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By Paul Van SlambrouckStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 12, 1980

In na aerial view, Houston looks like four cities. A newcomer would be hard put to figure which skyscraper cluster is the "real" downtown. It is not the most appealing sight for an urban transportaion planner either. But it is becoming more common as Americans in growing numbers live and work outside a central core city.

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The trend undermines the effectiveness of fixed, conventional public transit systems, which for the most part have their hands full funneling workers and shoppers downtown along the traditional radial routes that have served central cities for decades.

Sprouting in all parts of the country, however, are transportation alternatives that belie the notion that suburban spawl is synonymous with more congested freeways, air pollution, and energy waste. In fact, many analysts see this sububrban market as offering the greatest potential for making American cities more transportation-efficient.

Consider this: More than 50 million people in the United States drive to work alone each day, kept company by 150 million empty seats. Well-planned ride-sharing programs could go a long way toward filling those empty seats and drastically reducing highway traffic, while costing very little, compared with expanding or building new conventional bus or rail lines.

Ride-sharing through car and van pools is one of a number of "paratransit" services gaining popularity in outlying, low-density parts of metropolitan areas. Others include dial-a-ride, subscription bus, and shared-taxi services. (These options don't include nongroup transportation alternatives like bicycle riding and walking.)

These alternative forms of group transporation have existed for years. But it is only recently that suburban dwellers have shown a clear willingness and eagerness to use them. Higher energy costs and slower income gains due to inflation have made commuting alone by automobile a luxury many cannot afford.

"Attitudes are changing," declares Ray A. Mundy, associate professor of marketing and transportation at the University of Tennessee. While most Americans still prefer sing-occupant auto travel, economic factors are forcing many more to look for alternatives that are cheaper than drivng alone, but more convenient than conventional bus and rail service. Mr. Mundy says that for several years national surveys have consistently found that 12 percent of the population was interested in car pooling. Since the 1979 energy shortages in the US, the number has jumped to 24 percent.

Edward P. Weber, a San Francisco broadcasting executive, used to drive alone to work from his home in Novato, 30 miles north of the city. "I was uptight when I got home, and when I got to work in the morning i started the day feeling rushed and late," he says.

A year and a half ago Mr. Weber began van pooling. It is faster than a car because he can whisk across the Golden Gate Bridge in an express lane without paying a toll, and it is cheaper than riding a public but. It also has made him work regular hours, which he considers an advantage. But he says the biggest change is that commuting now ia a pleasant, social experience instead of "one big frustration."

The question confronting most cities is not whether the public is willing to use paratransit services, but whether the services are available and attractive enough to hold riders once they swithc.

A new report by the National Task Force on Ridesharing, established by President Carter, notes that much of the car and van pooling that exists today is the result of individual initiative -- "commuters taking it upon themselves to find others to share the cost of the burden of traveling to and from work."

Some 15 million people use car pools to get to work, and about 100,000 comute in van pools. To double ride-sharing by 1985, the task force report calls on all levels of government and the business community to remove some of the institutional barriers to ride-sharing and to provide some new incentives.

The report recommends:

* Federal tax credits to employers to offset the cost of administering a ride-sharing program.

* Doubling to 20 percent the investment tax credit available to companies that buy vehicles for ride-sharing.

* A tax credit for individuals who buy vans for ride-sharing.