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.

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.

* Exempting from taxable income any financial incentives to employees to encourage ride-sharing, like free parking. The report also calls on state governments to change old laws that require car pools and van pools to adhere to unnecessary and overly rigid requirements.

"People have really been left to their own devices in organizing car pools and van pools," says Barbara Reichert, chief of ride-sharing transportation at the Federal Highway Administration. "We need more employee support."

Many companies unwittingly encourage auto travel with free or cheap parking spaces, and by providing employees with company-owned cars. The rising value of land in cities has made garage space so costly that many companies are reconsidering these policies. Mrs. Reichert says employers could encourage a big shift to ride-sharing by cutting these incentives and offering loans and administrative help to those interested in starting their own car or van pools.

Employers have other important ways to encourage ride-sharing. In Seattle and San Francisco, for instance, the use of flexible working hours has caused a significant shift in the way people travel to work.

The Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California at Berkeley has studied flexible work hours in those two cities and found that since people are not required to commute during the rush hour, they are more attracted to ride-sharing and conventional transit. A survey of employees at eight companies and government agencies in Seattle using flexible hours showed that 10 percent had stopped driving alone and had shifted to car pools, van pools, or the bus.

In companies surveyed in downtown San Francisco, the use of variable working hours cut in half the number of employees driving alone.

Flexible work hours "is the single most cost-effective step you can take to improve transportation productivity," asserts David W. Jones Jr., one of the professors at Berkeley who conducted the studies.

Clearly, flexible hours are not appropriate for all companies, par-ticularly those involved in retail services to the public. But Mr. Jones estimates that 30 percent of the work force in San Francisco could switch with no negative effect.

Transit authorities and independent agencies acting as brokers can also do much to increase ride-sharing activity.

The Golden Gate Bridge, Highway, and Transportation District in San Francisco , operator of conventional bus transit between the city and counties to the north, has provided technical and financial help to private groups that want to set up their own "club" buses or van pools for commuting to the city.

The innovative program, now a decade old, has allowed 10,000 more commuters to cross the Golden Gate Bridge each day, while the number of vehicles is virtually the same asin 1970.

The Golden Gate plan encourages van pooling by letting commuters use a district-owned vehicle for eight or nine months and then offering them administrative and financial advice on buying their own van and setting up a van pool. The district also helps groups charter their own bus service from a private company, subsidizing 45 percent of the cost. The buses must serve areas that district buses do not.

Commuters using club buses pay about $46 a month for a guaranteed seat for a 60-mile, round-trip commute. Van pool fares range slightly higher.

"The key is that, even with the subsidy on the buses, it is much cheaper for us than providing the service ourselves," the district's ride-sharing manager, Richard Ribner, points out.

In Knoxville, Tenn., a ride-sharing program is operating that requires no subsidy. By acting as an independent broker, the Knoxville Commuter Pool helps people organize bus, car, and van pools to serve areas outside the reach of the local municipal transit authority. It also helps them buy or lease vehicles from private suppliers. Fares cover all operating costs.

While ride-sharing is typically cheaper than conventional public transit, some paratransit alternatives are more expensive in terms of cost per trip. These include a host of services that have a common feature: door-to-door transportation upon request.

Usually, however, these dial-a-ride services offer transportation to low-density suburban environments that have no comparable public transit, so cost comparisons are not the only consideration.

"We move people that have no other means of transportation," such as senior citizens, the handicapped, and people who do not own automobiles, says Edward Muncy, manager of community services for the Orange County Transit District in California. Although the Orange County dial-a-ride service is heavily subsidized, the need is so great that it is being expanded to serve the entire county, encompassing more than 400 square miles.

Orange County is experimenting with a computerized dispatch system that it hopes will reduce the operating costs of dial-a-ride by 10 to 15 percent. Computers have been used as an aid to manual dispatching for years, but Orange County is developing a fully computerized system that organizes routes and time schedules automatically.

Dial-a-ride services can require less subsidy than other public transit -- if riders are willing to pay higher fares for more convenience. In Westport, Conn. , a "Maxytaxy" service recovers more of its operating costs through fares than does the local public bus system. The key, local transit officials say, is charging more. Dial-a-ride fares in Westport range from $1.75 to $4.50.

The ongoing move of Americans to the suburbs indicates a larger role for paratransit in the future. The US Department of Transportation forecasts that the share of the population living in the suburbs will grow from less than 30 percent in 1975 to more than 35 percent in 1990. Federal officials say that to serve these low-density areas with conventional bus and rail systems will often be too expensive.

The Urban Mass Transportation Administration is developing a paratransit policy, expected to be released in the coming weeks, to encourage public transit operators to offer more unconventional transportation alternatives.

A number of sticky issues are involved. Organized labor views many of these paratransit services, which are often provided by a private operator under contract to a public transit authority, as a threat to existing jobs and wage scales. And many private operators, like taxi companies, worry that greater federal encouragement of paratransit alternatives could undercut their business.

The question of how best to provide transportation services to the handicapped is also involved. Federal regulations require that transit systems receiving federal funds be accessible to the handicapped -- new buses must have wheelchair lifts, new rail lines must be accessible, and key stations on existing rail systems must be retrofitted.

The Department of Transportation estimtes that the number of Americans considered "transportation handicapped" will rise to 11 million in 1990 -- more than 4.5 percent of the population.

The question is how best to accommodate them. A number of transportation analysts feel that paratransit services, using door-to-door service and specially designed vehicles, are a better, more cost-effective approach than making the entire public transit system accessible.

Paratransit service for the handicapped is not widespread, however, and "it is the first to be cut in a budget crunch," a member of the American Coalition of Citizens With Disabilities asserts.

New York has refused to comply with the accessiblity requirements, claiming it would cost $1.5 billion to make its transit system usable by those in wheelchairs. John Simpson, executive director of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, says there is not enough money to maintain the New York system, much less improve its accessibility. "We need $1 billion just to replace our system on a prudent basis, and we're only able to afford one-third of that."

Mr. Simpson says his authority has asked for a six-month dely to come up with an alternative program for improving accessibility. Meanwhile, he hopes Congress will take up the issue. He echoes the view of other transit officials in hoping that Congress will pass legislation, under consideration at this writing, giving local officials more flexibility in coping with the handicapped than they now have.

Despite these problems, many analysts feel paratransit has a bright future. They see it as a major transit option that can be greatly expanded in the coming years under the financial restraints that now appear inevitable. "We must change over 20 years of thinking about public transit," a top federal transportation official says. "That takes time, but it is happening."

Other articles in this series appeared Dec. 9, 10, and 11

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