Transpo Convo: “What’s stopping others from using transit more regularly?”

[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:

At Snelling and University, your choices include walking, taking the bus, taking the train, or driving.

At Snelling and University, your choices include walking, taking the bus, taking the train, or driving.

“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.

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22 Responses to Transpo Convo: “What’s stopping others from using transit more regularly?”

  1. Adam Miller
    Adam Miller March 25, 2015 at 3:40 pm #

    I don’t take the bus very often. Maybe once a year to the Fair and another random time here or there if I decide its too cold to keep walking.

    But I took the bus a few weeks ago from the office to an after work client entertainment event. I think everyone else thought I was weird. I would have too not long ago.

    I don’t normally drive to work, so being able to drive to the event would have meant driving and paying daily rates for parking, which is no fun. Worse yet, it would deprive me of the exercise of the walk. And it was supposed to snow that day, so I’d either have to see if I could separate my wife from her car or take mine, which isn’t that well suited for when it’s actually snowing.

    It was only about two miles to the venue, so I strongly considered walking, but then there was the question of walking in work clothes/shoes in the snow.

    Meanwhile, the bus cost $2.25, left from a block from the office and dropped off a half block from the venue, and would get me there just as fast as driving. Even better, as the event was a scotch tasting, it was probably wiser not to have to operate a vehicle on the way home too.

    In this instance, the bus really made a lot of sense, if you stop for a second to think about it. I don’t think people who drive everywhere often do that.

    • Rosa March 29, 2015 at 10:08 pm #

      Just changing modes – especially to one you’re not familiar with – is hard. I suffer from this every spring and fall. Should I bike? Should I bus? Should I drive? Is there parking? Can I put together a weather- and work-appropriate outfit? Do I have change? Can I find my u-lock? Did I reinstall the lights? Oh crap did they change the bus schedule since last spring? Which is fastest? Is the weather report accurate or is it going to snow on me?

      I decided to drive to work four times this spring and two of them turned out to be horrific mistakes – I got stuck for half an hour at 26th street because of a disabled train, and stuck on 94 for what seemed like forever because of an accident – but one was the absolute right choice because I would have been biking home at 10 pm in damp, windy snow if I rode my bike. So it’s always a gamble, and that can be paralyzing. Nobody likes to make the wrong choice.

      Add to that the fact that a lot of people really don’t know *how* to ride the bus – how do I make the door open? How do I pay? What time is rush hour? Where does the cheap downtown zone start? Was I supposed to ask for a transfer? THERE IS NO SIGN AT THIS BUS STOP WHICH BUS STOPS HERE?

      I think it’s hard to overestimate how much people really don’t like doing things they are not good at, and it’s a lot of effort to change your routines and habits and lose all your specialized knowledge about your usual mode of travel.

      • Nathanael April 12, 2015 at 10:09 pm #

        The Twin Cities has some of the worst bus stop signage I have ever seen in the United States.

        Visit any city whatsoever, and you’ll find nice bus stop signs giving the routes which stop there, and often short summarized route maps saying where they go.

        Twin Cities? “BUS STOP”

  2. Monte Castleman
    Monte Castleman March 25, 2015 at 9:00 pm #

    My own experience the last time I was on a bus. Back in 1987 when my father was out of town on business I had to take the city bus to school since he couldn’t drive me 5 miles from the school bus stop home. The trip went like this:
    1) Walk 1/4 mile to the stop with no shelter
    2) Take the Nicollet bus to 38th street, then wait an hour in a neighborhood I wasn’t comfortable in
    3) Take the 38th street bus (to another stop that had no shelter)
    4) Walk a half mile to school.

    This in all kinds of weather and before air conditioned buses.
    The trip could easily take 2 hours, as opposed to less than an hour on the school bus or a half hour by car. Once my mom got her license we never rode a bus again. Things like commuter coaches are slowly changing the idea out in the suburbs that you only ride a bus if you can’t drive, and light rail doesn’t suffer from that perception at all, but it’s still a common attitude out here. Aside from my aunt who works downtown I don’t know a single person that rides a bus by choice.

  3. John Charles Wilson March 25, 2015 at 9:40 pm #

    I’ll answer these objections one by one:

    *Don’t want to wait around after work…. OK, this makes sense but most buses run frequently at rush hour. Usually your wait is a few minutes. Or you could stop in your local petit bourgeois coffee shop and get a latte for the trip home.

    *Having to carry a lot of equipment…. OK, I admit you have a good reason to drive. This is one case where we’d rather *not* see you on a bus, especially at rush hour.

    *Changes in routine like picking up a child after school…. Congrats for usually using the bus. Don’t feel bad about having to drive occasionally to deal with special issues like this.

    *Afraid of getting lost? The trip planner and GPS are your friends.

    *Would never take the but willing to drive to a P&R to take a train to see a game? OK, you live in Saint Paul. Check out the Trip Planner before saying no to the bus again. You might be surprised.

    *Not having change…. This is a serious issue. GoTo Cards help, but I also think there should be ticket vending machines at all Park & Rides, Transit Centres, and major bus stops.

    *Ah, that men’s bathroom smell. Sorry, can’t help you there.

    *Long walk to nearest bus stop…. Yes, this can be a real problem, especially out in the suburbs. Maybe someday the bus will come closer to your house. Let us pray….

    *Too many germs? Maybe Metro should install sanitizer or sanitary wipe dispensers on buses. Just an idea.

    *Adam, congrats on using Metro as your “designated driver”.

    *Monte, sorry to hear your trip to school was so horrific. Hard to believe you had to wait an hour for a 38. Was the schedule really that bad in 1987? Were you coming from Bloomington?

    Just my 2 cents.

    John

    • Jaron McNamara March 25, 2015 at 10:54 pm #

      “*Don’t want to wait around after work…. OK, this makes sense but most buses run frequently at rush hour. Usually your wait is a few minutes. Or you could stop in your local petit bourgeois coffee shop and get a latte for the trip home.”

      Yes, because obviously every single job, career, gig, etc. a person can possibly have is only going to be between the hours of 9am-5pm M-F.

      Sorry, I don’t mean to get argumentative. When someone says they don’t want to wait around for a bus after work, the general assumption that they have a 9-5/M-F work week is a little pet peeve of mine. I realize in general it is true for a lot of workers. However for those who work non-traditional schedules, the next bus (or train) really can be a wait, 15-45 minutes, or even 1-3 hours, not necessarily just a few minutes. Throw in waiting at a dark and deserted stop or station, closed stores, awful train service at night, long transfer times, etc. and driving can look pretty good.

      • Joe T March 26, 2015 at 8:00 am #

        In the context of this post, this might be a better assumption than typical, as 9-5 jobs typically pay enough for the car. Not that non-9-5 can’t or don’t have cars, but just that in this context the assumption is closer to valid than typical.

      • Adam Miller
        Adam Miller March 26, 2015 at 10:49 am #

        Not commuting at rush hour significantly changes the calculus, not least because driving when the roads are open is much different from trying to cram your car through the stress and delays of everyone else trying to do the same thing at the same time.

        And also because as you say transits a lot less convenient if you’re trying to use it when its not as available.

      • John Charles Wilson March 27, 2015 at 9:48 am #

        Point taken. Thank you.

      • Rosa March 29, 2015 at 9:59 pm #

        The “have to pick up a child” argument isn’t about having to plan to pick up a child – it’s about your child being sick or having a discipline problem at school on a day you took the bus.

  4. Janne Flisrand
    Janne March 26, 2015 at 9:16 am #

    I’m happy this series is back!

  5. Jenny March 26, 2015 at 10:14 am #

    I think that overtime the elimination of the surface parking lots downtown will drive up the cost of parking, and that will make a huge difference in the choice to pay for parking everyday. $5 for a whole day isn’t a hardship for someone making decent money, $15-30 everyday like you see in NY or Chicago would be a lot different calculation.

    Also, the addition of more LRT lines will help – there are a lot of people who are generally more comfortable with trains than buses. Bus routes can be confusing whereas train routes are obvious. Plus there are decent shelters at every LRT stop.

  6. Casey March 26, 2015 at 10:37 am #

    I do not drive but here are some reasons I don’t take the bus: 1. I can walk faster than to take multiple buses, or going to under-served areas. 2. The monthly cost can run around $100.00 per month, walking is free. 3. Late at night it can feel not safe as a woman and I prefer to cab or arrange a ride.

    • Rosa March 29, 2015 at 9:56 pm #

      I think the question of safety and general sexist harassment is one women don’t mention but if you ask a lot of women will say they were glad to start driving because they got flashed/hit on/skeeved out one too many times on transit.

  7. Anne White
    Anne White March 26, 2015 at 11:01 am #

    Thanks to Monica for this excellent post and the discussion it has generated.

    I’m currently in Berkeley, CA, staying in an apartment near UC Berkeley, about a mile and a half from where my son and grandchildren live. We did not rent a car, since we thought we could easily get around on the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) and buses. But we’ve found a couple of glitches in the system.

    First, I found that it is exceedingly difficult to get a Senior BART pass which gives you $24:00-worth of rides for $9.00. When I arrived, I found that the balance on my Senior BART pass that I had bought last time I was here was too little to get me from the airport to our destination and it was not possible to refill it at the BART station. So I had to buy a $20.00 regular price BART pass. Then when my husband and I went to a senior center to try to get him a card and to refill mine, we were told it was not possible to refill my card; we would both have to get new ones. (Senior passes are not available at the BART station and you have to pay cash, exact change preferred.) Also, I found I would not be able to use the balance on my old card unless the trip I was taking cost less than the balance. (BART does not have a flat fee, but charges by distance travelled.) In the Twin Cities, after an initial visit to the transit office with ID, I simply refill my card online at any time of the day or night.

    Also, while we were waiting for our Senior passes, a woman came in in a wheelchair to get a Paratransit pass and was told they were out of them and did not know when they would get more. Really???!!! It made our Senior Go-card system in the Twin Cities look really good, although the discount is smaller and does not apply at peak hours.

    We encountered the next issue when we wanted to take a bus from my son’s house back to our apartment after dinner at 9:30 pm. We found that the bus along Ashby Avenue, a major arterial, had stopped running at 7:30 pm. You gotta be kidding! (Even during the day, this bus only runs every half hour.) So we would have had to walk a mile and a half uphill if my son hadn’t given us a ride.

    Now we’re planning to go to my granddaughter’s school Friday morning for Grandparents’ Day which begins at 9:30 am. After checking BART and bus schedules online (two separate sets of schedules), I find that it will take us two hours to get there, taking a bus, the BART and another bus, and ending with a four-block walk up a steep hill. Of course the distances are greater in the Bay area than in the Twin Cities, so it’s not really a fair comparison. But in both cities, it’s the infrequent service and multiple connections that make the choice of transit unappealing if you have other options.

    • Rosa March 29, 2015 at 9:55 pm #

      More-often service solves a lot of connection problems – my commute this winter was bus-train (so, every 20-30 minutes to every 10 minutes or so) there and then train-bus back. Going from the bus to the train was easy, if I was there in time to watch a train pull away, it was only another 8-10 minutes to wait.

      Going from train to bus was awful, because I seemed to always just miss the bus and then have to wait 20-25 minutes in the terrible cold.

      The wait is probably less terrible now but now that it’s not terribly cold, I’m on my bike, which is faster and means leaving home 3 minutes late makes me 3 minutes later, not 30.

  8. Wayne March 26, 2015 at 4:05 pm #

    I take the bus every day. I don’t own a car. I used to be impoverished and have no choice in the matter, but now I’m making a comfortable middle class living and still living the same way. Financially it’s an easy decision since I spend $76 (pretax!) per month on all my transportation needs, aside from the rare taxi fare when I’m carrying too much or in a hurry–so let’s round up to $100 a month and throw in bike maintenance too for the nicer months (and maybe shoes since I wear them out rather quickly with all the walking). I’m almost certain no one with a car spends less than $1200 a year on the various expenses when you add them all up. I can take that money I saved and put it into a nicer apartment closer to work and still probably come out ahead of most people in my income bracket.

    Now, my reasons for continuing to ride transit are not solely financial, I have plenty of ethical and philosophical reasons for doing so as well, but getting into those would be preaching to the choir here. I will say, though, that all the ‘I can’t because ____’ excuses are because people expect transit to instantly mold to their current lifestyle. Taking transit *is* a lifestyle choice and you have to tailor where you live, play and even work to it. Maybe not everyone can stomach it, but just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean it’s not technically feasible for you. Someone in NYC or Europe somewhere has the same problems you do and manage to live without a car. I think it says more about the awful state of our system and the layout of our city than it does about problems with transit.

  9. Ted Hathaway March 28, 2015 at 8:21 pm #

    I’m pretty much strictly a suburban express rider now, although I bike in as often as I bus. Taking the bus involves driving as much as busing to get downtown: I drive from SW Minnetonka to the Hopkins XRoad/394 station to catch the 673. In the half-hour or so time frame I have, buses come every 5 minutes or so. Same deal going out at night. It’s VERY convenient. I also only pay $6/day. When I drive, it’s more like $11/day between parking and gas. Also, I can read the news when I ride and maybe catch a nap on the way out at night on the bus. Lastly, if there are hassles on 394, I don’t hae to deal with them the way I would if I were driving. Unless there’s a specific, practical necessity to driving, I will bus or bike every time.

  10. Dana DeMaster
    DanaD March 30, 2015 at 9:33 am #

    I’ve been thinking about this post since it was posted. It sounds like a lot of the comments were from people who had taken transit, but had some sort of negative experience either with other people on the bus or the way the system is designed. Some people hadn’t ridden in a decade or more and the problems they describe aren’t problems anymore. Some people’s circumstances changed, such as having children or making a choice to move away from transit options.

    I don’t know how to solve a bad experience other than pointing out that it might have been an anamoly and to try it again.

    I decided to post based upon a conversation I had this weekend with a friend and neighbor. We live in one of the most transit-heavy areas of the city. There are trains or busses every 10 minutes that go in all directions. Our neighborhood should be using transit as we have as close to ideal conveinence as anyone in the Twin Cities. She was staying at the Depot Hotel in downtown Minneapolis for two nights to do something different and fun with her elementary-aged sons and use the waterpark. They were driving. It costs $15 a night for hotel guests to park. I pointed out that the Green Line would practically take her door-to-door at a fraction of the cost.

    First, it had never occured to her to take the train. She didn’t have know it went there.

    Second, she was concerned about her sons’ ability to walk the six short blocks to the station (ages 7 and 10) while wheeling their bags and where they would put the bags on the train. I pointed out that the train has luggage racks, but she was concerned they would get stolen.

    Finally, she took the bus once with me and some people were swearing. She didn’t want to deal with the possibility that people might be using bad language.

    All these seems silly to me, but I take transit all the time. I know the likelihood of the bags getting stolen is tiny. I see swearing as just part of interacting with the world and, guess what, my kids have heard it before. For me, the conveinence and lower cost would outweigh these concerns.

    How do we overcome fears of crime? How do we overcome ignorance or lack of awareness? How do we change the perception that walking six blocks is difficult for able-bodied adults and children? She sees us bike with children in all weather, walk to our destination or the station, see us function as a single-car household. I don’t expect people to embrace our lifestyle, but I’m not sure how to make it any easier. I’m not sure what my point is other than getting new riders might be a different thing than overcoming negative experiences.

    • Rosa March 30, 2015 at 9:09 pm #

      Did they try it, in the end? Just saying it’s possible helps.

      I moved here from a really small town, and what made the transit & biking transitions easy for me was that people did it with me. It’s awkward and embarrassing to be an adult and not know how to pay your bus fare or where it’s polite to sit and stand – but it’s warm and sheltered to be a guest being shown around.

      Now, we take my kid’s friends on outings via transit all the time, often kids from our neighborhood who aren’t usually bus or train riders. They usually really like it, and I hope that will make them more likely to use it on their own later.

      But really, change is just hard. There’s a ton of knowledge built up over time for each system – active knowledge about safety, shortcuts, and timing, but passive knowledge, like when you suddenly need a new service (“maybe we should get these rugs cleaned”) and only then realize you know where along your usual routes that service exists. Whatever you’re habitually doing, you build that into your daily life and it just reinforces the habit. Switching means starting over with all sorts of uncertainties.

      • Dana DeMaster
        DanaD March 31, 2015 at 3:58 pm #

        Nah. She said, “That’s for you guys.” These guys like paying $6 in train fare rather than $30 in parking! Or better yet, biking there for free…but that’s a diffierent conversation.

  11. Nathanael April 12, 2015 at 10:05 pm #

    OK, so the *legitimate* complaints here are low frequency, lack of space, and confusing routings.

    There’s also the usual paranoia and xenophobia, but best to ignore that.

    Low frequency and confusing routings can be fixed. And have been fixed, by train lines.

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