The other day, I was at a meeting in Springfield, MA and a city planner asked me the question, “What are you [the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority] doing to attract new bus riders?”
His question was spurred on by a lot of things happening in Springfield that would benefit from having more people ride the bus – the development of the MGM Casino in downtown, bringing thousands of more people in the congested city daily; the recent adoption of the city’s Climate Action and Resilience Plan; increased interest in transit from the local Pedestrian and Bicycle Committee; the pain of the last round of cuts to the bus system, and the looming threat of yet more.
As I formulated an answer, I was reminded of something that David Block-Schachter, Chief Technology Officer at the MBTA said on a panel a few months ago. In response to the question of, “How do you improve the customer experience for bus riders?”, he responded with something like (I’m paraphrasing):
“You know, riding the bus is pretty unpleasant. You get to the bus stop and maybe it’s too hot or too cold out, or raining. You stand there waiting for the bus to come and hope it’s not locked in standing traffic. You get on the bus and you’re shoulder to shoulder with strangers, some of whom might be coughing or sneezing or smelly.”
Since then, Elon Musk has raised the ire of many transit professionals for voicing largely the same points. At a tech conference earlier this month, he said (via Wired):
“I think public transport is painful. It sucks. Why do you want to get on something with a lot of other people, that doesn’t leave where you want it to leave, doesn’t start where you want it to start, doesn’t end where you want it to end? And it doesn’t go all the time.”
“It’s a pain in the ass,” he continued. “That’s why everyone doesn’t like it. And there’s like a bunch of random strangers, one of who might be a serial killer, OK, great. And so that’s why people like individualized transport, that goes where you want, when you want.”
While Elon Musk was using this criticism as a basis for dismantling public transportation, Block-Schachter used it as a launching pad for ways to improve the customer experience. He explained ways that transit agencies can reduce the bad parts about transit and enhance those reasons why, despite the “pain in the ass” of doing so, millions of Americans take transit every day.
Toward Better Buses
Despite the obvious problems and annoyances that come with riding transit, people still do so, and indeed do so every day. Why? Well, here is why I ride the bus:
- I save a bunch of money by taking the bus or biking (I wrote about that here – roughly $5,000 per year)
- I help the environment by not driving.
- I get to read on the way to work.
- Occasionally I get to chat with a coworker who also rides the bus.
- I hate driving.
- I hate parking.
I’d like to think that those reasons are enough to convince most people to bike, walk, or take the bus to get where they’re going, but alas, 88% of workers drive to work in the Pioneer Valley. So how can we make the bus more attractive?
The Livable Streets Alliance out of Boston has a campaign called the “Better Buses” initiative, which states that a better bus:
- Provides consistent, reliable service on a network of streets where buses are given dedicated right of way.
- Improves safety for bicyclists and pedestrians by traveling in specific, predictable lanes with platform-level boarding.
- Stops at enclosed bus stations that welcome riders with real-time data and device-charging stations.
- Appeals to all commuters because of its reliability, speed, comfort, and cost.
These are all great suggestions. But I have two other thoughts.
Transit Needs Density (and Vice Versa)
The way we build our cities dictates the level of transit use. Elon Musk is right that most people will always choose to drive themselves because of all the annoying things about using transit. Cities should be designed, from the building density to the roadway layout, to encourage transit if you want people to use it.
Cars are fundamentally incompatible with cities due to simple geometry: cities exist so that people can be closer together to share ideas, and pool resources for things like infrastructure, stores, workplaces, etc. Cars, on the other hand, require that things be spread out so that they can easily navigate at high speeds, and will have a place to be stored (i.e. parking). Cars and people have fundamentally opposite needs, and it’s a simple matter of geometry, not values or opinions.
Transit Must Be Sexy
It’s no coincidence that car companies have ads all over the place showing rugged men in trucks, or attractive Millennials in crossovers, or whatever. Car companies have invested a huge amount of money selling cars as a lifestyle, not just a way to get where you’re going.
I’ve always thought that things like T: The MBTA Musical, or the Twitter account @OptimistMBTA are doing a great marketing job of normalizing the MBTA as the default way of getting around Boston. Sadly, the PVTA doesn’t have any similar level of cultural presence, though could benefit greatly from that kind of media exposure. People need to be reminded of why they should ride transit, because otherwise they’re being hit over the head constantly of why they should be driving.
Of course, cultural cache and urban design aren’t really within the control of a transit agency. I at least have hope for Springfield, however, that some of the issues that are within their control can be engineered to the benefit of the bus service. So many goals, from the economic to the environmental, will be furthered by doing so.
**Note: These views are my own and in no way reflect the opinions of the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority.