Sunday, December 6, 2009

Transit Fallacies, Part 1- The "Commuter" fallacy

I want to do a series of posts on how we think about public transit, especially in Southern California. Of course, most of this applies to pretty much everywhere in the country aside from New York City. J.H. Crawford, author of the book Carfree Cities, says on his web site that most Americans think of public transit as a "second-class service for second-class citizens." I think that most I.E. residents expect second-class citizens to buy cheap cars. So I've got my work cut out for me.

The first misunderstanding about transit service, and this is a worryingly common one, is that transit service exists for people traveling to work and back. Essentially all transit service is often referred to as "commuter" service. Here's an example from the Press-Enterprise, calling the upcoming E St. BRT a "commuter line". And here's the Los Angeles Times calling the Metro Blue Line passengers "commuters", and they should know better. Now, granted, many people who do use transit are commuters. Work trips are a significant portion of the trips that any of us make on a day-to-day basis. However, they're not the only trips we make. In fact, I rarely make my commute trips on transit. I bike the two miles to school, where I also work. I use transit for other trips entirely. And think about it- We would never say that the only people who use our streets are commuters, nor our freeways. Even cycling doesn't have this problem- nobody calls the Santa Ana River Trail a "commuter" facility, even though many do use it to commute.

You might think that I'm getting worked up about a slight difference in nomenclature. That is the sort of thing that I'm famous for- ask my family and friends. However, this actually makes a difference. If we think that transit service is only for commuters, we tend to provision transit service only for commuters. This means express buses that run only during rush hour, or that run out in one direction and then go out-of-service, only to repeat the same route to pick up more passengers at their origin. (RTA keeps this to a minimum, but still manages to do it on the 210 to Banning/Beaumont. VVTA was really bad at this.) It means that local bus systems shut down at 8 pm because most people are home from work by then. It means limited weekend service, and no weekend express service at all. It means no weekend service at all in some areas. It means Metrolink can justify providing a skeleton network on the weekends, and then cut that when it becomes monetarily inconvenient.

The fact of the matter is that people ride transit for all sorts of trips, not just work-related ones. And they would ride it more often for non-work-related trips if the systems were not designed around 9-5 jobs, Monday-Friday. Even worse, many jobs these days aren't 9-5 Monday-Friday, and so those who have odd work schedules end up going to great lengths to get to their jobs without a car. I met a man one night on one of the last Omni 90 buses (now 215). He was going to his job in San Bernardino. His shift started at 8 or 9 pm, and ended at 2 in the morning. He brought his bike, because he had to ride it the 20 miles back home. He did this 5 days a week.

No, transit passengers aren't always commuters. And commuters aren't always who you think they are. Our transit system should be designed for everybody.

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