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By Paul Van SlambrouckStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 9, 1980

Once in the slow lane and losing speed, US public transit systems are accelerating back into the mainstream of American life. With inflation -- especially dramatic increases in energy costs -- pinching the family paycheck, Americans in growing numbers are deciding it makes economic sense to park their gasoline-hungry automobiles at home and leave the driving to someone else.

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After 25 years of falling ridership, conventional bus and rail mass transit in 1972 reversed its path and is still gaining popularity. Most large urban transit systems in the United States now have more business than they can handle during the morning and evening commuting hours.

At the same time, a host of new "paratransit" services -- ride-sharing, dial-a-ride, jitneys, and shared taxis -- are providing transportation options to suburban and even exurban dwellers long thought to be hostages of their private autos.

It is a promising sign for older cities that would be paralyzed without vital transit systems -- the only means of getting around for many of the elderly, handicapped, and poor. It is equally good news for newer cities that have grown in an era of cheap energy, and now seek ways to remain accessible in the face of suburban sprawl.

"When I was growing up I would not [ride] on a bus or on a subway. It seemed like a symbol of failure. Now, I don't mind using public transit and I figure it saves me quite a bit of money," says a young woman in Washington, D.C., who commutes to work on the city's modern Metrorail system.

"It is the only way to go," says John Evans, a San Francisco engineer who began commuting by bus three years ago. "I was tired of fighting traffic every day, and the bus is so much more relaxing . . . . You can forget about were you are going until you get there."

"In the wealthy suburb of Westport, Conn., it has become fashionable to travel around town in the "Maxytaxy" vans operated by the local transit authority. "Our passengers are people earning over $25,000 a year and most of them own one or two automobiles," says a Westport transit official with pride.

Nonetheless, the growing demand for public transit could evaporate like dew on a hot morning. If inflation cools off and family incomes start rising smartly, Americans could start driving more again. More fuel-efficient automobiles from Detroit could have the same effect.

Also, financial problems are mounting for many transit systems. They are finding that greater public accpetance does not always work favorably on the balance sheet, and some may be forced to cut service.

While the future of public transit is cloudy and subject to speculation, the present is clearly a time of growth and opportunity. Consider:

* Los Angeles got a jolt Nov. 4 that was not an earthquake or even a shock over the landslide presidential victory of local resident Ronald Reagan.

The real surprise: Fifty-four percent of the county voters approved a half-cent sales tax to build the city's first modern-day rail transit system -- a proposal soundly defeated atthe polls on four previous occasions.

"We were absolutely stunned," a local transportation official says.While there is debate over whether California law requires a two-thirds majority for new tax measures, and court challenges are expected, the vote was indisputable evidence that even in this auto-dependent city, times are changing.

* In the Washington metropolitan area the number of commuters using buses or the subway has jumped more than 34 percent in the past five years, according to a recent report by the Washington Council of Governments. The city's new Metrorail rapid-transit system is given most of the credit for the sharp increase in public transit patronage.

* In Atlanta, where the nation's newest rapid-transit rail system opened in mid-1979, ridership is not only growing faster than expected, but includes a significant number of new riders who presumably used to drive an auto to work. Local transit officials say the new rail line is carrying 85,000 passengers daily, and some 25 000 of them were not using public transit previously.