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Paying for a More Comfortable Transit Ride

11:00 AM EDT on July 6, 2009

Today on the Streetsblog Network, we bring you some reflections on commuter comfort from network member Cap'n Transit. As he points out in a post called "Many Segments of the Population Are Too Old for This Shit," a lot of people are put off of certain modes of transit because of the perception -- and often the reality -- that they are crowded and uncomfortable (yes, New York subway, we're looking at you).

He points out that higher-priced transit alternatives, such as commuter rail, can prevent at least some of that group from opting for the perceived superiority of the automobile:

6855305_b1a936b9a9_m.jpgNot everyone wants to put up with this. Photo by Shira Golding via Flickr.

I live walking distance from the Woodside LIRR station, and there are times when I will spring for the $5.75 or whatever it is and be home in 25 minutes (if I'm near Penn Station to begin with). Of course, the commuter rail lines don't stop in very many places and they don't all have convenient schedules, but when it works out it's great.

There's [another] option: express buses. As I understand it, many routes were specifically designed to capture some of the market that was leaving the transit system. There was one time when I needed to read books and articles and take notes. The subway was impossible: even if I got a seat, there was nowhere to put the book while I was writing the notes. I tried taking commuter rail, but it was actually too fast to get anything done. What worked pretty well, though, were the express buses. For at least part of every trip I had two seats to myself, and was able to spread out. Even when I didn't, the seats were wide enough that I could manage. And it was quiet: cell phone conversations were kept to a minimum, nobody was rowdy or intrusive. On the way home in the evenings, I think half the bus was snoring.

The commuter trains, of course, are full of people who feel like they're well off enough that they don't want to put up with the noise and dirt of the city. Some of them were born to it, others strove for it. The particular express bus route I rode, I noticed, was full of older black and Puerto Rican women. I never had much of a conversation with them, but I got the feeling that they had taken the subway when they were younger, but after twenty or thirty years in whatever office or bank branch they worked at, they were too old for that. They had earned the $4 price of the bus ride, and the extra time it took to get to Midtown, and they needed it to keep their sanity.

Without the express bus system, these women would be driving cars. Without the commuter trains, the suburbanites would be driving into Manhattan too. These modes are helping transit to work for the middle class. They work. Let's use them more.

Of course, with operating budgets under intense pressure around the country, many transit systems are becoming less comfortable rather than more -- and the price of a ride is going up, to boot. With ridership remaining strong, how are municipalities going to fund the kind of transit systems we need for the future, systems that can attract and retain riders who feel that they've earned the right to a comfortable commute?

If you've got that figured out, let us know in the comments.

Second Avenue Sagas has this proposal: Use market-rate parking to fund transit.

Plus: M-bike.org has some thoughts about yesterday's NY Times piece on Detroit's "potential to become a new bicycle utopia."

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