Thursday, December 24, 2009

Transit Fallacies, Part 3- Who Rides?

(This is the third in a series of posts about the way we think about transit. You can also read parts 1 and 2.)

Who is public transit intended for? It seems like a simple question, and like many simple questions, it has a simple answer, right there in the name. Public transit is intended for the public, meaning everyone. Public transportation providers should focus on meeting the needs of everyone in their community. Many providers do this- San Francisco's Muni, for example, plans their system to put a bus stop within a certain radius of every home or business in the city. However, public transit commentary in places without a strong transit culture often focuses on segments of society, assuming that they make up the only people who ride.

I speak, of course, of the young, the old, the poor and the disabled.

Out here in the suburbs, it is assumed that every able-bodied adult posess a driver's license and have access to an automobile in the course of their daily lives. This phenomenon is widely known as "car culture." We assume, then, that by-and-large, able-bodied adults do not ride public transit. Those who do must be so indigent as to be unable to afford a car. This small portion of the adult population that rides is assumed to be supplemented by those too young to drive, those to old to drive safely (or who are poor because of their retirement), and those who are unable to drive. Even transit advocated are guilty of making these assertions. It is common that pro-transit arguments are made in the name of ensuring the mobility of these disadvantaged groups. (I'm guilty of it myself, when arguing to save the 36-Calimesa.) While making sure that these people have a form of basic mobility is a noble goal, it ought not be the sole goal of public transit, nor a key component in how we think about transit.

When public transit is made efficient and attractive, able-bodied adults will happily ride it. Not everyone wants the expense of owning, maintaining and operating a piece of heavy machinery. Certainly there are those who will never set foot on a public bus in their lives on principle, but I contend that they are in the minority. In San Francisco, nearly as many trips are made via transit as driving, and driving does not account for a majority of trips. (It accounts for a plurality, 40%, to be sure, but the remaining 60% is split evenly between transit and human power.) Most automobile trips are made by suburban commuters. And the San Francisco Muni is largely a bus system. Ask anyone on the 30-Stockton through Chinatown and Little Italy about adults riding transit, and they'll tell you volumes- assuming they have enough room on board to breathe. Even drivers appreciate the transit system, whenever the Bay Bridge is closed or crowded, or their vehicles break down. The usual response to vehicle malfunctions in Riverside is a call to the car rental agency.

The short-sightedness of our conception of transit's ridership affects the way we think about transit systems and routes. RTA does a fantastic job, even in outlying areas, of serving senior centres, hospitals, and public high schools. Marked on bus maps are places like the Social Security Office and the Dept. of Social Services, and colleges are used as transfer points throughout the service area. The implication is clear- this system was designed with the needs of the young, the old, and the poor in mind. While the system in the City of Riverside manages to serve a reasonably large portion of the city, the seemingly random deviations of routes like Murietta's #23 are a direct result of how we think about public transit's ridership. The bus is paid for by everyone, and it should serve the needs of everyone.

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