How to Engage With Transit Agencies That Resist Change

Photo: Chris Yarzab/Flickr
Photo: Chris Yarzab/Flickr

Ask someone who rides the bus how they feel about their local transit agency, and they’ll probably say they’re frustrated. Transit consultant Jarrett Walker at Human Transit says that’s perfectly normal, and healthy to a degree. After all, most transit service in the U.S. leaves a lot to be desired.

But if you want to improve transit service, it’s important to recognize the constraints your transit agency deals with every day. Walker points to the ways that federal regulations, inflexible labor agreements, and politically-driven decisions by elected officials can undermine transit service — factors that are often outside the influence of transit agencies:

When a bus is late, do you blame the city that decided not to have bus lanes or other transit priority, or do you just blame the transit agency?

When a planning process seems bureaucratic and unresponsive, do you blame the Federal rules that they have to follow, or do you just blame the transit agency?

When it’s hard to walk from a bus stop to your workplace, do you blame the road department that designs and manages the street, or do you just blame the transit agency?

When you see a transit agency’s ridership falling, do you consider outside cause like low gas prices?  Do you consider non-ridership goals the agency may be pursuing?  Or do you just assume that the agency is failing.

If there isn’t enough service in your area, do you blame the elected leaders (and voters) who refuse to fund transit properly, or do you blame the transit agency for serving someone else when they should be serving you?

Transit agency staff can act defensive and unresponsive if riders scream at them for factors beyond their control, says Walker. That doesn’t let transit agencies off the hook for the factors they can control. But if advocates want to win better service, they need to understand the broader political landscape and direct their energy accordingly.

More recommended reading today: Seattle Bike Blog reports that a local high school junior fed up with the traffic around his school has produced a plan to calm the streets — and it’s better than the city’s. And Toole Design Group says the cities on Amazon’s “HQ2” short list show that free-flowing highways are not what attracts companies these days.

  • keenplanner

    How about 20+ transit agencies who care more about protecting their kingdoms than providing transit users with the most convenient experience?
    Welcome to the Bay Area, where you can’t get on that GG Transit bus because as they aren’t allowed to pick up passengers in SF, and you’ll always have to take the stairs up from BART to go back down to MUNI.
    Local transit agencies think it’s a great gift to allow you to use Clipper Cards! Coordinated schedules aren’t even attainable. It’s like MTC hired the Marx Brothers to plan bus service.
    We’ve been putting up with this since the dawn of transit, so people don’t realize how much it undermines the transit system. Even SPUR won’t advocate combining agencies. Why?

  • david vartanoff

    Well said, keenplanner. Two Cal students gave a lovely presentation at anAC Transit BOD mtg several years ago pointing out that lack of fare integration and schedule coordination hobbled riders. Best recent case–SMART timed NB trains to leave San Rafael 4 minutes after GGT buses arrive from El Cerrito/Richmond–IF on time. Do the agencies ever even talk to each other?

  • Edward

    I was planning to check out SMART. I live in Berkeley. Google Maps showed no connection between the lines you mention as it considered the timing too close to be practical. I had to check the individual schedules to see the problem.

  • Edward

    In Germany they have regions with several agencies, but they have uniform ticketing so the system is transparent to the user. Yes, Clipper allows you to use a singe card across systems, but try to figure out the fare before hand and you have your work cut out for you.

  • Jason

    Not that this solves the underlying problem but it wouldn’t shock me if Transit App was better able to handle picking a route that could accommodate the tight connection time (even if the solution it came up with was to just wait for the next departure).

  • Jaiden Marble

    I’d recommend Citymapper. My favorite transit app by far.

  • bikecar101.com

    Understanding the transit system internal administrative structure is important. From our advocacy efforts, we have been in a ‘holding pattern’ at a mid-level position at both ‘Metro’ and ‘Metrolink’. Although, after approaching the board members of each organization, the path toward change became extremely apparent. Of course, this requires using time and energy to attend board meetings and commenting on relevant agenda items and gaining an understanding of the path forward for change on a given issue. In the end, persistence is key toward success.

  • kastigar

    “Walker points to the ways that … inflexible labor agreements…

    The transit agencies AGREE to the labor agreements, so don’t make this sound like it’s a problem exacerbated by labor. All the transit agency need to do is change things in the next labor contract.

  • Michel S

    This assumes organized labor would accept any changes the transit agency tries to make, but that’s rarely what happens. Transit worker unions don’t have to maintain the same level of PR that the agencies themselves do, and they use this to their advantage. Riders can hate the union all they want, but the union never has to answer for it or defend their intransigence. I think unions are great in theory, but if the interests of the union are not invested in improving the industry they’re meant to be running, then what’s the point?

  • Rogue Cyclist

    I tried to plan a day trip to Santa Rosa. The GGT 101 alternative isn’t much better when transferring from the East Bay. There’s a 45 min wait from one bus to another on the weekends.

    At least the last southbound SMART gets to San Rafael before the last 40 bus.

  • Earl D.

    Transit agencies are the just the longitudinal accumulation, along the time axis, of transit policies, priorities and leadership of the politicians that run and fund them. The best way to get responsive, well run transit agencies is to elect politicians that use mass transit regularly.

    It’s astounding the degree to which politicians in major transit cities like NYC, Chicago, Philadelphia and SF don’t take public transportation. It should be a prerequisite for public office. Case in point: the 2015 22 day Muni challenge was one of the best things that happened to SF politics and it was instructive to see who was serious, e.g. Weiner, and who was not, e.g. Campos.

  • Taurussf

    You mean like fucking Caltrain? Those people are truly dysfunctional and actively antagonistic when it comes to bike access.

    Why should we beg these jackasses for service? We’re the customers. When over 10% of your ridership says they want to bring bikes on the train, you fucking well make it so they can bring their bikes on the train, And you don’t deliberately throw obstacles in the way of expanded service.

    Right now, Caltrain is once again proposing a design for the bike cars that does not have seats in view of the bicycles. This guarantees theft as they also don’t allow bikes to be locked to the racks. This has been tremendously unpopular the last several times staff has suggested it, and we should not have to keep reminding them.

    If this pisses you off, get involved with the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition’s BIKES ONBoard program. The reality is that transit agencies do not work for you unless you make them do it.

  • RGD

    That is all true. They tried to electrify Caltrain, so that they might have faster service and also be able to afford (assuming subsidies did not drop) more frequent service, and be able fit the service onto the tracks due to electric trains’ superior performance, only to have its funding vetoed by Trump’s transportation executive.
    Additionally, do you really think Caltrain does not know that 10+% of their ridership wants to bring bikes on the train? They would be stupid if they did not. It is just as probable that they know, and are frustrated by a lack of funding, carriage space, or some other factor that is not clear to the public.
    Once again, with the racks, there is probably a reason. I do not know what this might be, but someone at Caltrain would likely be able to tell you.
    That said, if there are reasons for the current suboptimal situation, then Caltrain should be transparent and open to their riders about what is preventing them from taking actions. You should not need to go to begging for information as to why problems with your transit exist.

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