I ride the bus. I don’t own a car. My family walks everywhere, from the grocery store to our baby’s day care center. I have a subscription to Citibike and use it widely. We are grateful for the free trolley service and do take the occasional Uber. Mostly, I do all those critically, thinking about the experience, comfort, location, design, accessibility and usage. I sat on a crowded bus a few days ago, and I made a point to look at the distribution of stops, the convenience of the service, the demographics of the users, and the design of cars and stops. While an overly aggressive and loud political shouting match went on aboard the bus, I thought about the arguments in the winner-take-all war between mass transit and the private car.
A few years back, I was involved in a discussion about car ads. A well-meaning friend, international leader of urbanism, complained that in her country the text for a car ad read “don’t smell like transit”. Don’t smell like transit. That’s harsh. The group concluded that it was a racist, classist, excluding text that did more harm than good. I disagreed. That text was merely exposing a pain -a very real, albeit a racist and classist one- and using it as a sales pitch. And it obviously worked.
Blaming the ad writers for exposing pains won’t make those pains go away. Advertisers conduct focus groups and surveys to define their sales strategies. And anyone who rides the bus would agree.
Comfort is severely compromised while riding the bus. The idea of efficiency of transit systems revolves around the location of stops and the continuity and reliability of service. Not on comfort. That is something we must work on. When was the last time that design contests were held for the redesign of the transit car? Do we ever talk about innovation in transit cars? Has any transit operator shifted to think of riding as an experience and designed it around the user?
Cleanliness is part of the experience and it is detrimental of overall comfort. Most transit advocates will point to the squeaky clean systems in Korea or Taiwan and the (almost) clean systems in Europe as a sign that local transit systems are doing it wrong by not investing enough. The world recently watched the 2018 World Cup. Japan was one of the 32 teams. Japanese fans cleaned the stalls after using the stadiums and the team cleaned the lockers after being eliminated from the tournament. No wonder their subway cars are impeccable. Europe? Not so much, but close enough for rock’n’roll, as they say. Perhaps that is not just a matter of investing more in cleaning.
Good Public health is in the interest of the whole community and one individual’s poor habits might end up endangering the community as a whole. Think anti-vaccine activists. Good habits are manifested in a person’s behavior in public places. Societies that have conquered inequality in terms other than just monetary have successfully motivated their entire population to crusade for good habits and good public health, thus creating a good shared experience in the public realm. That is manifested in the state of public facilities that are open to all and used by all.
All this brings us to the state of activism. We are fighting hard against huge money that moves the road-building and automotive industry. Big Motordom as some call it. But to take them on as equals is futile, as is to try to convince -or coerce- more people to deliberately walk into a bad experience by using an unattractive, uncomfortable and unreliable system and do it out of conviction.
We ought to design transit solutions as experiences. Design the service. Design the routes. Integrate the stops and the cars and the streets and the buildings. Put maps, apps and shenanigans to the service of the system. Turn drivers into ambassadors. Make each ride an amusement park ride. Put some color into boring, everyday commutes. Create experiences.
Naïve? Perhaps. But we have seen costs rise and ridership stall. Maintenance, cleanliness and service have declined. Budgets do not come near what is needed to revamp old systems with underpaid operators, fragile infrastructure and unreliable cars. There is the key. Budgets have gone up. $10.3 billion has been budgeted for transit agencies all over the country. We can either keep directing investments to the same -rather unsuccessful- strategies and use the formula-allocated, likely insufficient resources to underfund system overhauls or we could use them to redesign a substandard service into an experience. Would it hurt to try something new?