More Americans trade car keys for bus passes

Mass transit grew faster than car use, but cultural changes ultimately may drive people back to road.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Joe Marking drove to work for 12 years - through St. Louis's serpentine streets, down its coagulated highways. Then one day, his firm moved to a new location near a rail line. He decided to try the train. The result: an instant conversion. "It's great," says the engineering manager. "It's less expensive, less hassle - and when I get to work, I'm still sane."

Mass transit in America is undergoing something of a renaissance.

Fueled by expanded systems and flexible new schedules - and aided by changing perceptions of public transportation - everything from light-rail systems to buses to subways are experiencing a boom in ridership. Even some ferries are attracting a new corps of briefcase-clutching commuters.

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To be sure, none of this means Americans are abandoning their Saabs and Chevy Suburbans. But there are subtle but significant shifts emerging in the culture of commuting.

Consider just two statistics: Last year, Americans took more than 9 billion trips on public transportation - the highest ridership in nearly 40 years, according to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). Perhaps more important, mass-transit ridership grew at a faster rate (4.5 percent) than automobile use (2 percent).

Behind these numbers are a lot of people grabbing hand straps:

*Dallas is in the process of doubling the number of cars on its light-rail system to meet growing demand. Parking is in such short supply at one rail station that an additional lot had to be leased from a movie theater.

*In northern California, ridership on trains shuttling people between Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay Area has been up as much as 40 percent this year over the same period in 1999.

*In quaint State College, Pa., bus ridership has tripled in the past nine months.

"We've watched this trend building over the past four years," says William Millar, president of the APTA.

What's behind the boom

Experts say increased government spending on transportation infrastructure - everything from new subway cars to entire light-rail systems - deserves much of the credit for the upturn. Indeed, when charted side-by-side, government spending and new ridership trend upward in lock step starting in 1996, the year a decades-long slump in public transportation bottomed out.

The capital outlays include attempts to reinvent the often-stigmatized bus. The Federal Transit Administration is sponsoring a 10-city demonstration project that seeks to turn buses into "trains on tires." It includes buses that are handicap-accessible, engines that run on compressed natural gas rather than belching diesel fuel, and dedicated rights of way with "signal prioritization" so that traffic signals turn green when buses approach.

The runaway economy is also boosting mass-transit ridership. With more people working, more people are commuting. At the same time, consumers today have more to spend, and many are taking subways to the mall. "It's not surprising that total ridership on transit has gone up because of the booming economy," says Kenneth Orski, president of Urban Mobility Corp., a Maryland consulting firm. "The more relevant question is whether the proportion of trips on transit is higher than that in cars."

Credit the rise, too, to innovative and discounted fare systems as well as the linkage of mass transit and so-called "smart growth," the concentration of work space and public facilities near transit stations. One reason ridership is up in State College, for instance, is that Pennsylvania State University signed a $1 million contract with the local transit authority. Under the deal, bus rides are free in the spring and fall semesters.

More investment

In many cities, the vicious cycle of old rail or bus equipment leading to delays and fewer passengers, which often led to tighter budgets and further decline of the system, has been replaced by a virtuous cycle.

In Baltimore, increased revenue from a growth in transit ridership led county officials to raise funding for the bus system by 30 percent. Additional buses were bought. More lines were added. Waits dropped. The result: more riders.

Even some kingpins of sprawl - like Dallas, Atlanta, Phoenix, and Los Angeles - are seeing commuters hang up their car keys. "One of the great success stories in public transit right now is in Dallas," says Mr. Millar. "Many people said you'll never get a Texan to leave his car. Ridership has exceeded projections."

Still, some experts caution against reading too much into the jump in mass-transit use. "The reality is we're still lower than we were 50 years ago, even though the population has doubled," says Robert Cervero, a city-planning expert at the University of California at Berkeley. "In terms of market share, it's indisputable that transit is still losing out to the car."

Indeed, public-transit use reached an all-time high of some 23 billion trips just after World War II and then declined steadily, bottoming out in 1972 at 6.5 billion trips. It sputtered along until 1996.

Cultural impact on ridership

Mr. Cervero sees the New Economy and lifestyle changes generally working against the move back to mass transit. He cites the increasing "scatter effect" of the workforce. Liberated by technology from 40 hours a week at the office, an employee might relocate to a farmstead, far from the end of a bus line, and go to work only two to three days a week. Others work flex-schedules - off hours - prompting them to drive instead of take the train because they miss rush-hour traffic.

Other cultural changes don't bode well for mass transit, either. One example is the "linked trip" - the working mother or father who leaves the office and, instead of heading home, picks up a daughter at daycare, watches a son's baseball game, and then stops at the grocery store. It's a circuitous journey that requires a car.

Megatrends aside, Joe Marking likes his new mode of transportation. He's got a fatter wallet since taking the Metrolink. His light-rail commute costs $45 per month, compared to the $60 to $65 he used to pay to park. Toss in lower fuel costs, less wear on his car, and a reduction in automobile insurance, and he's not about to brave the highways again. Or is he? "Only in a hovercraft," he says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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