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Taken for a ride by transit figures

The recent Census Bureau report of a decline in the use of public transit by commuters from 1970 to 1980 was a grave disservice to those transit users and communities across the country who are becoming increasingly dependent on public transportation.

The census analysis, and the way it has been presented, leaves the impression that public transit is failing, or going out of style, that it no longer warrants our support.

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Nothing could be further from the truth. Unfortunately, the confusion created by this government report may shake the bases of both federal and local support for transit.

The census analysis cites a net decrease between 1970 and 1980 of some 487, 000 workers who use transit to get to work, with implications that public transportation has lost significance across the country.

The fact is, the use of public transit by commuters makes up just 40 percent of all transit use, and total transit ridership increased by 900 million riders, from 7.3 billion in 1970 to 8.2 billion in 1980.

The premise of the Census analysis - that America as a whole has suffered a loss of 487,000 transit-riding workers - is meaningless. More than 95 percent of that net loss was in only two metropolitan areas: New York and Philadelphia (463 ,000 workers). And yet, public transit continues to carry more downtown commuters in those two cities than any other form of transportation. In Philadelphia, 64 percent of workers traveling downtown use transit, and in New York it's 80 percent, according to the American Public Transit Association (APTA).

Interestingly, of the 38 Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas (SMSAs) used by the Census Bureau in developing its analysis, 19 actually showed gains in commuter ridership, while 18 showed losses and 1 stayed the same.

And if the five major ''loss'' areas of New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, and Newark, N.J., are deleted, the 33 other SMSAs show a net increase of 168,000 riders over the decade.

Several major metropolitan areas in the Northeast and Midwest did lose population (and transit ridership) during the 1970s to the South and West, but this trend is not destined to continue. Another census report, ''Population Redistribution in the U.S.: Issues for the 1980s,'' has noted that rapid population loss from older ''core'' cities of the Northeast and Midwest may begin to moderate simply because it has gone so far.

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Transit continues to play a vital role in the mobility of workers and quality of life in these regions. The bus and rail systems in major Northern and Midwestern cities continue to carry large numbers of commuters. Data for 1980 show that in New York, 1.7 million workers (45 percent) used public transit; in Chicago, 568,000 people (18 percent) did; in Philadelphia, 275,000 people (14 percent) did; and in Boston, 204,000 (15.6 percent) did.

The census conclusions seem to ignore the widespread jumps in commuter ridership in the growing cities of the South and West. The

Sunbelt has experienced enormous population and economic growth in the last decade, and its public transit systems are struggling to meet the new demands for service. In many areas, the need for new transit services is exceeding the ability of the systems to grow and accommodate the population and industry increases.

Census figures show that 6 out of 11 SMSAs in the West had increases of more than 100 percent between 1970 and 1980 in the number of transit riders during rush hours.

For instance, commuter use of public transit during the decade surged 117 percent in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., 153 percent in Denver, 180 percent in Phoenix, Ariz., and 664 percent in Anaheim, Calif.

The Census Bureau's simple 1970-1980 comparison hides a number of major trends during the decade in transit use nationally and at the regional and local levels. While total ridership declined until 1972, it rose substantially after 1973, due largely to federal investments in transit operations.

And transit ridership in areas with less than 100,000 population has increased twice as fast as in larger areas, according to APTA surveys.

One must look beyond the facade of census digits to understand the continuing importance of transit in the US.

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