

Before the price increases hit, "I used to park in the fourth row," he said, "now I'm in the sixth or seventh." An hour later, by 9 a.m. yesterday, all but a few of the farthest rows in the 800-space lot at Milford Mill were filled.

Donald Wroe, an actuary at USF&G, said he noticed that on trains originating at Owings Mills, people getting on two stops later at Milford Mill might have to stand sometimes. That's new, he said. "Before, that wouldn't happen before you got to the city." The first station within city limits is the next one down, Reisterstown Plaza.

Wroe assumed that gas prices were changing commuters' habits. He can see the effect even in the leisure activities of his brother and sister-in-law. They don't go shopping much at night anymore, or drive anywhere else, he said. "If they have to drive to do it, they don't do it anymore."

Whether that's the reason for a few more people flowing past Rick Chaplin's newsstand at Charles Center station, Chaplin can't say, but his hunch is that parking prices may have more to do with it. "You know what will impact that more than anything else is the city parking-tax rate," he said referring to an increase that took effect in July, with a round of general parking-fee increases that followed.

Naomi Benyowitz thought about both parking and gas prices when making her move. Before she lost her parking space in a city lot and the price of gas got to high, Benyowitz said she was an "on and off" Metro rider. Now she is more on than off in commuting to her job with the city housing department.

"If it was a choice between taking the train and paying for parking and the price of gas, I'd take the train," she said. "The price of gas definitely makes a difference."

She pays $2.20 a day for a round trip between Milford Mill and Charles Center, compared with about $2 a day for gas to drive a car and $60 a month to park it downtown. Benyowitz figures the train saves her about $40 a month.

And now that the train is a habit, she prefers it. "You can relax," she said. "A lot of people take a little snooze."

Most people obey Metro rules against smoking, eating or playing music on the train, Benyowitz said, and those who violate the rule against food do so discreetly, snatching the occasional potato chip from a concealed bag.

When the train is crowded, some people even yield their seats to elderly riders and to pregnant women, she said.

Yes, sometimes, said Phyllis Belman, who was sitting nearby, on her way to work at Maryland National Bank. "It's not the rule, though."

And, when the train disgorges its passengers, Belman and many others have to wait a few minutes for the mass to funnel into the escalator. But no one pushes or shoves, Belman said.

No, said Benyowitz, "this is not New York. Baltimore is polite."

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