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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 Craig SavoyeSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 17, 2000


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."

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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.

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."