Friday, June 15, 2012

Choice Riders

Oops! It's been a while since I've posted. Sorry, folks, I'll process refunds right away.

Anyway, I wanted to talk about the rhetoric of transit agencies reaching out to "choice riders." You often hear about efforts to entice "choice riders" on to transit systems, by providing special bus service or special amenities that will lure these elusive creatures out of their steel boxes. Quite frankly, I think that this type of thinking is insulting, confusing, and dangerous.

First, it is insulting to the agency's normal rider base. When you separate your ridership in to "choice" riders and everyone else, you're saying that everyone else doesn't have a choice. You're saying that it doesn't really matter what kind of service you provide to those riders, because they'll put up with whatever you give them. This is not only insulting, it isn't true. Even the car-free by circumstance* have choices-- they can choose to walk, to ride a bicycle, to call a friend or family member for a ride, to hitchhike, to call a taxi/Craigslist rideshare person, or (probably most commonly) simply not make that trip at all. And that's the real shame-- transit cuts that impact "no-choice" riders really hurt everyone, because they mean that that person is blocked from participating fully in their community, blocked from perhaps getting or keeping a job, from attending community meetings, from giving their children opportunities for after-school activities and enrichment.

But finally, these "no-choice" riders do have one other choice: they can spend way too much of their meager incomes on an old, unreliable rattle-trap of a car, because your transit service was so bad that it's the only choice they have left to make. That's bad for them, that's bad for the environment, that's bad for society.

Second, it's confusing, because "choice riders" are an ill-defined group. When are these people making their choice? I suppose what I'm really getting at is, am I a choice rider? I'm not wealthy by any means, but I really could afford to own and operate a car. I choose not to, but because of that choice I rely heavily on the local transit system (and Chloe). When you divide the world in to "choice riders" and everyone else, you make the unstated assumption that everyone in your service district either owns a car, or can't afford to own a car. Really, transit agencies should make it a priority to enable the creation and expansion of the middle category: the car-free by choice.

Last, it's dangerous, because it creates two tiers of transit service. Public transit should serve community needs, but it shouldn't do so at the expense of having an integrated network. The idea that there are "choice riders" and everyone else leads to Metrolink Syndrome, where there is a peak-hour peak-direction express transit network (connected to plentiful parking), and a local all-day transit network, and never the twain shall meet. This kind of network planning assumes that, while people might want to ride transit in the city during the work week, they'll always be drivers when they're at home in the suburbs. This is exactly the opposite of what we should be encouraging. I'm all for having park-and-rides as a short-term solution, because the truth is that our transit network isn't yet at the point where it serves everyone's needs effectively (especially in places like Banning and Murrieta, where RTA provides lots of service to park-and-ride lots), but by running express service exclusively to those park-and-ride lots, you send the message that your local transit network and your express network are completely unrelated. Nobody is supposed to take the express bus back from LA and then get on a local bus to go home-- indeed, nobody can.

So let's stop talking about "choice riders" and everybody else, and instead simply focus on providing transit that works for everybody. Good-quality transit will serve the needs of the car-free-by-circumstance, and (if it's good enough) will also entice habitual drivers out of their cars.

*You know who I'm talking about-- the poor, the aged, the disabled, and the young. I refuse to use the word "car-less" on this blog, because I really do think that not having a car is freedom.

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