Why More People Should Ride Mass Transit


How many public transit expert/advocates actually ride on public transportation? 

I have met more than three folks, in and out of the establishment media, who speak with authority about mass transportation yet somehow can never get around to using it in the heat of their daily struggles. Judging by this storied Onion headline, I'm guessing others have met such people as well. 

But how frequently, really, are we getting our fix of transit-solution bloviation from people with no practical experience of the "systems" they're diagnosing and claiming to cure? 

I wonder this every time an expert makes the case for more intelligently planned transit networks featuring smarter coordination throughout the hub or loop or grid. There's one thing you learn by your second day of using transit when you actually don't have a choice: For every transfer in your itinerary, you need to double the time allotted for the trip. 

You may end up getting lucky with your transfers and not using up all that time. In a recent Reason.tv video, comedian Watt Smith did so well with his LAX-Burbank run that former Los Angeles Times transit reporter turned Transportation Authority flack Steve Hymon accused him of underestimating how crappy the L.A. transit network really is. (Third item down; the pride is back, Steve!) 

But the reality of transit use in the non-hypothetical universe is that you don't need smarter hubs or better coordination or more efficient transfers. You don't need experts planning out more brilliant three- and four-transfer itineraries. You need more shit running more frequently to more destinations. 

In Slate, transportation writer Tom Vanderbilt reviews a new book from a transport expert named Jarrett Walker. Vanderbilt is the author of the very good book Traffic, a fun-tasmagorical whirligig of novel concepts and unexpected tidbits (at one point our diminutive cousins the ants are marched in to demonstrate some point about high-volume and narrow-volume passageways) that you wouldn't want to bet any actual money on. 

Vanderbilt uses a heady-sounding dichotomy ("system" vs. "empathy") to pit Walker against another transit expert named Darrin Nordahl. Apparently Nordahl believes you have to make transit a more comforting experience whose aesthetic speaks to riders' sense of meaning and urban folkways, while Walker says you just have to make it more reliable and functional. Toward the end of the piece, Vanderbilt makes what seems like a reasonable point: 

But if the question is what's going to get the most people on transit in a city, what's going to move the most people, it seems to have less to do with the quality of the experience than the quantitystudies routinely find increases in transit usage linked to things like metropolitan employment numbers, fare costs, frequency of service, and gas prices. Trolling the Yelp! reviews for San Francisco's BART system, for example, while one sees the occasional knock for cleanliness, most people focus on things like ease of use (wayfinding and ticketing), connections, price, parking. Perhaps that's because our expectations are so low; one budget-strapped and beleaguered transit planner countered Nordahl's vision of a "fun" transit experience with this: "I'm just trying to give people transit experience." Or perhaps there's an empathic component to a good system. What warms a city dweller's heart more, for example, than a local train waiting across from an express for a quick transfer? Or transit that comes so often you rarely think about it? Conversely, a trolley car that comes once an hour—and rarely on time—no matter how droll in appearance, hardly raises the quality of life of those waiting for it.

Judging from this passage (and not having read either Walker's book or Nordahl's) I'd say Walker has the more sensible point. But then Walker speaks up on his blog, to explain that when he talks about reliability, he doesn't mean you should actually let people provide a variety of approaches for taking customers where they want to go: 

"Massive redundancy" may be fine if you're a megacity, though even there, its effectiveness may be a feature of the peak that doesn't translate to the rest of the day.  Anywhere else, services need to work together as a network.  Even in London, New York, Paris, Hong Kong and Berlin, that's really what's happening. 

This is what happens when your mind is full of smart networks and transit-oriented growth. The proper word here is not "redundancy" but "competition." To the owner of a taxi medallion or a member of the Transport Workers Union, minibuses, gypsy cabs, rolling chairs and pedicabs are all redundant, because you're already providing all the service a customer could legitimately need. If some abuelita is stuck in the rain for 45 minutes waiting to make one of your smart connections, well, that just shows you need more money so the system can be more efficiently planned. 

If more people traveled on mass transit more frequently, this would be obvious. Transit doesn't suck because it lacks central planning. It sucks because it's artificially scarce. 

Related: L.A. Times fails to correct California Gov. Jerry Brown's claim that Abraham Lincoln build the transcontinental railroad during the Civil War — proving yet again that you get more accurate information from AMC original series than from the Times