The high cost of gasoline has helped fuel a sharp increase in MBTA riders over the first two months of the year and a decrease in the number and length of traffic jams, according to T officials and traffic specialists.
The number of T trips rose from 27 million in February 2007 to nearly 30 million in February 2008, up more than 11 percent for the month, Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority officials said. The numbers were up about 5 percent for January. Combined, the average increase is 8.3 percent.
The rising MBTA numbers follow a national trend. More Americans rode public transportation last year than at any time in history, according to the American Public Transportation Association, which also cited gas prices as a major factor.
People who monitor traffic patterns said the price of gas, which has risen about 50 cents per gallon in Massachusetts over the past year, has also played a part in a smoother ride on the highways.
The higher gas prices get, the easier the math becomes.
"It was costing me, easily, a couple hundred dollars a week for gas," said Janet A. Lee of Braintree, who drove a sport utility vehicle to her old job.
She was laid off in September, found a new job in the Financial District, and now gets a ride to the Braintree station so she can take the T. She estimates that the $59 she spends on a T pass is saving her hundreds per month.
The arguments for switching to the T keep getting stronger, said Daniel A. Grabauskas, the general manager of the MBTA.
"We had a really good case when prices were where they were a year ago," Grabauskas said. Now, he said, the T has a "great case."
Ridership is up for buses, commuter rail, and subway. It is down on commuter boats, possibly because the T introduced the Greenbush commuter train line along the South Shore late last year. The train drew about 2,500 daily round-trip riders in February, many of them former boat commuters.
The increased ridership is especially remarkable, given the poor economy. In past economic downturns, - including the years following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks - the T has lost riders.
Grabauskas said gas is a major factor in the overall ridership increase. He also attributes it to the Greenbush train, the change to all two-car trains on the Green Line last year, and a rebound from the January 2007 price increase that prompted a temporary decline in ridership.
T statistics show ridership was higher in January and February 2006, before the fare increase. But the T's counting method changed when it introduced the Charlie Card in 2007. The automated system measures the exact number of paying riders, whereas the old tallies were estimates based on the total amount of money collected.
The MBTA, which is dipping into reserves to pay its own rising gas bills, is hoping to ride the recent wave of popularity by promoting more weekend rail travel to local beaches and nearby mountains this summer as families cut down on long-distance vacations to save money.
The weekend train to Wachusett Mountain Ski Area, in its second year, has been growing in popularity.
Art Kinsman, director of government affairs for AAA Southern New England, calls the move to public transit and the subsequent reduction in traffic congestion the "silver lining" in the gas hike.
"The gas prices, coupled with the uncertain economy, equals people traveling a little less," he said.
The average price of a gallon of regular-grade gasoline in Massachusetts was $3.14 yesterday, up from $2.66 a year ago, according to AAA surveys. The increase was higher for premium grades.
Jeff Larson has also noticed the difference. He runs SmartRoute Systems, which monitors traffic for drivers who call 511 for alerts. Larson said traffic back-ups around hot spots like Route 128 have been shorter and less frequent in recent months. He is also getting fewer calls from frustrated drivers trying to figure out the bottlenecks, another indicator that things are getting better on the roads.
"It's not like there's no traffic out there," he said. But overall, "it's easier to get around the city now."
The biggest downside is crowded buses, subway cars, and trains. Rider groups have complained that the T cannot keep up with demand, leaving commuters cramped on some popular lines during rush hour.
Grabauskas acknowledges the problem, but said it is not a bad one to have. He said the T's dire financial situation, including more than $5 billion in debt, means he will not add trains or buses as demand grows.
"I'm just struggling as hard as I can to maintain the service I've already got," he said.
Still, even some drivers who find public transit inconvenient are making the switch.
"There's something about having your own car, your own wheels; it's a little more comfortable and you're not on that deadline," said Joe M. Grillo, who increasingly uses commuter rail to get between his home in Medway and his job in Boston. "This increase over a period of months, weeks, and years has really started to flip the equation, if you count the dollars."
Noah Bierman can be reached at email@example.com.