Patterns In Mass Transportation Use
The popularity of mass transportation systems varies inversely with the availability of the private automobile. Over the past century, as cars have become less expensive, consumers have opted for private transportation over subways, buses, trolleys, light rail systems, and other forms of mass transit. Between 1915 and 1980, automobile ownership increased 20 times faster than did population growth in the United States.
Probably the most significant shift in this pattern occurred during and just after World War II when automobiles were expensive and difficult to obtain by the private consumer. Mass transit usage reached record highs during the 1940s and 1950s. As prosperity returned to the nation, however, private cars once again became more popular as a means of transportation. In the two decades between 1950 and 1970, riders on all forms of public mass transit dropped from 19.5 billion to about 6.7 billion.
That decrease was reversed briefly in the early 1970s as a result of the oil embargo instituted by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in 1973. Americans suddenly became aware of the nation's dependence on other nations for our oil and natural gas, and there was a renewed interest in reviving the nation's nearly moribund public transportation systems. It was about this time (1972) that the first of the country's new mass transit systems, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), opened in the San Francisco Bay Area. BART was followed in the next two decades by new subway, bus, and trolley systems in Washington, D.C., San Jose and San Diego, California, Atlanta, Baltimore, Dallas, Los Angeles, and other urban areas.
At about the same time, the United States Congress gave the nation's intercity passenger rail system, Amtrak, a new lease on life. Amtrak proved to be a huge success among intercity passengers, but the federal government has never maintained the consistent support of the system it showed during the aftermath of the OPEC crisis.
The surge of interest in mass transit that began in the 1970s has never produced the massive shift to mass transit for which so many people hoped. For more than four decades, the automobile and commercial airlines have accounted for more than 96% of all intercity travel. Buses and railroads carry the remaining intercity passengers.
Travel in urban areas reflect similar patterns. After intensive efforts to increase ridership on public transportation systems, most city and suburban dwellers still rely on their own cars for transportation. In Los Angeles, for example, the city's upgraded bus system and new light rail system are now used by no more than about 2% of the local population.
The uphill battle faced by proponents of mass transportation is understandable. The automotive industry (along with energy companies that sell gasoline) have been successful in convincing Americans of the pre-eminent value of the private automobile. The federal government has contributed to this philosophy with enormous investments in new streets, highways, and inter-states. Currently, the United States government spends about six times as many dollars per person on new highway construction as it does on the support of all mass transit systems. In some states, this ratio may be as high as 60 to 1.
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