[This is part of streets.mn’s “transpo convo” series, which aims to be an oral history of getting around the Twin Cities, one person at a time.]
Compiled below are statements recorded from people who have the means to drive and choose to usually drive over taking mass transit:
“When I first got married, I used to take the bus, but now we have two cars and I’m so happy to not have to do that anymore.”
“I don’t want to wait around after work for the bus. I just want to go home.”
“I would take the bus, but what if one of my kids gets sick at school? It would take too long to get back to them and then back to work. I can’t miss that much time from work.”
“I would take the bus more, but it only goes by my house every 30 minutes, every hour on weekends. If I miss it, I can’t wait for the next one.”
“The people on the bus make me feel uncomfortable. They use foul language. They are loud. I don’t know if I’m safe.”
“I would take the bus, but I’m a photographer. I have a lot of photography equipment that I carry around with me and I just can’t take all of that on the bus.”
“I normally take the bus, but today I had to pick up my child after school. It just didn’t work out.”
“It’s not possible for us to take the bus to work. We have to go to meetings downtown, carrying poster board and other things. We need to drive to those meetings. It wouldn’t work on the bus.”
“I’m afraid I’ll get lost or won’t know where I’m supposed to get on or off of the bus.”
“I would never take a bus. But, I do like to drive (from Saint Paul) to the park and ride (in Bloomington) to take the train to Vikings games. That works out well.”
“I don’t always have correct change for a bus and the bus won’t give me change. It is just easier to drive.”
“If the bus shelters didn’t smell like a men’s bathroom, I’d take the bus.”
“I have to walk a mile to get to the bus stop.”
“There are too many germs on the bus. Think of how many people have sat in those seats and used those hand holds.”
All About Attitude
At first glance, the question “What’s stopping others from using transit more regularly” seems to be an easy answer. Convenience. After all, a popular saying in the US used to be, “this is the best thing since sliced bread.” But is the answer more complicated than that?
Listening more deeply, and if one had the ability to converse with people who have made these statements, would we find that another theme is actually freedom to choose? After all, many people who cannot afford a car or are in a situation where they cannot obtain a driver’s license also face many of these obstacles, but due to their circumstances must face them on transit. Making mass transit more convenient would certainly improve the quality of life for users who need to take transit, but would the others take transit or still choose to drive? And would those who are currently without a car still choose to buy a car once they could afford one or obtain a license?
Every organization, whether governmental, non-profit, or for profit, needs to clearly define its customer base in order to operate effectively. So, rather than asking “what’s stopping others from using transit more regularly,” the better question might be, “what criteria should be used to determine how Metro Transit resources are used?” Who should be defined as a Metro Transit customer and how do we use public dollars to best serve them?
The attitudes of the majority of people who own cars seems to be that transit use is for those who are less fortunate. Does that mean transit use should be treated like welfare, where it is a means to improve one’s life and then not used once one can afford other options? Or should transit customers include the business class, where transit is used to ensure employees get to work on time and investments can be made to expand offices on campus rather than to expand parking lots? Would more investment mean more convenience and better service for all? Or would those with the political clout still get the best service? Would the well off be better served through a more private transit system, like Google and other tech companies provide in San Francisco?
Once questions start getting raised, it becomes a complicated issue, even among transit supporters. Debates are made about what is the higher priority– speed or access, increase frequency of all routes or provide more service to underserved areas, etc. One can see why there is controversy and why it is a long, slow process to get any changes made to the transit system, especially in a country that values power and where the freedom to make choices is itself an example of exercising one’s own power.