Today’s Transit: Walking The Tightrope Between Choice And Necessity

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I’ve written extensively about Detroit’s QLINE and its goal to fuel downtown growth by providing visitors, city-goers and sports fans a sort of Disney-style transit experience that offers an attractive transit choice for those looking for a good time. I’ve also noted that, in a city still divided by racial and socioeconomic boundaries, it does little to do what transit’s first goal should always be… to provide all citizens equal access to jobs and resources, regardless of the ability to own a car.

Detroit’s QLINE Streetcar

And yet the QLINE is one of many new transit initiatives in our country that cater to predominantly white, middle and upper middle class riders and their desire to navigate the city using an array of alternative transit choices. In other words, I’d put hard money on the fact that that a large majority of QLINE ridership are people who own cars, but welcome the choice not to have to use them in situation of convenience, or indulgence (transit is great for those who want to drink a great deal and still get home safely without breaking the bank).

On the other side of the coin, my home city of Rochester, New York has no urban rail network. Our bus ridership is predominantly made up of a population that relies on the bus every day in order to reach jobs and resources.

Full disclosure, I am one of the privileged Americans. I ride transit because often it’s a better choice for me (and because I love it), not because I have no other option. But my awareness of this fact makes me the perfect person to write this piece.

Across our country, the pressure for better public transit continues to push against underfunded local municipal budgets. But this isn’t anything new… what’s new is the population that is begging for new change. For decades, those who rely on public transit to access jobs and resources have been clamoring for a better approach to affordable, equitable urban mobility. But today, a population of young, educated, middle-class and upper-middle-class urban-goers is also asking for better urban transit choices. Because people who have means are expressing their desire to leave the car behind and choose convenient transit, our cities are jumping out of their skin to cater to these to this population… but the demand for good transit has been there for decades in our cities. Only now, when privileged, predominantly white young Americans are screaming for a car-light lifestyle are our cities rushing to accommodate the need for robust mass transportation.

Albany’s BusPlus hybrid BRT Red Line connects Albany with Schenectady, with more such lines in the works

Our leaders are still stuck between the need to cater to a younger, privileged generation that desires convenient transit choices, and a poorer, typically minority-based population that simply needs transit to provide basic access to jobs and services. In some cases, these are one and the same. Everyone needs sensible, frequent reliable and convenient service. But when funding is always the key issue, the question of where to distribute major routes is a matter of contention. Should service favor those who live in neighborhoods that rely on transit, or should transit be used to generate economic investment in the services of emerging neighborhoods? Do we invest in light rail, or will a simple bus do the trick? Do we market to a new generation of potential riders or provide better service to our current daily-use patrons?

Buffalo’s NFTA Metro Rail

In an ideal world, we would never have to ask this question. European transportation systems notoriously provide plentiful coverage for the transit-dependent and the transit-choosers.

A modern streetcar in Edinburgh, Scotland

But in an America that has been built around automobile culture, the funding will likely never be there to even come close to this model. The real hope is that eventually, private funding will take care of transit for those with means in an effort to create strong, attractive downtowns and regions where everyone wins. But this funding will likely never reach the folks who depend on transit to access community resources and get to work every day.

This debate will rage on without clearly defined paths or answers. Creative thinking and precise data regarding ridership, employer location and population density will be key elements of a strong system. But in most cases, municipalities will likely have to say “this is the best we can do” and move on, leaving populations in both camps wanting more.