The poor economy is taking a toll on another part of everyday life in the Bay Area: ridership on BART.
Ridership growth is slowing on the transit system in a trend BART managers say is caused more by rising unemployment than by declining gas prices.
While other systems continue to report steady gains in ridership, BART's numbers indicate that the economy may apply the brakes to a surge earlier this year. Bridge traffic also is down, another sign of the sour economy's impact.
BART ridership increased more than 5 percent for a year until the growth rate slackened three consecutive months — 4.3 percent in August. 4.2 percent in September, and a puny 2.9 percent increase in October as compared with those same months in 2007.
November numbers aren't in, but it also is shaping up as a slower month, officials said
"If you don't have a job, you're not going to be riding BART to work," said Linton Johnson, a spokesman for the Bay Area Rapid Transit District. "Gas prices have been a good marketing tool to introduce to people to public transportation, but the economy and the employment rate has a bigger effect on us in the long run."
A dip in passenger growth can complicate finances at BART, which has used fares from strong ridership gains to survive continued state diversion of sales tax away from transit agencies.
Sharp gains in public transit ridership on rail, light rail and bus systems have been widely reported across the nation this year as rising gas prices drove more people to leave cars at home.
Ridership continues to go up on many systems — even on BART. Average weekday ridership on BART in October was 370,502 passengers in Contra Costa, Alameda, San Francisco and Solano counties.
But October was the first month in years when ridership fell below BART's projections.
"It's not a huge drop, but the numbers are flattening out," Johnson said. Gas prices had been dropping for weeks before BART ridership gains started to slacken, he said.
Ridership historically rises and falls in economic cycles, said BART and regional transportation officials.
BART ridership shot up in and around the year 2000 during the dot-com boom and its rapid job growth. Then ridership plunged during the job-eating dot-com crash.
This year, California's unemployment rate hit 8.2 percent in October, up 2.7 percent from a year ago and the state's highest unemployment rate since 1994. The rate was 7.7 percent in September and August, and 7.4 percent in July.
Meanwhile, gas prices have fallen since their peak in June, leaving transit watchers to worry if some riders would switch back to cars. The average price of regular grade gasoline in Oakland is down to about $2 per gallon, compared with $4.57 per gallon in mid-June.
However, traffic on Bay Area bridges this year has continued to decline even after gas prices began dropping.
There were 10.67 million vehicles crossing the seven state-owned bridges in the Bay Area during October, a 3.2 percent drop from the same month the previous year, according to figures from the region's regional transportation agency.
"When fewer people are working, you can expect less traffic and less people riding public transit," said John Goodwin, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.
Traffic in other places — including in New York City and on toll roads in Southern California — have seen continuing drops in traffic this fall even amid falling gas prices.
But several other public transit systems have not seen a flattening out of ridership rates.
The County Connection bus system in Central Contra Costa continued to increase ridership by about 10 percent or more during July and September despite declining gas prices, said Mary Burdick, a spokesman for the agency.
County Connection, however, carries a higher percentage of riders who don't own cars, and a lower percentage of commuters than BART.
Also, the Capitol Corridor train service carrying commuters between San Jose, Sacramento and beyond saw no drop in its strong passenger growth, said Luna Salaver, a Capital Corridor spokeswoman.
The Golden Gate Transit District buses and ferries in Marin and San Francisco counties also saw no slackening of ridership growth, said agency spokeswoman Mary Currie.
Reach Denis Cuff at 925-943-8267 or firstname.lastname@example.org.