Public transit 101: read a “how to start a business” book

Original Reporting | By Kevin C. Brown |

David Van Hattum, the policy and advocacy program manager at Transit for Livable Communities, an organization that advocates for improved transit options in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, told Remapping Debate, “How much are you going to invest in your restaurant to build a loyal, committed growing clientele?”

“You can’t expect transformational change without sort of setting up the conditions so that people really see [public transit] as an alternative,” he said.

“The old adage, ‘you can’t make money without spending money,’” Ginsberg added, could apply to expanding public transit, where such an investment wouldn’t result in profits to a venture capital firm, the way a tech startup does, but “is acceptable in terms of social impact terms…because the government isn’t making money on this, but the state will be and the country will be, and the focus of government is to enrich the society, of its people.”


Applying the lessons to public transit

If a cardinal rule of seeking consumer share is to make the product attractive in the first instance, public transit decision-making appears to have violated that rule almost everywhere in the U.S.

The principles that make a transportation option attractive to use are precisely the features absent in many cities in the U.S. where public transit operates, and, perhaps more importantly, absent from many attempts to adopt new systems.

“The three key things” for keeping and attracting ridership, said Graham Currie of Monash University, are, “No.1: service frequency. No. 2: service frequency. And you will never guess what no. 3 is.”

“We won’t get radical change in the population until we can give people a competitive alternative” to using their cars, said Graham Currie.

In many places low frequency “is a hindrance,” said Jeff Wood, because if a local bus “doesn’t come that often” — say, every 15 minutes, at least — “then you are not going to take it, you are going to buy a car and hop in and go whenever you want to go.”

A related problem in American cities is that public transit networks don’t go to a sufficient number or variety of destinations, so taking some trips by public transit would be impossible, not simply impractical. Historically, public transit systems have been oriented in a “spoke” arrangement emanating from a city’s central business district, but as commercial centers have grown on the peripheries of cities, such service doesn’t always meet people’s needs. “If you have a region where people live near transit, but they don’t work near transit,” Stephanie Pollack, associate director of research at Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, told Remapping Debate, public transit “is not going to provide a high percentage of trips.”

Even if a system is set up to allow movement to many non-central business district locations, “It is amazing how close you can get to city centers in the states and have systems where transferring is still a nightmare,” said Paul Mees of RMIT University.

Tallahassee, Florida, for example, recently redesigned its transit network to serve suburban destinations more easily, but, because the change was required to be “budget neutral,” the system still suffers from “infrequent service [and] you have long wait times at transfer locations,” a situation that has “hampered” its success, according to Jeffrey Brown, an associate professor in the department of urban and regional planning at Florida State University.

Ultimately, public transit in the United States “is not very good,” said Graham Currie. “So why should people use it?…We won’t get radical change in the population until we can give people a competitive alternative.”


The network effect

The approach to transit advocated by Mees, Currie, and others — not thinking simply in terms of individual lines but upgrading the public transit network as a whole, to the point where people can transfer easily — relies on the idea that the value of a technology increases substantially as more people and places are in the network. “When you have a critical mass,” Currie said, “behaviors change.” (The revolutionary potential of the telephone, for example, was only realized after a certain number of telephones existed.)

If the “network effect” is applicable to public transit, that means that until a dense web of routes with frequent service of routes is present, behaviors will not change, and widespread adoption will not occur. “A car will go everywhere, and a transit system has to compete with that,” said Currie. In order to get widespread adoption of transit, he explained, “We have to create a product: a network…and that means it has to go everywhere.”

“Where public transit is relatively convenient and fast and comfortable and affordable, you do see pretty high ridership,” Todd Litman, founder and executive director at the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, an independent transportation research organization, told Remapping Debate, “and you do see growth in ridership.”

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