It blew me away to discover this week that Americans used public transportation in the 1940s at levels more than twice as high as today. Those are absolute numbers, not per capita. When you consider that the U.S. population then was less than half of what it is now, it makes the numbers even more striking. We’ve plotted out the data here, and I’ve been geeking out over it.
There’s so much about the history of the 20th century reflected in those numbers: the emergence of the automobile as the primary form of transportation, the mobilization of the domestic work force to contribute to the World War II effort, 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, 1956’s National Interstate and Defense Highways Act which paved the way for white flight, the shift to two-car families, and the bottoming out of urban decay in the 1970s.
More recently and more hopefully, a gradual but persistent increase in public transit usage and a sign that the current recovery may be sticking. Check it out.
David Kurtz is Managing Editor and Washington Bureau Chief of Talking Points Memo where he oversees the news operations of TPM and its sister sites.