For years, commuters in Fort Wayne Ind., grumbled about the local bus service -- and with good reason. While most downtown employees worked from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., the commuter buses adhered to a schedule that dropped workers downtown at 8:05 in the morning and left the central business district five minutes before most people got off work in the evening.

Earlier this year the Fort Wayne Public Transportation Corporation shifted the bus schedule so it was more convenient for downtown workers. The result? Ridership jumped 23 percent in 10 days, and more than 2,000 automobiles were taken off the roads at rush hour, according to general manager Les White. Best of all, it didn't cost any more money.

This example illustrates what many US public transportation systems have come to recognize: To cope with growing ridership demands in the 1980s as financial resources grow more scarce, greater attention must be focused on making existing bus and rail systems work better.

"We have had 10 golden years of growing government support," G. J. (Pete) Fielding says. "Now, the level of funding appears to be leveling off at a time when we have a real increase in rider demand. It is forcing us to improve what we already have." Mr. Fielding is director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California at Irvine.

This new emphasis is born not only of financial constraints, but also of disenchantment with the popular notion in past years that radical technology and complete new transit systems were the best hopes for better public transportation. The BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) system in San Francisco offers a good example of technological innovation that even today, eight years after the modern rail line opened, continues to malfunction and get in the way of good passenger service.

A more conservative approach to technology -- using equipment with a track record of performance -- has prevailed on newer rapid rail lines in Atlanta and Washington (although the latter is having trouble with its automated ticketing system). This approach appears to dominate planning for future rail systems in Miami; Baltimore; Buffalo, N.Y.; Los Angeles; San Diego; and Houston.

At the US Urban Mass Transportation Administration, funds for research and development will decrease in fiscal 1981. And while research is going forward on automated guideway systems, like the downtown "people movers" that transport people in small vehicles without drivers, their potential is still limited by their cost. "We know you could put advanced transit systems in a number of cities, but the cost of tens of millions of dollars per mile is clearly too high ," says Henry A. Nejako Jr., acting associate administrator for technology development and deployment at the US mass-transit agency.

The shift of focus to improving existing systems, though less spectacular than radical new technology, nonetheless holds the potential for substantial improvements in the years ahead for public transportation. Bus and rail systems can be made faster, safer, and more comfortable, analysts point out.

"We can have big rider increases without big investments," asserts Albert J. Sobey, manager of energy systems at the General Motors Transportation Systems Center in Troy, Mich.

But an emphasis on better service will have to go hand in hand with a revival of manufacturers. the decline of transit ridership in recent decades has also shrunk the domestic transit manufacturing industry. There are now only two US bus manufacturers, the General Motors Truck and Coach Division and the Grumman-Flexible Corporation, and no US-owned transit rail-car manufacturers.

"The assurance of a reliable, steady flow of orders is essential to help restore full production levels by transit manufacturers," states a Department of Transportation analysis of transit trends in the 1980s.

In fact, many transit operators are finding the newer, advanced-design buses that have been on the market since 1978 more troublesome than vehicles built 20 years ago. Analysts say that for basic bus technology to improve, the manufacturing industry must be more prosperous and less subject to wide swings in orders so the companies will devote more resources to research and development.

But in many communities, transit service can be improved and expanded by simply "removing the barriers," says George Smerk, professor of transportation at Indiana University. In his view, the three most prevalent barriers to public transportation are bus stops that typically have no information on fares or schedules; the requirement that passengers carry the exact fare (see accompanying story for a new approach to fare collection); and routes that are inappropriate to local community travel patterns.

Portland, Ore., has taken steps to remove some of these hindrances, and the results have been dramatic. The city in 1975 built a downtowns mall, and it dedicated two lanes of two major streets for exclusive bus use. Bus shelters were built that are both attractive and filed with route information, including a closed-circuit TV screen that announces bus arrival times for that shelter.

The mall has cut in half bus travel time in downtown Portland during the rush hour, and ridership among commuters to the central city has doubled since 1974.

The benefits go beyond a better local transportation system, officials in Portland point out. "The project said clearly that we are committed to downtown , and it has been a catalyst for lots of other positive change," Robert J. Holmes, executive director of the Portland Development Commission, says. Business activity and employment is growing in the central business district, while congestion and parking requirements have eased.

Even without constructing malls or changing existing routes, buses can be made to run more efficiently. "We're still in the 1940s in terms of our approach to scheduling. If we could cut a few minutes out of all our bus routes , we could save millions," says Richard S. Page, general manager of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

In Los Angeles, transit officials are experimenting with an advanced communications sytem that could greatly improve scheduling by giving the central dispatcher more precise and up-to-date information on the location buses. Transmitters attached to streetlamps along the route send a signal to the passing bus. The information is then relayed from the bus to a central computer , which in a matter of seconds provides the dispatcher with a printout on the exact location of the vehicle. Also being tested in an automatic counting system -- devices placed under the floor mats at both doors of the bus to record passengers getting on and off.

The result is that by knowing how full the buses are, and whether they are running early or late, the dispatcher can make constant adjudtments in the scheduling and increase overall efficiency. For riders, it could mean waiting less time at the stop, a better chance of getting a seat, and a faster trip.

Another potential benefit from the advanced communications system being testeed in Los Angeles is a far quicker response by the police to crime or vandalism on buses.

In many cities, expediting bus travel, which nationwide accounts for some 80 percent of all public transit use has become a top priority. Construction crews in Washington are extending Interstate Highway 66 from the Beltway that circles the city closer to downtown. The plans are to let only buses and cars carrying at least four passengers use the highway extension during the peak hours in the direction of the peak commuter travel.

Nearly half of US cities with population over 200,000 have established exclusive lanes for buses, vans, and car pools and have generally boosted transit ridership, says Donald Morin, chief of public transportation management at the Federal Highway Administration.

The El Monte busway in Los Angeles, an 11-mile exclusive bus lane stretching east from downtown, has more than doubled its ridership since 1975. There are plans to extend the busway farther downtown to Union Station, where commuters can transfer to Amtrak trains or to the people-mover system the federal government intends to build in the central business district.

Probably the most significant improvements in public transit efficiency, analysts agree, would come from better management of peak traffic hours. While transit patronage has been growing, it has been increasingly concentrated during the morning and evening rush hours when most people commute to and from work.

This trend has brought financial strain, because 65 to 80 percent of the cost of operating public transit is labor cost. Hiring more drivers for the peak raises overall expenses substantially.

Transit operators would like to hire more part-time labor, to work only during the peak hours. While Seattle and some other cities have successfully bargained with transportation unions for more rights in hiring part-time labor, the practice is still not widespread.

Since it is practiced so springly, it is difficult to estimate how much saving there might be from part-time labor.Research by Charles A. Lave at the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California at Irvine suggests that if a city with a big difference in ridership between peak and off-peak hours hired part-time labor, it could cut costs up to 14 percent.

Mr. Fielding says new fare policies could go a long war in reducing the peak-hour crunch in transit ridership. He suggests that to avoid excessive crowding, fares be raised during the time period to encourage those who can travel at other times to do so. "You can make travel more comfortable and you can get more total ridership," he asserts.

This is being tried in some cities. The Washington Metrorail system has two prices, one for peak hours and another for the rest of the day.

Keeping buses and rail vehicles clean and well maintained is a major problem for many transit systems, particularly in older cities like Boston, Chicago, and New York. While spending money in these areas does not have a dramatic payoff in terms of ridership, transit managers recognize that neglecting to clean the vehicles remove graffiti, and repair torn seats often encourages even more abuse.

"If you buy good cars, keep them clean, and set stringent use regulations, then people will respect the system and leave it alone," says Alan F. Kiepper, general manager of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority.

Next: Meeting the needs of the future

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