Most mass transit riders in 50 years: Good news or bad?

Michael Medved

4/18/2007 12:01:00 AM - Michael Medved

A few weeks ago I noticed a startling story in the “Money” section of USA TODAY.

The main head announced purportedly good news: RIDERS CROWD PUBLIC TRANSIT SYSTEMS, and then came that surprising subhead: HIGHEST USE SINCE THE 1950’s AT MORE THAN 10 BILLION TRIPS.

Sure enough, the body of the article explained that the American Public Transportation Association reported that ridership rose in 2006 some 2.9%, to reach the highest levels since 1957.

Did you know that there were more people using mass transit during the ‘40’s and early ‘50’s than there are today? I most certainly did not. This is an astonishing revelation when you think about it.

First of all, the population of the country was barely half what it is today—and yet more people rode mass transit.

Moreover, during the last 50 years we’ve poured literally hundreds of billions of dollars into the most expensive, glitzy, ambitious mass transit projects in history--- BART in San Francisco, MARTA in Atlanta, MetroRail in LA, plus impressive new projects in Minneapolis, Portland and Washington DC, and nearly everywhere else. With all these elaborate new systems, with high-tech buses, with propaganda about global warming and government policies designed to force you out of your car, it’s astonishing to think that more people used mass transit when America had half the people it has today – and none of the high-tech, new rapid transit systems.

No, we didn’t use buses and subways more frequently in the long-ago ‘50’s because the service was better: by most measures, it wasn’t as good, the buses weren’t as comfortable, and some of the huge systems we enjoy today didn’t even exist.

There was only one reason that more people used buses and trains in those days ---and that was because they were relatively poor, and couldn’t afford to own or operate their own cars.

As recently as 1960, Americans owned less than 400 cars per one thousand population: many families had no cars at all, and owning more than one car per household represented a privileged rarity. Today, we possess more than 800 cars per 1000 population – approaching one car for every man, woman and child, with two or three vehicles in a typical family.

Of course, many social planners and environmentalists want us give up all those gas guzzlers and get back on the bus like we did fifty years ago. But the change in automobile ownership still gives some indication of the vast distance traveled by ordinary Americans in their journey toward wealth, choices, and personal freedom.

Despite the endless whining to the effect that “we’ve never had it so bad,” the number of citizens who own their own homes has soared from barely 50% in 1950 to 70% today, and the typical home itself is more than 50% larger than fifty years ago. In 1950, 24% of homes didn’t have flush toilets, and less than 2% had air conditioning. Today, virtually 100% of the places we live enjoy flush toilets (what a relief) and more than 80% of homes boast air conditioning.

It would be easy to continue in this vein, but you surely get the idea: in terms of options, conveniences, comforts, material blessings, opportunities, no generation in the history of the world has lived as lavishly as this generation of Americans.

I recently spent a weekend in Louisville, Kentucky and ended up staying in the same Hyatt hotel as literally hundreds of competitors in a National Indoor Archery Championship. Normal middle class Americans traveled from every corner of the map, carrying their high tech bows in formidable cases – as if they were toting cellos or French horns. Somehow, these ordinary salt-of-the-earth folk could travel to Louisville, stay in a gorgeous hotel, and pursue a sport that they loved with amazingly complicated and ingenious rigs for putting arrows into targets.

I’ve also recently visited both Las Vegas and Disneyland – neither vacation attraction limited to the rich or the near-rich. Millions of Main Street Americans can save up their money and choose their destinations – enjoying the kind of comfort and elegance and adventure that our grandparents or even our parents could scarcely imagine.

When I grew up, we never stayed in hotels – partially because with four boys my late, long-suffering mother understood her kids might wreck any facility. When we went on vacation together, we invariably went camping – because that was cheap, virtually free. I’ve spoken to many products of similar families from the 1950’s and ‘60’s, where hard-working parents with the Depression mentality couldn’t consider wasting money on restaurants of expensive getaways.

There are many other measures of greatness, of course, beyond material well-being --- and the generations that beat Hitler and later Communism certainly deserve gratitude for the achievements, even though they lived far less comfortable, far more circumscribed lives.

Think about the cruise ship industry: hundreds of thousands of Americans can get away in every season of the year and enjoy the sort of treatment, complete with lavish meals and entertainment, which only royalty enjoyed in the past. For a shockingly low price, retirees and young couples and everything in between can pick up an amazing Alaska cruise in downtown Seattle and sail among glaciers and pods of whales. Middle class families that couldn’t afford to drive cars to work some fifty years ago, now can afford to ride gleaming luxury liners on vacation.

For many of us, it’s worth the effort to try to defend these astonishing, unprecedented opportunities. It isn’t necessarily good news that so-called “environmentalists” and various governmental planners have succeeded in driving more Americans onto mass transit than any time in the last fifty years. Giving up your car and getting on the bus may win commendation from Al Gore, but it does represent a lowered standard of living: sacrificing the independence of taking your own wheels to work. Fifty years ago, mom and dad or grandpa and grandma understand that a country that enabled more people to drive their own cars was a country with a rising living standard; today, as liberals try to push people out of those cars, they ought to be honest enough to acknowledge that they’re talking about lowering living standards.

The left argues that the threat of global climate change requires precisely such diminished levels of comfort and opportunity, but when people comes to understand these long-term goals they’ll hardly see the reduced array of choices for ordinary Americans as a development that’s actually worth celebrating.