Peter Gordon and I were chatting at party yesterday about my difficulties writing an introductory chapter about public transit. Why the trouble? The topic has become so politicized that no matter what you say, somebody assumes something about your ideology before you are able to finish your thought. My goal in an introductory chapter, I think, is to help newcomers to the field get enough background to evaluate the debates on their own, not feed them my conclusions. It’s proved a tough chapter to structure.
So I was surfing around the webs to see what other people think the big debates are in public transit, and I happened upon this wonderful, refreshingly honest piece from a commuter over at the Size. As a fellow transit commuter, the writer over at the Size pretty much nailed the problems from a commuter’s vantage point–and it has nothing whatsoever to do with the normal advocacy about how transit saves the universe and is clean, convenient, and quick. In my experience, transit is seldom any of those things—but it is still often better than driving even from the standpoint of the individual decision-maker and her utility, without worrying about fighting climate change or obesity or any other social ill we’d like transit to fix for us (while we mostly ignore and underfund it).
Taken together, the sum total of her problems with transit make a go-to guide for what, if we could clean up our act as transit providers, would take transit from being useful but annoying to being useful and often pleasant. I’ll go point by point.
10. The bus didn’t see you and tried to (or did) just drive right past you. You’re wearing a long bright red coat, but somehow you’ve turned invisible momentarily. These things happen.
Passbys. RRRRrrr. Sometimes they are your fault–when you are embarking on a non routine trip, and you accidentally stand in the wrong spot (which wouldn’t happen if transit information were better, but even then, I routinely screw up), or sometimes they are the driver’s fault–i.e., she’s driving an express bus that doesn’t stop at that stop, but she doesn’t have her express number up, or she’s running cold and shortchanges a single patron waiting so that she can skip a stop and get back on time. Those things do happen; if drivers didn’t do stuff like that every so often, they’d get pretty far off schedule, and then everybody on the bus and everybody coming up is ill-served rather than just you.
In my ideal world, when a driver has to skip a stop to deal with the schedule, they should be able to blast that info so that the tripper behind him or her can give a dollar coupon or some such from the transit store or some sponsor to give to the standees at the stop. It’s small comfort, but it is an acknowledgement that the bus operator didn’t meet a service expectation. Also in my ideal world, that message from the operator would prompt a tweet or a text to passengers who subscribe to that line when the next bus is coming so that you can make an informed decision about whether to wait or whether to give up and cab it.
9. There is a delay due to slippery rail, mechanical failure, residual mechanical failure, disabled train, disabled bus, signal problem, medical emergency, weather related problem, residual delay, switch problem, heavy ridership, police investigation, traffic, weather related slip, heavy ridership, etc. My favorite of these delay reasons is “late train”. How can you describe the reason as the problem? Why is the train late? The train is late due to a late train. Okay, that clears things up.
Transit companies work pretty hard to stay on time, but failures do happen. Telling people that the train is late because it’s late isn’t helpful, and it feels like an insult to your intelligence to have this said in explanation. Transit workers should be better at saying “I’m sorry–I have no idea why it’s late, but I will check to see if I can find out when it’s coming.” Some transit providers tweet the information, which is marginally helpful. But in cases of very late service, transit companies should try to make it right by sending bus shuttles and offering next-month pass discount codes to people waiting past a certain threshold. I know it would decrease revenue, but when you are recovering as little from the farebox as transit providers generally do, losing a bit of revenue in favor of passenger goodwill might be worth the trade.
8. Someone has BO, too much perfume, permanent cigarette scent, and any other funk that you must now deal with.
Nothing to be done about that. Hell is other people.
7. You can’t get in the train. You’ve been waiting what feels like forever and need to get to your destination soon (or just would really like to). Oh, good. Here’s the next train. It opens. It’s full.
From a provider’s perspective, crush loads are sort of awesome. All that revenue, all those passengers, being served by one driver at a time. Super! But from a passenger’s perspective, this is nasty. Not much to do in the short term but try to run higher frequencies or larger trains, but you probably can’t do either because you’ve maxed out on platform space already (train size), or your roster isn’t big enough to support more peak hour operators, or you can’t add from your existing roster because you can’t split drivers’ shifts according to union rules, or paying split shifts is prohibitively expensive.
Another possibility is adding a private contractor to try to redirect some passengers to professional vanpool or bus services who will take agency passes during the peak. That’s expensive, too, and your unions don’t appreciate it.
6. People won’t wait for you to leave to train before they try to get on. They somehow are always surprised to see you there trying to exit. It’s not the second coming of Jesus, folks. You should expect every time a train comes that at least one person is going to be walking through the opening and off the train.
OMG–my biggest pet peeve, right along with the people at the airport in Zones 4-100 who feel the need to clutter up the space for boarding and make it hard for the rest of us in zones 1-3 to get on the airplane. Seriously people, the plane/train/bus leaves when it leaves, we’re all leaving at the same time. Stop it, would you?
I’m not sure there is a solution to this one, except in my ideal world the people who do that are poked with a cattle prod and made to wait until EVERY SINGLE PERSON HAS ALIGHTED HOW DO YOU LIKE THEM APPLES, MR IMPATIENTPANTS?
Any design solutions folks have noticed at station areas? Continue reading