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Transit ridership drops in LA — Are low gas prices to blame?

In this file photo, passengers board Metro subway trains during rush hour on June 3, 2008 in Los Angeles, California.
In this file photo, passengers board Metro subway trains during rush hour on June 3, 2008 in Los Angeles, California.
David McNew/Getty Images

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How’s this for a great Christmas present? An average gallon of unleaded regular costs less than $2.75 in Los Angeles, the lowest price in years. But falling gas prices don’t necessarily mean a decrease in the use of public transportation.

Metro ridership dropped to 36,646,614 in November, compared to 38,738,815 the same month last year, or 38,529,688 in November of 2013.

But Metro spokesman Paul Gonzales cautioned that it's way to early to know whether the drop is due to gas prices.

"We really cannot say," Gonzales said.

Nationally, transit ridership has been on the upswing, according to the American Public Transportation Association. The association reported that more than 2.7 billion trips were taken on U.S. public transportation in the third quarter of 2014, which is a 1.8 percent increase over the same quarter last year.

In fact, the third quarter – which spanned July through September – saw the highest ridership for those months since 1974.

Gas prices were not as low last summer as they are now; but Darnell Grisby, the association's Director of Policy Development & Research, still doesn't expect the fourth quarter numbers will show a drop in ridership. That’s because he thinks the improving economy will more than offset any decline caused by low gas prices.

“Because 60 percent of people who take public transportation are taking it to jobs," explained Grisby. He acknowledges falling gas prices can be a factor, but says the economy has greater impact.

“The strong growth of the U.S. economy has helped counteract the impact of lower gas prices,” said Grisby.

Grisby also points out that mass transit use tends to be sticky - meaning once people try taking buses and trains, they can be slow to move back to their gas guzzlers.

For that reason, he said rising gas prices have a bigger positive effect, drawing people to public transportation. Once they're hooked, falling gas prices are less likely to lure them away.