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.