Good transit allows you to travel when you want and live a freer life

Oct 2017, MobilityLab “Freedom’s Just Another Word for Public Transportation”

Not every transit agency can be a superstar communicator like LA Metro. (For the latest evidence of that, don’t miss the system’s new ads that embrace the weird and use a topic as vanilla as “good manners on the train and bus” as a launching pad for reaching a goal of actually getting people to embrace and love LA Metro.)

What good transit can do is it allows you to travel when you want and allows people to live a freer life,” said Stephen Hunt of Valley Regional Transit in Boise, Idaho. He noted the imbalance in Boise, where residents spend $1.5 billion annually on operating their cars versus VRT’s $15 million for transit operations.

I believe we as transit professionals need to be a lot more intentional about communicating this freedom. And you can’t expect to attain freedom from transit on $15 million. We got good at telling how much transit we needed and what that would cost. If we didn’t get that money, traffic would get worse. So our biggest story was a threat, and that’s not our best story or a way to get things done.”

Hunt added, “It should be less about ridership projection and more about accessibility. If you can talk about accessibility and where service exists, people can get engaged because they can see they live or work there, it becomes an issue. And that gives you a goal and a mission that is a story that people can understand immediately.”

So freedom and wacky entertainment – with high production values and a local YouTube celebrity – are definitely needed. But a focus on the fundamentals is another part of the puzzle for repairing transit’s battered image.

“We have to start with the front-line employees. [People are] not going to ride transit or not because of me,” said Kelvin Miller, general manager of The M in Montgomery, Ala.

Excellent customer service is crucial, agreed Belinda Woodiel-Brill of Knoxville Area Transit in Tennessee. “Keeping our front-line people happy is always a challenge, but we’ve got to do that.”

Miller added, “We brought in our drivers to our meetings to show them the routes and they help us make suggestions” for potential route and schedule changes that could contribute to more reliable, efficient service.

He also noted that transit needs local leadership and champions.

“As a general manager, you have to be approachable. In a lot of cases, the GM will direct people to the communications department or 911 instead of directly addressing the problems they hear,” Miller said. “In Montgomery, as everywhere, we have talk radio, and it’s always about the negative things on public transit.”

His agency met with CEOs and leaders from throughout Montgomery who wondered why they should use public transit.

We don’t have traffic congestion or parking problems. But still, you don’t have to deal with gas, road rage, you get on the bus for a 30-minute ride [that may take 10 minutes by car], and then you’re there. Just talk to why you want to use it, the benefits, the environmental benefits, the economic benefit we bring to Montgomery.”

Woodiel-Brill said Knoxville pushed for transit to be the focus of a city board committee. “A committee of the board, not the transit agency. Pulling some of those folks in at the beginning is like the whole honesty thing. Bring in high-level folks early on, win them over early, and let them tell the message for you.”

Leslie Caceda said the Atlanta Regional Commission, where she works on transportation technology and policy, hosts a lot of summits to bring leaders together. “We just had a TDM [transportation demand management] summit to learn all about messages from each other.”

She said that messages about success stories can be powerful. Students at Woodward Academy take MARTA in droves to the private prep school outside the city core.

“[MARTA’s image problems] don’t affect this school. How do we overcome that transit is usually seen as dangerous for kids? There’s a good storytelling opportunity: if kids aren’t taking this school bus, they’re probably being driven – and cars are terribly unsafe.”

Another messaging opportunity, Woodiel-Brill said: “We are taxing ourselves by operating our own personal cars. You’re basically working one day each week to pay for your car.”

There are two things that I want desperately: justice, and better public transit.

Buses have long had a place in civil rights movements. In “Another One Rides The Bus: Systems of Mass Transit as Vehicles of Protest,” Julia Thomas explains how buses literally mobilized people during the civil rights movement:

“While buses have been the sites of heavy state control and segregation across the world, they have also been places in which groups have organized bus boycotts, commandeered control of transportation, ridden across state lines, and taken over spaces that allow them to express power by occupying a significant area.”

The Montgomery bus boycott was a 381-day protest that started with Rosa Parks’ arrest and ended with the Supreme Court ruling segregated public buses as unconstitutional. Years later, the Freedom Riders rode buses into the Deep South to protest segregation in interstate bus terminals.

Transportation as a social justice issue didn’t end with the civil rights era. In 2016, the St. Louis County NAACP and Missouri Coalition for Better Transportation addressed a report to the U.S. Department of Justice in which they argued that the Missouri Department of Justice was in violation of Title VI Civil Rights laws for unevenly distributing transportation funds between rural and urban areas. The two groups asked Missouri Congressman Lacy Clay to file a civil rights claim against the Missouri Department of Transportation. So far, nothing has come of the request.

Missouri ranks 46th in public transportation funding among the 50 states, according to data collected by Citizens for Modern Transit.
Missouri per capita spending on transit compared to surrounding states in 2015. (Citizens for Modern Transit)

The lack of transportation funding has serious consequences. Studies have shown that access to transportation is crucial to escaping poverty. The relationship between social mobility and access to transportation is even stronger than that between social mobility and other factors such as crime or quality of schools.

The Ferguson Commission Report was released Sept. 14, 2015 in response to urgent cries for change. The report gives many actionable goals for healing the region, including enhancing access to transportation. Suggested projects include implementing Bus Rapid Transit and extending MetroLink along the North-South corridor.

Unfortunately, not much progress has been made since the report was released. St. Louis officials are still debating whether to pursue a North-South MetroLink expansion, as they have been for almost two decades. I still have to wait 30 to 60 minutes for a bus. We still have an ostensible justice system.

I went to a “Protest to Policy” panel on Wednesday night. This one Mayor Krewson did attend. Afterward, I approached her and asked about these transit expansion options. She told me she’s looking into reduced fares for some customers, and referred me to a member of her staff. I told her we need transit that’s better, not just cheaper for some.

Whose streets?

Imagine not being able to move about your own city to access work, school, food or health services. Lack of public transit maintains inequality. Creating the infrastructure for accessible and reliable public transit is easier when there are actually people utilizing transit and supporting it financially. Use transit. Talk about transit. Let officials and legislators know transit is important.

Some days it seems like America is more likely to build an extensive cross-country hyperloop than it is to build a bridge across political divides. I want us to do both.

Whether you put your right hand over your heart or your right fist in the air, you’re expressing a message of unity and solidarity. Riding public transit while surrounded by people from many different backgrounds feels like unity to me.