Public transit’s vicious cycle


Minnesotans crave public transportation. The support is solid, despite the fact certain governors and legislators in St. Paul don’t want to listen. When they don’t listen, public transportation gets stuck in this almost-good-enough stasis.  We seem to see ourselves on the cusp of that major breakthrough, only to have Gov. Pawlenty drain over 40 million dollars of transit funding.

Survey numbers previously cited on the site show large numbers of Americans eager to try out new transportation options.  Numbers are all well and good, but the problem is getting our lawmakers to listen and give us the transportation options we say we want to pay for. It’s not only for the politicians to get on board; transit advocates need (literally) to get on board as well.

In this argument, I’m always led back to a classic article from The Onion titled “Report: 98 Percent Of U.S. Commuters Favor Public Transportation For Others.” The Onion, as always, cuts to the heart of the matter: how do we get all those people who say they like the idea of public transportation to get out and buy a ticket to ride?

The issue has some personal relevance, as I’m as guilty as anyone else on this count. Living in Minneapolis, I was a regular bus rider and only used my car on infrequent occasions to travel distances that would have too many transfers on the bus. I spent a few years abroad without so much as ever sitting behind the wheel. Now, I live in an outer-ring suburb. I’m constantly in my car, and while I know there is a bus system that I could use, I have yet to make use of it. Are my gushing endorsements of a robust transportation infrastructure simply the sort of hypocrisy The Onion amusingly satirizes, or would a more inclusive system get people like me on board?

What The Onion conveys of course is the dissonance between those who express support for transit options and those who actually pay for bus fare. Indeed, converting survey numbers into filled seats is a great hurdle to overcome. We get ourselves stuck in a vicious circle: no one pays for service until it becomes more comprehensive, and it doesn’t get more comprehensive until more people start paying.

The solution comes, as it so often does, from a Kevin Costner film. If we build it, the riders will come. My reasoning? The Hiawatha light rail line’s popularity continues to exceed expectations, and yet its construction was not the result of any loud public demand. As the Twin Cities offer expanded transportation options and a more integrated system, ridership duly increases. Minneapolis and St Paul are becoming more transit-friendly, and the riders are coming. Twins fans are actively encouraged to access the new stadium by bus or rail. Now it is time for Minnesota’s other cities to start doing the same. Even tiny La Crescent has launched a successful program linking by bus their city with La Crosse, Wisconsin just across the state border.

Although the numbers clearly indicate overwhelming support for expansion, transit is seldom a hot button issue and thus tends to get less attention than more controversial topics. It is up to us Minnesotans who support these options to do so actively. We need to drop our own coins in the fare box instead of just advocating the bus as a preferred option for other people. It’s obviously not always possible to make use of public transportation, but it’s not much fun embodying an Onion punch line.

One thought on “Public transit’s vicious cycle

  1. Thank you for turning down the volume a bit on transit.  A small dose of humility among backers is not only a rare treat, but it helps the movement much more than the usual sneering.

    I think that the biggest problem we have is that we’ve been unable to make small plans – small improvements that make a big difference and stretch our transit dollars as far as they can.  MCTO has terrible public service, and bus pass sales offices have limited hours.  Schedules posted online are often wrong. There is a WiFi signal on all buses, but it’s not for public use.

    Small things add up quickly, and the MCTO just isn’t making the best of what it has.

    Combine this with a tendency to spend millions of dollars building great big, over-engineeried lines that cost a billion overall, and we have a problem.  If the MCTO was really focused on the customer, the Central Corridor would and could have been designed for much less money, implemented fast, and cost much less overall.  But they took a top-down approach and forced a system and a design on people, got it mired in lawsuits, and generated the maximum amount of controversy possible.

    Advocates for transit, like you and I, should demand a lot better from the Met Council and the MCTO.  Yes, we want transit – and as a car-free person I rely on it.  But that doesn’t mean we should back whatever the Planners of Great Things throw at us and look the other way when MCTO ignores all the details that make a system work.  On the contrary, activisim should including demanding more for our money, just as … get this … Republicans often do.  That’s why other cities, including relatively Republican Charlotte, NC, have done a much better job of implementing transit than we have.

    In short, we have to insist on the best and work to make it happen one detail at a time.  We should accept no BS, grandstanding, and meglomania.  Your posting, with its sense of humility and directness, is a great help.  Thanks.  Let’s keep talking the straight talk and make something happen!

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