Gasoline price spikes don't drive commuters to trains, study finds

Tue, 01/30/2018


George Diepenbrock

LAWRENCE — Spikes in gasoline prices don't make people with access to a commuter rail service any more likely to switch to the train than people without, according to a study by two University of Kansas researchers.

"We were surprised by this," said David Slusky, assistant professor in the Department of Economics. "We expected to find a difference, and we didn't."

Slusky co-authored the paper with Alex Kaechele, who earned his bachelor's degree in economics from KU in 2017 and currently works as a data analyst for Cerner Corp. The study is forthcoming in Applied Economics Letters.

The researchers examined household level data collected for years 1995, 1996, 2001 and 2002, all years when gasoline prices climbed higher. The dataset included vehicle miles traveled along with price data from the Energy Information Administration and gasoline tax data from the Federal Highway Administration.

The researchers compared commuting travel habits of people in cities without commuter rail access, like Kansas City, Denver, Phoenix, Dallas and Buffalo, with those that do, such as Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.

But they found that there was no statistical difference in how many drivers drove in cities with rail access compared with those without.

"We both expected there to be a difference in how much people responded to a change in gasoline prices and whether or not they had an alternative mode of transportation," Kaechele said.

The researchers said there are a few potential explanations for why this happened.

  • Possibly the rail ticket prices also rose during this time frame when the gasoline prices did, which could limit people from substituting a train ride for driving to work.
  • Or individuals might just prefer the privacy and flexibility of a car versus a train ride.
  • Economists have also mentioned the "first/last mile problem" where people may not have easy access from their home to a train station or from a train station to their destination, which discourages them from taking the train.
  • Lastly, most Americans believe they may have optimized for their commute, so the results are simply indicative of a small extensive margin.

"It's the idea that people already have their commutes set," Slusky said.

The analysis can be important because since 2011 gasoline prices have fallen roughly 43 percent, but it raises the question about what happens if they suddenly increase again and how that could influence people's transportation habits, Slusky said.

For one, the research could be useful for policymakers who are considering raising their state's gasoline tax. This study provides evidence that a higher gasoline tax would not disproportionately affect people in more rural areas or those without access to rail, the researchers said.

Kaechele helped secure the data for the research as part of his honors project as a KU undergraduate.

"It's a good experience. The economics department does a good job of fostering this type of project for an undergraduate," he said. "It's useful, especially for students seeking to go to graduate school to try their hand at research, come up with idea and try to get it published."

Photo: A recent study by University of Kansas economics researchers found spikes in gasoline prices don't make people with access to a commuter rail service any more likely to switch to the train than people without close rail access. Photo by Donald Tong via

Tue, 01/30/2018


George Diepenbrock

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George Diepenbrock

KU News Service