Can the commuter survive? (1961)

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Can the commuter survive?

Millions of Americans travel inadequate railroads and overburdened highways to get to work each day. Here are some measures that may reduce their hardships.


by Joe Alex Morris

The American commuter is much abused. Cartoonists malign him as an unshaven, sleepy-eyed character running for the 7:42 train in the morning, or stumbling from a bar just in time to miss the 5:15 home at night. An editorialist may describe him as an unhappy passenger on rattletrap coaches, while a rail executive complains that he is a parasite, costing the nation’s railroads millions of dollars in annual deficits. And an urban planner may warn that commuters who use automobiles threaten to strangle, in one horrendous traffic jam, the great cities in which they work but do not live.

Victim or villain, the commuter has now become the No. 1 problem child of our metropolitan areas, and his future is so important, in human and economic terms, that it is engaging the attention of alarmed officials at all levels of government. Nobody can say exactly who is responsible for the gigantic mess in mass transportation that, by some kind of twice-a-day miracle, keeps in circulation the economic lifeblood of our cities. But the results of the mess are visible in paralyzed mid-town traffic, long delays at highway bridges and tunnels, and the shocking deterioration of suburban rail service.

It has been estimated that traffic jams in New York City alone cost a billion dollars a year in lost time, lost sales and extra expenses. The great technological advances that put America on rubber wheels have slowed urban traffic to the pace of nineteenth-century horsecars.

In Chicago, for instance, a test showed that a bicycle ridden by a boy was the fastest vehicle in rush-hour street traffic. Morning and evening rush-hour commuters are an old headache of central business districts. The railroads would like to forget that back in grandfather’s day they started commutation service as a kind of by-product, encouraging city workers to move to the country by offering low monthly fares on already existing rail lines, even giving newcomers free transportation for several years. When the suburbs grew rapidly, special commuter service had to be established. By 1929, commuter lines carried 457,000,000 passengers a year; if the railroads lost money on low fares, they made it up on a flourishing freight traffic.

But change was coming — a vast increase in automobile travel, encouraged by publicly financed roads and expressways. Instead of clinging to railroad lines, new suburbs sprawled across countryside open to automobiles and buses. Rail commutation decreased to 227,000,000 rides in 1940, despite the rapid growth of our suburban population, and it has remained close to that figure ever since. At the beginning of the 1960’s, with our suburban population up to 50,000,000 — and with 23,000,000 automobiles in our main metropolitan areas — the American Municipal Association reported the threatened collapse of rail com-mutation service; annual deficits totaled almost $60,000,000.

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The railroads had long since appealed to government agencies for relief, complaining that competition from trucks, automobiles and airplanes had cut their revenues until they could no longer absorb commuter losses. Totting up these losses involves the allocation of costs to long- and short-haul traffic — an area of controversy. (Continued in print magazine.)



  • Five pm in New York: Every workday, thousands of subway riders fight the battle of getting into a coach.
  • Philadelphia: Mayor Richardson Dilworth sets up a program to unify city-suburban transportation.
  • These intrepid Long Islanders commuted to Manhattan via the sea route during the railroad strike last summer
  • This eight-lane expressway in Chicago cost approximately $10,000,000 per mile. The rail line in the median strip cost less than $4,000,000, but can carry about four times as many persons per dollar-mile invested.

Top photo: A routine traffic jam on the Hollywood Freeway. The girl in the convertible (center) had time to sit up and take a sight on the bottleneck ahead of her.

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