US mass transit: loss of some riders could make it stronger

With fares up and the level of service down, many Americans are beginning to walk away from public transit. Tthe trend is showing up in a number of large US cities where, after years of rideship increases, the use of buses and subways is slipping. Transportation analysts are not in total agreement as to the causes, but higher transit fares and service cutbacks in recent months are two of the most commonly cited reasons. Consider:

* Atlanta, with the newest rapid rail system in the United States, saw its overall public transit ridership fall 4 percent in the first three months of 1981 compared with the same period last year.

* Washington, D.C., lost passengers on its new rapid rail system for the first time in its history in March, albeit a small 1 percent drop from the 1980 level.

* New York City, whose transit rides account for roughly one-third of the US total, recorded a drop of 7 percent in the January to March period vs. the same three months in 1980.

* Chicago, saddled with the nation's highest transit fare of 80 cents, suffered a 5 percent slip in ridership in this year's first quarter compared with last year.

The question being raised now is whether US mass transit is headed for a long-term decline after sustained growth in the 1970s. Added to the uncertainty is the Reagan administration's plan to sharply reduce federal support of transit over the next several years, including the phasing out of operating assistance by 1985. Public transit systems nationwide rely on federal funds for about 15 percent of their operating revenues.

Despite the seemingly bleak setting, the demise of mass transit is dismissed as unlikely by most analysts.

"Transit will not dry up and go away; it will not return the era of the 1950s and 1960s when it almost disappeared in many cities," insists Dr. G. J. Pete Fielding of the Institute of Transporation Studies at the University of California at Irvine.

Rather, transit analysts see a period of retrenchment. This may include at least a temporary drop in ridership, particularly among those patrons who have been riding the bus or subway out of choice instead of necessity.

But many urban transit systems may emerge stronger financially from the retrenchment and thus be better able to maintain quality service in the long run. "There is lots of slack that needs to be taken out of mass transit," says Ronald Kirby of the Urban Institute in Washington. Mr. Kirby, director of transportation studies at the nonprofit research institute, thinks many transit systems are overextended and that less federal assistance will bring a discipline that is all to the good.

Indeed, Dr. Fielding is bullish about the prospect for mass transit. "Transit is far better off in the 1980s than it was in the 1970s," he asserts.

The way Dr. Fielding sees it, transit systems for the most part have better equipment, ranging from buses to maintenance yards, than they did a decade ago. Yet, he says, improved equipment and expanding ridership in the 1970s belied a worsening financial picture for many transit systems. This now is showing up partly in higher fares and service cutbacks. With newly available federal operating assistance. "Transit was expanded to use all the dollars available from the federal government," he says. "But the expanded miles of bus and subways service were into the suburbs where it is neither efficient or effective."

Dr. Fielding says these marginal routes will be the first to go with cutbacks in federal subsidies, leaving transit systems devoted to more heavily traveled and more economically sound routes. Transit balance sheets will improve and more efficient travel alternatives, like ride-sharing or private bus services, will develop for the suburbs, he asserts.

The future direction of transit ridership is uncertain in the view of most analysts. Even with service levels slightly reduced in the future some see ridership continuing to grow under pressure from higher gasoline prices and parking costs for those who commute by automobile.

However, energy conservation in the United States already has brought some moderation in gas price increases, and the future price pattern of gasoline is unclear. Another important factor is whether more fuel-efficient automobiles will effectively offset fuel price increases.

Dr. Fielding says the economy ultimately will determine transit ridership. Noting a historical pattern, he says when inflation is brought under control and real incomes in the US begin rising, automobile u se will again start increasing to the detriment of overall transit ridership.

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