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

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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.

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