Gas Prices Driving a Transit Boom

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Drivers across the country aren't the only commuters cursing the rising price of gas. As a gallon of fuel surpasses $3 in many parts of the country, growing numbers of big-city residents are opting to use mass transit, making for unusually crowded trips and rising tempers.

In Chicago, there are lots of sour faces as passengers step off the South Shore Line's cramped 7:35 into Chicago's Randolph Street station from nearby Notre Dame University in South Bend, Ind. The 90-minute trip, along the electric-powered silver train that in normal years carries about 13,000 passengers a day in relative comfort, has seen daily ridership spike to over 17,000 at points in recent months. What was once a leisurely, relatively pleasant way to start off and end the workday has become an exercise in elbow wrestling.

The Windy City is by no means the only place experiencing a mass transit boom. Transportation authorities in the Cleveland area are expanding park-and-ride lots to help accommodate the growing commuter ridership, while cities from Washington, D.C., to Salt Lake City and San Francisco are experiencing near-record passenger levels.

"I wouldn't say it's at the point where people are knocking each other around, but these trains, they're certainly filling up," said Chicago-area daily rider and state court reporter Gloria Shelley, 55, navigating a crowded station as commuters from Indiana and elsewhere hopped off a later train bound for the Chicago Cubs afternoon game.

President Bush has promised to crack down on rising gas prices, saying on Tuesday that he has asked for a waiver of clean air rules and stopped pumping up the emergency oil reserve to try to help push down the price. He also said a $2 billion tax break for the nation's oil companies, which have seen some of the highest profit margins on record, should be repealed. It was a first step that many rejected as little more than election year politics, coming at the same time that such lawmakers as Illinois Democratic Senator Barack Obama are calling for investigations into perceived price gouging.

None of those actions, however, mean much to the people who have to deal with such a sudden growth in demand. "How are we treated? Poorly, very poorly," said Todd, a ticket agent who declined to give his last name. "People can just be mean, and they for some reason think that we have something to do with the situation and decide to take it out on us. If people could just be a little more kindhearted all the way around, it would be nice."