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The administration made a wise move last week in deciding to take proactive steps to more explicitly encourage the use of public transportation by campus commuters. The recent change included an expansion of the commuter rail pass subsidy to 50 percent for all zones and the decision to provide free transit passes for the month of September to employees who currently park on campus. By making it easier for MIT faculty and staff to utilize the Boston metropolitan area’s comprehensive transit system, the administration’s efforts can go a long way towards decreasing the impact of rising fuel costs on our community and reducing our collective carbon footprint.

These recent changes in administration policy, however, are only reflective of a larger trend towards more efficient forms of travel due largely to rising fuel costs. According to a recent American Public Transportation Association ridership report, 85 million more trips on public transportation were taken in the first three months of 2008 than in the same period of 2007, a 3.3 percent increase over last year’s record total. At the same time, the number of auto vehicle-miles traveled has actually begun to decrease — this year at nearly unprecedented rates.

This kind of transit ridership jump, though predicted by some economists, was relatively unanticipated by policy makers — many of who view the nation as almost exclusively reliant on the automobile. However, America is no longer a rural nation — roughly 70 percent — of Americans live in urbanized areas, and many of those areas are serviced by public transport. The fact that we have recently seen such a significant shift in consumer behavior should indicate to government bureaucrats that the auto fuel market is more elastic than most have imagined. It is becoming clear to drivers that multiple travel options are available for many trips and that some of those alternatives are becoming more and more attractive.

The traveling public is reacting to price signals — they are changing modes, sharing rides, and chaining trips in order to lengthen the frequency between costly fill-ups at their local gas station. In addition, these short-term measures are only a reflection of the more permanent changes that will likely accompany higher fuel prices, including increased fleet fuel efficiency, urban redensification, and more public transport-oriented development. Policy makers should be conscious that they can have a hand in changing (or preserving) the status-quo of transport behavior in this country through their treatment of transit fares, fuel taxes, and other government policies.

Just as MIT is taking steps to promote more cost and energy efficient travel for its employees, we should encourage our government officials to promote sustainable transportation options for all citizens. This year’s election season and next year’s reauthorization of the federal transportation program will provide important opportunities for us to influence the future of national transportation policy — ensuring a system that encourages sustainable development and accessibility instead of more urban sprawl.