We need to talk about how we talk about transit

This post builds off David Zipper’s article “How to save America’s public transit system from a doom spiral”. Yes, I know I missed the two-day lifecycle of stories on the internet, but I was busy. This is also in reaction to the framing for transit funding I have been hearing at presentations about the transit fiscal cliff in California.

I trust that most of my readers will agree that we need to save transit from a doom spiral. So the question is how we build the political support for new funding sources. I am wary of the narrative I am reading/hearing of curtailing congestion and replacing car trips as the way to build support for transit funding. It is too narrow a frame in two regards. First, we need an inclusive narrative to build the large coalition needed to support transit right now.  Second, we need a narrative that allows us to shift the conversation to include both the benefits of transit and the costs of driving.

My frame is that transit should be competitive with driving. By this I mean transit should be a reasonable choice compared to driving for most trips people take in relatively high-density areas. There are lots of conversations to have about how to measure this, my former colleagues at the MBTA proposed some ways. At a high level I am considering comparisons on time, financial cost, safety, and comfort.   

Talking about transit as competitive is more inclusive than talking about transit replacing car trips. Transit should be a good option for everyone, especially for people without cars! Speed, frequency and reliability are important, and so are network design and span of service.

Framing the argument for transit as replacing car trips impacts decisions around the design of transit networks. Using this argument, resources are put into service that cater to drivers (historically, the peak work trip) and not the needs of current transit riders. I wrote my dissertation on this 13 years ago[1]. Even before the pandemic, the majority of trips people made were non-work trips. The pandemic gave us an opportunity to reorient transit service away from the peak work trip to meet travel needs more broadly. Let’s not lose this moment by reverting back to the transit is needed to reduce congestion argument. That argument was used for years, with limited success in increasing ridership and negative impacts on service for transit’s core riders.

In my thinking, the reverse is true: traffic congestion drives up transit ridership because congestion increases the time cost of driving allowing transit using dedicated lanes and rails to be competitive. (Congestion is a major reason why before the pandemic commuter rail ridership was surging and bus ridership was declining.) We should improve off-peak transit to make it a better option compared to driving on non-congested (and over-built) roads.  

Another problem with framing the need for transit by talking about the people not riding it is we forget that people are riding transit. Ridership hasn’t fully recovered, but there are still millions of transit trips being taken every day in the U.S. Transit is working to get people to jobs, school, doctor’s appointments, grocery shopping, and social events. Transit isn’t failing; the funding model and focus on serving peak office work trips is failing. And if we don’t shore up funding, millions of people will be impacted. This isn’t abstract; poverty and unemployment will go up, social isolation will increase. (Also ridership isn’t the best metric for the benefits of transit.)  

‘Transit should be competitive’ is also a good framing because it allows us to consider the cost of driving and the cost of transit in a single framework. Realistically if we want transit to be competitive with driving we need to increase the cost of driving (in time and money) and reduce the costs (mostly time) of transit. This means bus lanes, transit signal priority and other relatively low capital cost ways to speed up transit. And it potentially means making the cost of driving more expensive – parking costs, gas, congestion pricing, etc.  

We are spending a lot of time talking about whether we should make transit free or means-test fares for low-income riders. We need to flip this conversation (h/t to Tom Radulovich at Livable City) and talk about raising the cost of driving and means-testing to reduce the cost for low-income drivers. And we should keep transit fares low or free depending on the circumstances (there is not a one-sized fits all fare policy) because we want everyone to take transit.

Safety is important. Transit is statistically competitive in regard to safety, but the prevailing narrative around transit and perceptions of safety doesn’t convey this. Riding transit is safer than driving or riding in a personal vehicle. Never concede that transit is the unsafe option! It allows decision-makers to continue to ignore just how unsafe driving is (particularly for people who are not riding in vehicles). My biggest risk as a transit rider comes from crossing the street to get to the bus stop, not other riders. Transportation advocates need our narratives to match the real risks so we can get the policy attention on the right things. And the biggest transportation safety problem right now is posed by motor vehicles and their drivers, often going too fast. We need policies to slow down driving, which will have the side benefit of making transit more competitive.  

A lot of the transit safety conversation is actually about the discomfort and fear that comes from being in proximity to people whose actions we cannot control or always predict. To ride public transit is to come face to face with a wide cross section of society. Some of our discomfort arises from not wanting to, or knowing how to, process seeing that our society is persistently failing people. Transit is the site of this discomfort because it is one of the remaining truly shared public spaces in our society.

Transit agencies need assistance from other parts of government to address homelessness, mental health, and drug addiction with methods that center crisis care and prevention, and not enforcement and criminalization. This assistance is needed for the people in crisis, to increase comfort (and in some cases safety) for other riders, and for the well-being and safety of frontline transit employees. Addressing the root cause of these issues requires major policy change outside the control of transit agencies. Transit agencies do have a role to address harassment and other harmful behaviors on their services and should let impacted riders lead the way (see BART Not One More Girl).

I know all of this: more transit service, bus lanes, increasing the cost of driving, honestly addressing the safety risks of driving, is politically difficult. Due to a long history of land use and transportation decisions, drivers are now a powerful multi-racial, multi-class, cross party coalition in U.S. politics. And unfortunately, as the cost of car ownership increases and, in some parts of the U.S., housing becomes more expensive near high-quality transit, more people who can’t afford vehicles are stuck driving. (For transit to be competitive transit riders need to be able to afford to live near it.)

To overcome the ingrained power of drivers, transit needs a big coalition. We need the people currently taking transit who want better service. We need the drivers who want a reasonable alternative. We need the drivers who can’t comfortably afford their cars but are stuck without other options. We need the climate and environmental justice activists and the people working for more housing in US cities. And yes, we do need the people who want less traffic for themselves.

We need to frame the conversations about transportation to focus attention on the problems and get us to the solutions we need. Transit should be competitive provides a framework for transit that works for all types of riders, and recognizes that the costs, including safety, of driving need to be part of the conversation.

Finally, we need to lift up the ways transit is working. Our narratives should focus on the people currently riding (remember the essential workers). We should talk about how safe transit is compared to driving. Transit in the U.S. isn’t half empty, it is more than half full!  

[1] The Twin Cities showed up as very high in work trip usage in my dissertation dataset. So I went and interviewed the planners at Met Council to ask why and they said because we designed the network to do that. Twin City Metro ridership in 2022 was 50% of 2019 ridership, below the national average of recovery.