Glimmer of hope

Gloom and doom is everywhere.

Huge corporations are going bankrupt. Half a million people were laid off in the United States alone last month. Homes are foreclosed on in record numbers and Christmas is shaping up to be a bust.

On top of it all, a cold front is gripping the American East Coast, making our noses red and fingers cold.

920015_commutersBuried in today’s morning paper, however, was an astonishing piece of uplifting news. Forced to park their cars at home as the price of gasoline rose above $4 a gallon over the summer, Americans may have – for the first time ever – gotten a taste for public transportation.

During the third quarter, Americans logged more than 2.8 billion trips by train or bus – an increase of 6.5 percent over the same period last year and the biggest quarterly jump in a quarter century, the American Public Transportation Association reported. The steady rise in ridership came despite the fact that gasoline prices dropped down to near-“normal” levels during the quarter.

At the same time, the number of miles traveled on public highways declined by 4.6 percent.

Could it be that Americans are finally discovering what Europeans and Asians have known for decades: that riding buses and trains helps us relax and focus – and perhaps even happier?

In the subway car in the morning, I’m surrounded by people who read novels. The car is very quiet. Unlike in Stockholm, where mobile phones jingle incessantly and private conversations invade your private sphere, the wireless signal dies the moment the D.C. Metro train goes underground. Some commuters take a short nap before starting their work day. Others just sink into their own thoughts, iPods in hand.

“At first I really didn’t like to move farther away from the city,” an executive and father of two young children told me. “But now, I relish those extra 20 minutes on the train because it’s my own time and the only time I have to myself all day. Nobody can interrupt what I’m doing.”

Could it be that those harried folks in Los Angeles think back at the eight-lane traffic gridlock that used to be their morning commute and decided they wanted no more? (L.A. train ridership rose 17 percent during the third quarter.)

Or that people in Atlanta finally got over their fear of black crime and discovered that not only do you survive the subway trip, you can also enjoy it? (Atlanta ridership rose 11.3 percent last quarter.)

Could the American love affair with the automobile, in fact, be fading – and for reasons that have nothing to do with oil prices? Stay tuned.

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