It’s A Dangerous Time For Transit

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For ten years, public transit enjoyed a level of growth it hadn’t seen in decades. Not only did ridership increase, the perception of mass transit gained positive traction as more and more young people began to advocate for better transit networks. Meanwhile, car companies were struggling with sales and vehicle miles driven (VMD) were decreasing across the country. It seemed, just maybe, that the reign of the automobile might finally be fading.

But in 2014, there was a sudden shift that changed everything, and that change was ride hailing. Uber’s ridership began doubling and tripling, moving millions of would be transit users per day.

Transit numbers began to plummet, a trend that continues today. Meanwhile, many ambitious transit initiatives such as light rail line implementation, which gained popularity when transit ridership was rising, were massively over-budget, watered down and fraught with problems.

And just like that, ten years of positive movement toward a more robust transit culture began to give way to ailing perceptions via decreased ridership, transit project miss-management, and maybe most of all, the belief that Uber and Lyft are simply better options.

The truly unfortunate piece in all of this is that the recent downturn in transit ridership is often seen as a choice.  Now that the economy is better, more Americans are buying cars, driving more miles and using transit less, the car is ultimately the better choice once again?  Right?

Maybe not so much.  At a time when young people were frantically asking for a mode of transit other than driving, transit took time to catch up.  Still vastly underfunded compared to much of the industrialized world, public transit expansion was just beginning to scratch the surface when Uber and Lyft began to ramp up operations.  Tired of waiting, and faced with a better choice than driving, albeit a far more expensive one than public transit, Americans embraced ride hailing.  Our country’s sloth-like reaction to the changing wants and needs of younger generations made for a fertile soil of alternative mobility, one which ride hailing companies quickly swept in an took advantage of.

I occasionally drive for Uber.  One thing that truly surprised me when I first started driving is how many people working at retail and fast food establishments were using Uber to go home to their low income neighborhoods.  Often, these riders would tell me that they either had to spend $30 a day to get to and from work in a timely fashion via Uber, or else deal with hour-long bus rides each way, with additional waits at the bus stop.  The choice was clear… spend 2-3 hours of their paycheck for 20-30 round trip commutes, or waste more than two hours of their day on or waiting for a bus.

I’ve said it before.  The “choice” to spend an enormous percentage of one’s paycheck on ride hailing is a direct indictment of just how underfunded our transit systems are, and how slowly they have changed with the evolving needs and desires of Americans today. If time is money, and to some extent it is, public transit in its current state cannot compete with cars and car-oriented mobility options.

Does this mean that transit is doomed to fall lifeless into the vast chasm of sub-mediocrity that we’ve seen for decades across the U.S.? We don’t yet know. What we do know is that the deck is once again stacked against public transit, not just due to lack of funding, but due to the perception that transit had a chance, and people chose otherwise. The likely truth is that when this country began asking for a better choice, lawmakers, investors and cities in general were slow and, in general, ineffective in embracing the power of good transit that serves people over economic interests. Transit projects floundered in the wake of skepticism, and most of the projects that did react to the desire of young Americans were so watered down in their execution that the effect was decidedly anemic.

Smart public transit investment will always be the key to making our cities more equitable, more environmentally conscious and more congestion-free.  If done right, it can move people efficiently, spur investment effectively and welcome younger generations that still desire a robust transit network more than their parents and grandparents.  But the new narrative that transit growth was just a fad spurred by dreamy millennials, coupled with the sentiment that Uber and Lyft simply provide a better solution is very real.  Blend these with plummeting ridership across the country and one could easily come to the conclusion that people don’t really want or need public transit anymore.

It’s a dangerous time.  It’s a time when, more than ever, we not only have to fight for transit funding, we have to fight for it when it appears to the casual observer that it’s not working.  Asking taxpayers and lawmakers for something that’s in demand is often hard enough.  Trying to convince those same parties that more funding will help reverse a negative trend in today’s curious economic and political climate is next to impossible.  Now, more than ever, we must work to educate in an effort to change the dimming view of public transit going forward.