Tag Archives: Light rail transit

The Zen of public transit

Note: In light of the prolonged disruption of mass transit systems and interminable discourse re. expansion of LRT it seems timely to pause and reflect on the virtues of public transit, without which life in this community would be far more stressful than it already is…. In this class-conscious society there remains one environment that is generously shared by all who choose to avail themselves of the freedom that public transit offers. Public transit is the common ground that provides a unique shared experience with legendary equanimity.  One of the many advantages of public transit is that it gives the rider time and inspiration to ponder the mega-issues embedded in the economic, political technological and social conditions that typically pigeon-hole all of us, in spite of the revered premise that we were theoretically “created equal.” Though most public transit riders focus on their digital instrument of choice, my preference is to capitalize on the opportunity to observe the individuals who share the venture. The stories, created in my head to fit the visible presence of my fellow travelers, provide a unique mental picture of people who choose or need to share a seat and a bonding experience. Given my frequent, though geographically limited, travels my observations are personal, definitely not universal. It would be far more enlightening – and fun – to capture the reflections of a mix of transit riders. One conclusion drawn from personal experience is that, on the LRT, it’s every passenger for herself re positioning one’s perch;  meanwhile, on the bus, where civility persists, seats are reserved for the elderly and people with disabilities. The elderly arrive in droves after and before rush hour – the fare difference matters more than employed riders may be aware. With rare exception, reserved seats rule. Veteran riders know to relocate when they hear the ramp shooting out to welcome a wheelchair-bound rider. White canes signal a hasty shuffle of seats.   Agile youth defer to self-identified elders, often seniors grappling with a grocery cart or a few reusable bags from Aldis or Target. The reserved seat policy is broadly interpreted to include parents with strollers.  Failure to abide by the unwritten rules elicits disapproving glances from veteran riders. In the age of the digital device du jour, the level of public transit-related human interaction is in decline. Teens and YA’s threaten their eardrums and annoy their elders with the pulsating beat that must have some redeeming purpose. Voracious readers open their Kindles with one hand as they flash their Go-To card with the other. Some unreconstructed riders actually read the daily paper with a practiced dexterity that demonstrates rare facility with the print format; many others bury their noses and minds in a thriller or romance novel checked out from the public library. Conversation tends to be route-based. On the LRT there’s little chitchat. Riders are mission-driven, focused on their next stop, no time for sociability.   On less traveled bus routes friendships are forged as workers, shoppers, “regulars” first nod at each other, eventually dare to exchange words, venture to share observations on the weather or the last night’s game. When regular riders fail to board the bus, seasoned riders worry and wonder. On longer bus routes between the burbs and the workplace passengers have been known to share birthday and other celebrations. There are “hot topics” on the bus where conversation still survives. Altered routes and schedules top the list of common concerns. Recounting of the miseries of the day in the office tends to stifle the mood.   Young children capture the attention of work-weary riders, eager to get home to their own children and grandchildren. There is one intriguing passenger type that gives me pause – It’s the Zen-like rider who seems to create an island of mindfulness that somehow transcends the moment. This person shows no emotion, closes his/her eyes or fixates on a single object, seemingly oblivious to all surroundings, including cell phone abusers and exhausted toddlers. Though there is much to admire in their detachment, my people-watching predilection runs counter to the discipline it demands. Needless to say, the time-honored stereotype of execs clutching their brief cases has long given way to smart phones and related paraphernalia. A stealthy glance over the elbow of a nearby “suit” leaves the curious voyeur to wonder at the work-relevance of action figures, crossword puzzles and sports replays.   Thumb dexterity is a must for the regular commuter. Obviously, the public transit experience reflects the season – These are summer thoughts.  During winter months the mood changes, focus is on survival, the triumph of commuter over ice, un-cleared bus stops , unpredictable schedules – the thrill of finding a seat when valued space is reduced by requisite arctic outerwear. Though amenities are sparse, public transit is increasingly the choice of those who care about the environment, road safety, staggering parking fees and personal stress management. It’s all about attitude. Bottom line: Public transit is all about the opportunity to psychoanalyze one’s fellow traveler, to relinquish traffic navigation to a competent driver who knows the rules and the road, to let one’s mind wander, to experience the power of the Go-To card, to interact with strangers on common ground. Any one of these attributes of public transit trumps the frustration of being stuck in endless construction and/or rush hour traffic.

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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.