By Dan Molinski

 

The task of grabbing transportation to get from Point A to Point B has quickly become either too expensive, too unsafe or both, and those who must travel are mostly choosing the pricey but less-dangerous option, while many of the rest are just staying at home.

The U.S. was long known around the world for cheap, safe travel, with rental-car deals that shocked foreign visitors, low gasoline prices about half that of Europe and Latin America, and relatively safe subways that allowed tourists and daily commuters in popular cities like Chicago and New York to easily buzz around town.

That's no longer the case. Ground travel in the U.S. has suddenly become a pick-your-poison type of deal.

Gasoline prices are 45% higher from a year ago, at a seven-year-high of $3.17 a gallon, while the price of buying a car, new or used, has also increased sharply. Fares for ride-hailing firms such as Uber and Lyft, though hard to calculate due to dynamic pricing, have generally gone through the roof with many riders posting receipts on social media that show a short trip from their home to the airport costing several hundred dollars, even more than the cost of their subsequent airplane flight. It's the same story for rental cars, with many companies reporting rates well more than double what they were pre-pandemic.

Those lofty, car-centric prices might in other times result in travelers switching en masse to public transportation, which wouldn't be such a bad thing as the world tries to become greener and emit fewer carbons.

But worries about rising crime rates and reduced police protection, especially in major cities, have made travel by public transportation a non-starter for many people. An April report from the Wall Street Journal cited a survey by New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority that found riders are more concerned about crime and harassment on trains and in stations now than six months ago, and it also found that fear of crime is an impediment to people returning to the system.

Ridership data bears out those concerns over crime. About 2.4 million people a day rode New York subways last week, which is still down 55% from pre-pandemic days, while bus ridership was almost as low, down about 44%, the MTA said.

That drop in public transportation demand is often attributed to pandemic-related factors such as an increase in work-from-home employees and fears of contracting or spreading coronavirus in close quarters. But if that were the case, one would think gasoline demand, vehicle traffic and air travel--with its unmatched close quarters--would also still be struggling. They're not.

The four-week-average for gasoline demand in the U.S. stood at 9.5 million barrels a day at the end of last week, virtually identical to the same, pre-pandemic time period in 2019, the U.S. government's Energy Information Administration reported last week. And New York's MTA said the latest data for Thursday showed traffic into and over the city's bridges and tunnels was less than 1% below pre-pandemic levels.

As for air travel, the Transportation Security Administration said Monday the number of airline passengers being screened at security checkpoints nationwide Sunday reached 2.23 million, the highest since February 2020 and just 18% below pre-pandemic levels.

 

Write to Dan Molinski at dan.molinski@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

July 19, 2021 11:15 ET (15:15 GMT)

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