Deciders Need to Hear from Public Transit Advocates

“You can’t understand a city without using its public transportation system.”   ― Erol Ozan, author, professor, information technologist

Maybe that’s why the Minnesota Legislature, in spite of its generosity of spirit during the past session, de-railed much of the long-term dependable funding proposed for public transit.  Basically, those who support , plan for and depend on public transit are back to short-term planning with no permanent funding that would allow for cogent comprehensive planning.

Legislators could exit the marble halls, rush to their cars (conveniently parked and guarded at taxpayers’ expense), and speed with abandon past the 94 Express, LRT construction, even the bikers and weary bus riders.  Some probably dashed off to enjoy a respite in distant lands where public transit is funded and functioning.  With luck, they will have time to reflect and connect the dots.

They may return to wonder why the electorate does not relish the endless wait at the bus stop.  Jeff Wood, chief cartographer at Reconnecting America, a nonprofit that advocates for public transit, explains the cognitive dissonance: “Well, nobody uses transit, so why should we fund it?”

In its study of Public Transit 101, the think tank Remapping Debate makes the case that “companies understand that there is an initial period during which the hope of future consumer adoption means significant pre-adoption losses.”   In commuting terms, it is obvious that solo drivers of pricey vehicles are not easily moved to embrace public transit as a concept – and they are vehemently disinclined to adjust their modus operandi.

Bottom line, legislators are not pressured by their constituents on the public transit issue.

David Van Hattum of Transit for Livable Communities, this state’s most ardent advocate for public transit, observes that “you can’t expect transformational change without sort of setting up the conditions so that people readily see public transit as an alternative.”

The question then is:  what might entice a reluctant public, particularly the Deciders, to invest time, creative energy and taxes to build a viable – even irresistible – public transit system?  Graham Currie of Monash University cites the three key things that would make a transportation option attractive to riders, the ultimate deciders in a democracy:  “No 1: service frequency; No 2: service frequency.  And you will never guess what No. 3 is…”

True enough, but there are other issues.  One is the issue of routes, a particularly hot topic as the Twin Cities builds out the LRT network.  Bus routes are a significant factor in design and deployment of rapid transit routes.  For example, residents in inner-ring suburbs are left in the dust – or the snow bank –  as express busses speed to the outer ring where time and convenience matter more.

Then there is the issue of subsidies for public transit, as if these were  unique.   Thoughtful Deciders know full well that automobile dependence is totally formulated on an incredibly pricey infrastructure that includes not only publicly supported highway design and construction but constant maintenance and policing.   The infrastructure also involves private and public support including parking facilities and related conveniences for car-dependent customers.  Public dollars for public transit, which includes the vehicles, fuel, stops, stations, etc. are just more visible.

One factor the politicians and advocates don’t mention – the issue of Class or Cool, depending on one’s view.  Some people are just too important or too cool to join the working masses, the old folks, the little people who must or choose to depend on public transit.

Another, more remedial factor, is the issue of public transit “literacy.”  In spite of good efforts on the part of transit staffers, there’s the “end of the diving board” terror that faces every newbie rider.   The knowledge hurdles are a serious issue for people who are used to being omniscient – where does the LRT stop?  Which side do you exit?  What’s that green card that the regular riders sport?  What’s the fare and will the machine make change?   The list goes on and few neophytes want to show a busload of transit regulars that they are beyond their depth.  Little do they know that the regulars are eager to advise, inform, even provide change for the neophyte.

And there are other disincentives.  Piles of unshoveled snow, packed with sand, are an insurmountable barrier for transit regulars.  Empty cement slabs are grim reminders of a day when vus shelters and benches once offered safe respite for uevN transit customers.  Tolerance for rude and unacceptable behavior, even non-threatening aggravations such as ear-piercing phone calls and trash in the aisles, can be curbed.  Online trip planning sounds like a low cost tech solution till you try to get into the head of the system designers.

So, public transit advocates didn’t get the 1% annual increase for public transit, support for the LRT build-out or stable long-term funding.   What’s next?  First, the possibility to gain political muscle.  Concerned citizens can take heart in the Transit for Livable Communities study that concludes that 91% of Minnesotans polled support state investment in transit.

One opportunity to speak out is the public hearing on a Draft Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) set for Wednesday, June 19, 3:00 p.m. at Metropolitan Council Chambers, 309 North Robert Street in downtown St. Paul.

Another political ploy might be to invite a Decider to a guided tour on a bus or on the LRT.  Help him or her with the boarding and exit hurdles, then take a long leisurely ride, preferably at a slow time of day, so you can point out the political, economic, environmental and health virtues of public investment in a vital and viable public transit system – with particular mention of how adequate long-term funding, coupled with concern for the customers, could change the shape of public transit.

 

 

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