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America on the Move
Collection Exhibition Themes
Transportation in America before 1876 Community Dreams: Santa Cruz, California, 1876 Delivering the Goods: Watsonville, California, 1895 A Streetcar City: Washington, D.C., 1900 Suburban Strip: Sandy Boulevard, Portland, Oregon, 1949 On the School Bus: Martinsburg, Indiana, 1939 People on the Move The Connected City: New York, New York, 1920s Crossing the Country: Somewhere in Wyoming, 1903 Americans Adopt the Auto Lives on the Railroad: Salisbury, North Carolina, 1927 The People's Highway: Route 66, 1930s-1940s Roadside Communities: Ring's Rest, Muirkirk, Maryland, 1930s Family Camping: York Beach, Maine, 1930s On the Interstate: I-10, 1956-1990 Transforming the Waterfront: San Francisco and Oakland, California, 1960-1970 Going Global: Los Angeles Introduction The Automobile Shapes the Suburbs Moving In The Automobile and the City Chicago's L Taking the Bus O'Hare International Airport
15: City and Suburb: Chicago and Park Forest, Illinois, 1950s

Taking the Bus

After World War II, residential and commercial development spread farther from the central city into less densely populated areas, and farther from existing fixed-route transit systems like the L and streetcars. A bus, though forced to compete with trucks and private cars on congested roadways, could go anywhere, connecting neighborhoods with the L and with the city center. And, buying buses was cheaper than building new transit systems.

By the late 1950s, the Chicago Transit Authority had replaced the city’s extensive network of streetcars with buses. One-quarter of all Loop commuters arrived at their destination on a bus. Even more took a bus to a rapid-transit line to begin their commute.
Bus 8241 in front of Marshall Field's department store, State Street side, Chicago, 1959
Bus 8241 in front of Marshall Field's department store, State Street side, Chicago, 1959
In the 1950s and 1960s, researchers found that mass-transit commuters were more often female, the young and the old, renters rather than homeowners, not white, and low-income. Lower-income commuters tended to ride the bus; more affluent people drove or took the L or commuter trains.
Fageol Twin Coach “Old Look” Liquefied-Propane Gas-Powered Bus, 1950
Fageol Twin Coach “Old Look” Liquefied-Propane Gas-Powered Bus, 1950

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Chicago Transit Authority owned and operated the largest fleet of liquefied-propane gas buses in the world. Liquefied propane, readily available as a by-product of the oil-refining process, lowered fuel costs for the cash-strapped transit agency. According to CTA promotional materials, propane-fueled engines were more powerful than gasoline engines, and ran more smoothly and cleanly.

The bus you see here, similar to early propane Twin Coach models used in Chicago, ran in Omaha, Nebraska.
What Happened Next?

What Happened to Public Transit?

Public-transit ridership peaked during World War II and then declined as more Americans took to their cars, and residential and commercial development moved farther away from existing mass-transit services. Between the late 1950s and the early 1970s, over 170 U.S. transit companies ceased operations.

In 1964 President Lyndon Johnson called for the nation to rebuild mass-transportation systems to renew American cities, and Congress passed legislation to provide some funding for transit. By the 1970s, aid to mass transit was one of the fastest growing federal programs. Support for mass transit was on the rise, even if ridership was not. The civil rights movement had raised awareness of the transportation needs of the disadvantaged. Environmental issues gained public prominence, as did the escalating price tag for massive-road building projects and the costs of increased car and truck travel.

But America’s cities continued to sprawl, and transit couldn’t compete with the convenience of car travel. The Chicago Transit Authority was hard hit by falling ridership and revenue. In the 1980s, a Chicago transit official declared that mass transit was “no longer relevant to the American way of life.” But in the late 1990s, public transportation began a surprising comeback as planners explored smart-growth and transit-oriented development. Will more Americans turn to public transportation as roads become increasingly congested?
Transit and Disability
Transit and Disability
Before the 1970s, few mass-transit agencies considered the needs of the physically impaired. The Americans with Disabilities Act, passed by Congress in 1990, required transit agencies to provide alternative service for those unable to use the usual bus and rapid-transit systems. Elevators in new transit stations, curb-to-curb shuttle service, and kneeling buses have helped make public transportation available to many riders with disabilities, but older systems often remain inaccessible.
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