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The false choice around transit (and what we can do about it)

Marc Lefkowitz  |  06/05/15 @ 2:00pm  |  Posted in Transit

As Ohio lawmakers prepare to vote next week on a state budget which had a modest $1 million increase for transit before even that was cut, we're left wondering, why is transit so often confused with charity?

Jarrett Walker has a theory: The language we use to describe transit is “binary” and that leads to false choices.

Walker, a consultant to transit agencies and a blogger at Human Transit, talks about liberating transit from traps like “rail versus bus” or “choice rider versus dependent rider.”

Forget about rail versus bus, he told a crowd at Congress for New Urbanism. “Do you really care about the technology under the floor?”

<br />Passengers board an RTA train in Cleveland. Image: Jerry Masek.

The rail obsession, Walker says, comes from the mistaken belief that infrastructure is immortal. “Rail guarantees permanence. No. High ridership guarantees permanence. It causes rail.”

Walker understands the origin of the false choice problem, but thinks it needs to be challenged so that transit can move ahead.

“Who wouldn’t want riders to be just like them,” he comments. “But, it’s probably the single most destructive thing. We’re supposed to make ‘choice’ riders leave their car in the driveway. Meanwhile, we have the ‘captive’ rider like he’s in a dungeon. It fosters the illusion that everything happens between these two.”

A more precise language for transit would answer, where do people go?

If you want to know how to feel about transit, ask the people who use it. Walker cites the example of the BART in San Francisco which surveyed its riders about their satisfaction. Even though most people complained, he thinks the transit agency did the right thing.

“If people don’t feel satisfied, it could be because they’re not satisfied. It could be because we're not bringing the value into transit,” he concludes.

The problem for transit often begins from the outside—from planners and architects who are building it into projects but “who don’t really understand what it is.”

“If transit access doesn’t support great service, then its a symbol,” Walker explains.

Transit often comes up later in development projects, and it is seen as a cost to infrastructure.

“Instead, if we want the market to respond positively, it has to be a decision about where we want to go.”

Transit needs some fundamental things in place to work well, he says, like compact land use. Transit supportive decisions are often out of the control of the transit agency, and instead rest with cities. States are in a make it or break it position on transit as a primary support through funding.

Walker advises, transit should not be equated with innovation. 

“We select against innovation every day. We expect the bus drivers and mechanics to do the same thing all the time. We don’t want the bus driver to innovate.”

Ohio Senate Transportation Committee Chair Gayle Manning submitted an amendment for a transit budget increase of $2.8 million each of the next two years. If you would like to write your Representative in support of the Manning transit amendment, The Ohio Organizing Collaborative has a form letter and talking points.

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