Fuel up, driving down, transit growing.

If once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, and thrice a trend, where are we now? More evidence continues to roll in that the high costs of fuel are pressing more and more Americans towards making lifestyle changes to reduce their consumption. Two stories over the weekend, one in the New York Times and the other in the USA Today chronicle the changes.

At the same time that a handful of pols are suggesting ways (the gas tax debacle) to increase demand and consumption, most folks are starting to consider ways to reduce their overall consumption — whether through buying a more fuel-efficient car, taking fewer trips, or even rethinking where and how they live. According to the USA Today piece, which references this Gallup polling, Americans largely think that high prices are here to stay, and are driving less “for the first time in nearly three decades, squeezing family budgets and causing major shifts in driving habits…”

At a time when the economic outlook is tough, the Times piece shows how transit is increasing ridership and providing people with an economical solution for getting where they need to go.

The sudden jump in ridership comes after several years of steady, gradual growth. Americans took 10.3 billion trips on public transportation last year, up 2.1 percent from 2006. Transit managers are predicting growth of 5 percent or more this year, the largest increase in at least a decade.

“If we are in a recession or economic downturn, we should be seeing a stagnation or decrease in ridership, but we are not,” said Daniel Grabauskas, general manager of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which serves the Boston area. “Fuel prices are without question the single most important factor that is driving people to public transportation.”

The most interesting thing to me from the USA Today piece, is how much of a burden high gas prices are starting to take on those with low-to-moderate incomes:

In 2004 and 2005, about one-third of Americans said they cut spending because of rising gas prices. In the new poll, 60% say they are trimming other expenses. Half of households with incomes below $20,000 say they face severe hardships because of soaring gas prices. Three-fourths of households making $75,000 or more also are changing how they use their cars.

In a tightening economy, rising fuel prices are taking more and more money out of the economy, as people have less income to spend on anything else that pumps money into our economy. Rising fuel costs are taking a greater share of everyone’s income, sending our money to oil companies and overseas into buying more oil supplies in a tightening market.

The case for investing in more public transportation and walkable communities that afford people the option of traveling by other modes is fast becoming one of economic competitiveness — keeping our country moving.

As Ryan Avent says today, now is the time for transit.

What needs to be changed to position America to stay competitive with the rest of the world as a finite resource becomes more expensive? How about reforming the transportation funding process and the transportation bill? Read Judith Godin in the Washington Post today.