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.

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.

Patrons are apparently so delighted with the rail system that "crime and vandalism are just not a problem," says Alan F. Kiepper, general manager of the metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority.

* In New York, a city that already accounts for about one-third of the nation's daily transit ridership, demand is still growing faster than the capacity of the sytem. "My neighbors don't complain about traffic jams. They complain about having to stand on the train coming in from Long Island," says John Simpson, executive director of the regional Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

* In Houston, a city where land-use patterns have made the private auto a necessity for most residents, voters have signaled they want a change and are willing to pay for it. Houstonians approved a 1-cent sales tax to support local public transit in 1978. The demand for improved public transportation is so great that "we know just about anything we do in the way of expanding service will succeed," a planning official with the Houston Metropolitan Transit Authority says.

One factor clearly pushing more people onto buses and streetcars is the high and rising cost of operating a car. About 65 percent of all workers in the United States drive to work alone, according to surveys by the Bureau of he Census.

For years, the practice made economic sense: From 1950 to 1972, the real cost of gasoline, adjusted for inflation, declined 22 percent. Americans were able to increase their driving by a considerable amount without having gasoline consume any more of their incomes -- one of many factors that demographers says encouraged people to live at greater distances from work.

There were other encouragements. The massive federal highway building program and housing programs that provided federally insured mortgages all helped more Americans live farther from work.

Researchers Michael A. Kemp and Melvyn Cheslow of the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., write that "the overriding and [until recently] unquestioned objective of public policy . . . has been to make things better or easier for the travelling public . . . ."

Fundamental changes are under way, however. Gasoline in 1979 was 43 percent more expensive, adjusted for inflation, than it was in 1974, and is expected to rise "substantially faster" than the general rate of inflation in the 1980s, according to a forecast by the US Department of Transportation.

Commuting to work in midsize car costs an average of eight times as much as using public transit in a typical large US city, according to Runzheimer & Co., a Wisconsin consulting firm.

One result of these escalating costs: Americans last year drove fewer miles than the previous year -- the first time that had happened in five years.

"The American love affair with the automobile is proving to be a luxury many cannot afford," asserts Mayor Pete Wilson of San Diego, a Western city that has made a major commitment to expand its public transit system.

On a broader scale, the economics that are forcing some individuals to change their travel habits are also beginning to affect the investment decisions that help shape cities.

For the first time in many years, the social objectives of less pollution, less highway congestion, and more efficient use of land and energy resources are "working hand in glove with economics," Donald E. Priest, a vice-president of the Urban Land Institute, asserts.

"Most of the large office developers these days are making investments iwth an eye to making sure the project is accessible by transit as well as the automobile," he says. "They want to make sure their employees can get to work."

None of this suggest that Americans are about to abandon their automobiles which willl clearly remain the dominant form of personal travel for the foreseeable future.

Over the coming decade the fleet of autos in the United States is expected to grow by 22 million, and the number of drivers could expand by 20 million, according to an analysis of American transportation trends in the 1980s by the Department of Transportation.

"I don't see automobile ownership falling, just people using their cars in a different ways," says Mr. Priest of the Urban Land Institute.

"It used to be that if you wanted to go somewhere, the only question was whether the car was available," sys George E. Gray, chief of mass transportation for the State of California.More and more, he says, people are wondering if there are other ways, like public transit, to get to the same destination.

All these factors lead to some rather bullish estimates about the potential for public transit in the 1980s. Transit ridership in the US is already on the upswing -- from 6.5 billion passengers carried in 1972 to more than 8 billion last year, according to the American Public Transit Association. Jack r. Gilstrap, the APTA executive vice-president, says transit ridership could well double this decade.

Donald F. Mazziotti, deputy assistant secretary for policy in the Department of Transportation, predicts that the number of people who commute by public transit could "easily double" in the 1980s. About 6 percent of the commuting population uses public transit today.

To achieve a doubling, however, Mr. Mazziotti says that transit operators will have to find ways to move people at less cost. He sees a mounting resistance to the high level of government subsidy that transit systems are receiving.

The federal government began major tax support of transit with the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964. Capital grants for building new rail lines and buying new buses were followed in 1974 by operating subsidies. State and local governments began helping with subsidy support. Today, transit operators get more than half their operating money from government subsidy.

With the help of tax dollars, the quality of transit service has stabilized after declining steadily since World War II, and has even improved in a number of places. That has drawn a new types of ridership.

"Seven years ago, before the energy problems, I would have said public transit's only market was that segment of society that because of infirmities or economic reasons could not use the private automobile. Now, I think we have a whole new segment to serve -- the average American family," Mr. Gilstrap of the APTA says.

Wendell Cox, a banker and member of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, agrees: "Transit is no longer a transportation mode of last resort," he says. "It is no longer an unmarketable commodity."

The higher demand for transit services, however, poses a host of tough questions that remain to be answered:

Should the public transportation operators welcome and encourage more patronage when it may only exacerbate their subsidy requirements? Should bus and rail operators instead dramatically raise fares so that customers are paying their own way? Or should transit be viewed as an essential public service, like police or fire protection, and therefore be allowed to become totally dependent on tax dollars? Should private operators be encouraged to get back into the transit business now that the market appears to be expanding?

"If we don't take a long-term analytical view, the transit growth of the 1980 s may end up analagous to the highway boom of the late 1950s and early 1960s," one transportation analyst warns. "A widespread 'why were we so naive' feeling in the 1990s may result. . . . I don't think it is inconceivable that we might have parking lots full of buses, and inadequate funding to operate them."

Next: Why popularity doesn't always pay

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