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Evolution of Mass Transit

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Imagine for a moment you are waiting on the comer for a bus to take you to school or work. It is snowing and you stamp your feet to keep from freezing. At last the bus comes, the door opens, and you can feel the welcome warmth. Seconds later you settle back in a comfortable seat and relax. Now go back in time. It is 1716 when you are aboard an open wagon with only a cloth or wooden roof for protection from the elements. You are one of twelve passengers sitting on four benches (without backs). From time to time your seat mates try to brush the new fallen snow from their clothes, the more fortunate ones huddling beneath bearskins with their protective fur. The horses plod along at four miles an hour on the snowy roadway, making the 170 mile trip an endless nightmare, broken only by infrequent stops at stages (rest stations) along the way.

More comfortable enclosed stage coaches with crude strap springs, usually pictured in history books, did not appear until later. Although their ride was jolting and jarring, at least they offered protection from bad weather for the fortunate passengers riding inside.

Shortly before the Boston to Newport service began, the first predecessor of today's mass transit commenced service when a six passenger hackney coach offered short rides within New York City's Bowery. By 1830 large vehicles called omnibuses (from the Latin "for all") made their way up and down Manhattan. Some twenty years later rails were laid in the streets and "horse cars" resembling railroad coaches pulled by horses, replaced the lumbering omnibuses. The resulting ride was much smoother, faster, and easier for the horses.

Cable cars were introduced in several cities as early as 1873, using steam engines to power the underground cable apparatus. However, these were expensive to build and several inventors were working to perfect motors large enough to propel cars by using electric power from overhead or underground wires. In 1888 Frank J. Sprague successfully operated trolleys in Richmond, Virginia, and showed they were both economical to run and strong enough to carry a full load of passengers even up grades. Within twenty years many cities had elaborate street car systems, and by 1915 trolleys were running over 45,000 miles of tracks.

Subsequently trolley service expanded from downtown metropolitan areas out to rural areas later called suburbs. This enabled cities to expand as the first housing projects started rising near the newly laid tracks.

Public Transit

At the turn of the century it was possible to travel all the way between New York and Boston by electric trolley, if you had the time and the patience to make the innumerable changes required. What is more, it was said that one might go most of the way from New York to Chicago via local trolleys and interurban lines. It was a time when trolley fever gripped the whole country and even small towns laid single track lines with turnouts every so often to permit the cars to pass.

Trolleys took commuters to work, housewives to market, the wealthy to the opera, children to school, and vacationers to amusement parks or sparkling lakes. As long as there were passengers to fill the seats of the swaying cars this was a relatively inexpensive, safe, and dependable way to travel.

Webster's dictionary defines transit as "local transportation especially of people by public conveyance." Our story starts when the trolley era gave way to the automobile and then the bus.

Once the public had discovered the convenience of owning an auto mobile, many people gradually abandoned the trolley, especially in small towns. Later, the development of bigger buses for use in cities and large towns provided greater convenience and safety for passengers. They could board or leave the vehicles at the curb rather than in the middle of the street where trolley tracks had to be. Then "Trackless Trolleys" were developed to give the trolley cars greater flexibility, but the cars still had to draw current from overhead wires that were supported by unsightly poles.

As cities grew, trolleys were unable to handle the growing number of passengers traveling into and within urban areas. Subways were dug to supplement the surface transportation. Today, although trolleys have disappeared altogether from New York and many other cities, you can ride one in Boston where they are still used, along with buses and subway trains within a coordinated transit system.

Elsewhere America's most unusual trolley cars are undoubtedly San Francisco's, which are as much a part of that city as the steep hills for which their endless cables and quaint cars were constructed. The cars are not the most efficient form of transportation but they are invaluable as a tourist attraction for the city.

Light Rail Transit

The trolley is not entirely a thing of the past, however. It is making a comeback in a slightly different form from earlier versions. One of the first new lines, the 'Tijuana Trolley," opened in July 1981. It glides down sixteen miles of abandoned track and right of way between San Diego, California, and the Mexican border.

Fourteen electric trolley cars were expected to carry 10,000 riders a day as they made their eighteen stops along the way, but management was amazed when some 11,500 passengers clamored to board the cars. Soon their number grew to 18,000. The line proved so successful that another seventeen mile trolley line was planned for the benefit of residents living in San Diego's eastern suburbs.

Far to the east, in Buffalo, a 6.4 mile light rail system with fourteen stations pushed out from downtown to the State University of New York campus, the first part of an ambitious multiphase plan.

Meanwhile Los Angeles was working on a design to build a midtown elevated railroad, an overhead electric "people mover." Similar lines were being projected in Detroit and Miami. Enormously expensive to build, 80 percent of the cost would be paid for by the Urban Mass Transportation Agency, which is concerned with helping cities solve their transportation problems. However, by 1996 no governmental grants were forthcoming.

Subways are not a thing of the past either. In the 1960s, San Francisco built its extensive Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system. Atlanta opened the first 7.1 miles of its projected 53 mile MARTA system in September 1979. But the most ambitious new subway opened its first 4.6 miles of track on March 29, 1976, when the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority dispatched its first train on what would eventually be a 98 mile system. Here, as in San Diego, the public's response exceeded all expectations. Some 21,000 passengers were boarding at the five stations of the planned eighty six station system; 21,000 men, women, and children, compared to the anticipated 8,000!

Subways provide only part of essential transport services because surface transportation is equally vital to the needs of travelers within an urban area. As already mentioned, most of the urban and suburban transport service is provided by buses. Yet we should not overlook the trolleys, subways, and light rail trains that are also important to any transit system. The light rail trains operate principally in a limited stop service, such as is offered in San Diego or Buffalo.
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