Public Transportation in the United States - Trends and Opportunities

by Damian J. Kulash, F. K Gimmler and T.E. Dunleavy

Eno Transportation Foundation, Inc.

February 21, 1996

Extended Abstract (written by J. Schneider)

This 36-page paper is an interim scoping report for a Transit Cooperative Research Project, # J-8, entitled New Paradigms for Public Transit. It will be followed by more extensive scoping study, funded at $100,000, to be conducted during 1997 and 1998. In the project statement, the need to get "outside the box" is recognized. Longer-term, ground-breaking activities were to be sought and terms like "far reaching" and "blue sky initiatives are used. The aim of this report is to set out the key questions that can be used to guide subsequent project activities. The intent is to undertake a fundamental, searching examination of the transit industry's prospects and opportunities, without being constrained by past of present decisions, regulations, organizations or preconceptions.

The twelve members of the J-8 Task Group were interviewed first to get their general sense of the issues involved, the various viewpoints to be included and their expectations regarding what the scope of the project should be. These interviews showed remarkable commonality in the participants assessments of the current state of the transit industry and an equally remarkable lack of consensus regarding possible changes that could or should be made.

Key forces shaping the future of public transportation were identified. For example, it was noted that:

"transit managers are well aware that theirs is an industry in crisis. Economic development and demographic forces have not only changed the way Americans live and work but the way they travel. Few, if any, of the forces are favorable to conventional transit; most seem beyond the control of the industry. As a result, declining financial support and transit ridership appear to be irreversible. The overall impact of these forces has been the marginalization of transit, which will be harmful to qualities of life that Americans value but take for granted."

Key changes in the demand for public transportation were cited and examined in considerable detail. And, it was noted that transit operators appear virtually unanimous in observing that their scheduled, fixed-route services do not match-up well with the changes being produced by the large and volatile forces affecting the travel market. While absolute ridership numbers may increase, it was expected that transit's share of the rapidly growing market for personal mobility will decrease.

Consideration was given to the likely impacts of the deterioration of public transportation on other areas of public concern and possible steps to prepare for the future of the industry were identified. Seventeen potential policies were identified, one of which was "develop guideway technology breakthroughs". The possible remedies were widely varied and it was noted that finding a common vision as to where the transit industry should be heading will be a difficult task.

The views of eleven observers who are not members of the J-8 Task Group regarding possible "new paradigms" for the transit industry were also gathered and analyzed. Half of these people pointed to the loss of public support for public transportation as being the single most important force that will shape its future. However, most of these observers did not see technology as leading to fundamental revitalization of the market for public transportation. Other key developments predicted were (1) threats of energy shortages will persist, (2) monopoly fixed-route services will collapse through bankruptcy and dissolution of metropolitan compacts.

Key questions and next steps were identified. It was noted that

"transit operators and others familiar with public transportation believe that the current financial situation of the industry is dire, and all signs indicate that it will only get worse. Public financial support, whether federal, state or local is tight and will get even tighter. ... Nothing on the demographic or economic horizon promises any significant relief to these gloomy trends. Nor is new technology seen as a likely source of major new opportunities."

Four fundamental questions were identified and discussed in the concluding section of the report. They are:

It was stated that "to define ourselves (i.e. the transit industry) as a ubiquitous alternative to the automobile goes beyond the public's vision and the public's purse"

In the next steps section it was noted that:

"the gaps between divergent visions appear to be quite large ... and there is a need for substantial amounts of interaction and opportunities to develop new understanding. Direct interaction is essential."

Printed copies of this paper may be obtained from Dianne Schwager , who is the manager of Project J-8 for the Transit Cooperative Research Project, Transportation Research Board, Washington, D.C. It is not yet (as of January, 1997) available on the Web.

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Last modified: December 31, 1996