Skip to main content

Re-Thinking the Role of Public Transit

Here in Cleveland, public transportation is in crisis-mode. Funding from sales tax receipts is down, relations with organized labor is shaky, and big devastating cuts are imminent. So the transit agency (RTA) has called for a series of public meetings to discuss the state of affairs.

These meetings are little more than orchestrated political theater. RTA's strategy seems simple enough. First, announce more cuts than are necessary and get riders really riled up. Next, hold a series of public meetings across the city where angry and frustrated riders show up to yell at RTA management; make sure that there is plenty of news media present. Then, save a couple of bus routes that were slated to be killed and chalk it up to the 'democratic process' or 'grassroots organizing' or whatever makes people feel warm inside. Finally, while everyone is distracted by their small 'victories', slash most of the service and leave the system mostly crippled.

(from Wikipedia)

Aside from that, there is the perception of the role that transit systems should play in our cities. Increasingly, in Cleveland, a certain attitude is on display at these public meetings. Fewer people are arguing that Cleveland needs good transit to be a world-class city or to drive economic development. People are arguing that we must save transit service because people depend on it. The disabled need it to get to work, the elderly need it to get to the doctor, the poor need it because it's all they can afford, etc. No doubt, there are all reasons why transit service is vital to cities.

There are two distinct ways a society can view its transit system: either as a social service or a welfare service. When transit is utilized, serves, and is used by a diverse cross-section of society, it's a social service; when it's utilized to primarily serve those who, for whatever reason, can't drive cars, it becomes a welfare service. In Cleveland, the attitude toward transit is increasingly that it's a welfare service.

This is a problem because welfare services have strong negative stigmas that snowball and make problems more difficult to solve. In cities where transit is a social service, people don't think twice about getting on a train or a bus; nor do they make much of a deal about people who use transit services. In cities where transit is a welfare service, people avoid buses and trains, even in areas that are well served, and when someone says they're riding a bus, one sometimes wonders, "what? really? you can't even afford to drive a car?"

A system that's perceived as a social service still accomplishes the same goals as a system that's viewed as a welfare service, plus a lot more. It drives development, it gives people transportation options, and it builds a strong and well-connected constituency that is better suited to fight for its future. Once it devolves to a welfare system... well, I think you have a very frustrating situation like the one in Cleveland, and it's not easy to dig back out of that hole.


Cap'n Transit said…
What do you think about separating charity from transit, Rob? This might only work in places where there's enough demand for transit from the middle class.
Anonymous said…
Are the Red, Green, and Blue lines perceived as a "welfare service" in Cleveland, or only the buses?

Popular posts from this blog

In Praise of Southwest's 'C' Boarding Group

A few weeks ago I saw a tweet from someone complaining that their Southwest Airlines boarding pass had been assigned A20 (meaning they would be at least one of the first twenty passengers to board the plane). Apparently this person though they should have been assigned a higher number, less their flight experience be considerably spoiled.

Despite the complaints, Southwest has resisted demands to assign seats on its flights, a decision which I personally applaud. I'll admit that I was skeptical when they rolled out the newest boarding procedure, assigning both boarding groups and a line number; but in hindsight it seems like one of the best operational decisions they've ever made. If nothing else, it effectively eliminated the infamous "cattle call" whereby fliers were getting to airports hours in advance and sitting in line on the floor as if they were waiting for the midnight showing of the new Star Wars movie.

When I was an intern at Southwest Airlines last winter, I…

So You Want to be a Southwest Airlines Intern?

My personal website must have pretty decent SEO - because in the past year, I've received about two dozen emails from aspiring Southwest Airlines interns looking to draw on my experience in search of their own dream internship. In the past two weeks alone a few new emails have already started rolling in...

(from flickr user San Diego Shooter)

If you've found your way here, you might be hoping for the silver bullet; a secret tip that will propel you above the competition. Unfortunately, I do not know any inside secrets. I can only share my experience as an internship candidate about two years ago and, rather than responding individually to future emails I anticipate to receive, I hope that potential interns will find the information posted here valuable.

Understand: Southwest Airlines is a very unique company. The corporate culture at Southwest is truly unlike that of nearly every other company. But you probably already knew that, since it now seems mandatory for every management,…

Commuting Meets Technology

I'm finally out of the dark ages. I got an Android smartphone over the weekend and have since been in the process of exploring the Android apps market.  One thing I've immediately noticed is the really wide range of usefulness in the apps. For example, the WeatherBug app is fantastic. It automatically determines your location and gives you exact conditions for that location. On the other end of the spectrum, Google's Goggles app is supposed to be a type of 'visual search' where you snap of photo of something and Google searches for it. In each of my attempts to use it, the app hasn't returned any search results. I even took a photo of a bottle of Pepsi (figuring it as a common houseful item) and got nothing.

Somewhere in the middle is this app called Waze. Have a look at their 'guided tour':

Some people might look at it and comment on the amazing evolution of technology or on the incredible value of social networks. To me, Waze says something important ab…