Sunday, June 13, 2010

Glamour and honesty

In my last post, I echoed Ben Kabak's criticism of Commissioner Sadik-Khan for the use of the term "surface subway." I think the phrase is dishonest, and if it gets more people to support Select Bus Service, then many of those people are going to be disappointed when they find out that it only brings a 10% reduction in travel time. This could fuel a backlash that could be exploited by status-quo politicians.

But hold on! I've been talking quite a bit about glamour lately. Glamour involves an escape from reality, so it is inherently dishonest to use a glamorous frame to sell something real. Doesn't that mean that I'm telling transit advocates to be dishonest?

To some degree I am. First of all, I think everyone should be aware of glamour, not necessarily that everyone should use it. Secondly, this is politics. Everyone is dishonest in politics. The real question is where honesty fits in our priorities.

I can definitely respect someone who makes honesty their top priority, but I don't think they'll find it very easy to get things done. In any fight you're going to be up against professional liars and dissemblers, and sometimes you need to fight fire with fire.

With glamour in particular, everyone has escape fantasies, and if they're not compatible with your goals they will hinder you. We need to get people fantasizing about high-speed rail so that they stop fantasizing about cross-country road trips.

At some point the reality diverges from the fantasy, and that is where we can draw the line between an honest PR campaign and a scam. If you take away the fantasy, is the person left with something of value? Something that they would agree is valuable?

For a non-transportation example, imagine a woman who is thin because she's on a unsustainable diet. A man notices her and they start dating. She goes off the diet and gains a lot of weight.

If she's a generous, caring person, or fun, or good in bed, and her boyfriend isn't a shallow jerk, he may stick around. He was drawn in by the glamour, but stayed because he saw value in her. On the other hand, if she's mean or crazy or a wet blanket he may dump her. He probably should have figured that out in the first place, of course.

For a transportation example, a lot of the seating on the TGV is cramped, and you can't open the windows. But it still gets you where you want to go quickly at an affordable price. People aren't switching from Ryanair for the glamour.

And now back to Bus Rapid Transit. If Select Bus Service promises a "surface subway" - a 75% reduction in travel time - but only delivers an 11% reduction, people are going to be pissed, or at the very least stay away. But if there is physical separation, bus cameras and/or signal prioritization, the reduction in travel time could be closer to 40%. I think that's substantial value.


jazumah said...

I am of the opinion that if the bus system is marketed similarly to rail, some of the perception issues could be mitigated.

For example, Trips123 provides directions to individual bus stops. If each bus route had a subway style strip map, you make the route more useable, particularly in areas with numerous bus stops. The Limited Stop, BRT, and express bus services have indicated bus stops in a similar fashion to rail.

Many of the BRT elements have nothing to do with increasing capacity at all. They are simply basic marketing elements that should be happening ALL of the time. When I took over the 144, I learned that many people in Jersey City knew nothing about the route. When in Pennsylvania, I learned that I could run at a higher fare than my competitors just by being more visible.

Glamour and honesty is a big deal. Underpromising and overdelivering increases your credibility. Glamour breeds excitement, but sustainability when the buzz is gone determines whether you get your next round of funding.

Matt Fisher said...

Oh, Cap'n, I find your recent points about glamour and honesty to have some very strong validity related to BRT. I come from Ottawa, the home of the Transitway BRT that its proponents always invoke. We are planning light rail to replace it. Here's a link to a news story here:
Oh, Cap'n, if you find the time to reply, I hope you will notice. :)
- Matt
P.S. I'm very proud to be born in Newfoundland and Labrador.

ant6n said...

The reality is probably somewhere in between. If the service is frequent, and there are some attempts to improve speeds than the whole line is more useful. The 'glamour' advertisement will get people to try it out, and possibly even get them to stick to it.

On the other hand the term 'surface subway' is deceptive, because that term implies a rail service on the surface, which this is not. I think using the term BRT - bus rapid transit - should have sufficient glamour value, while still being much more honest.

Unfortunately this term (BRT) has been watered down a lot, especially in North America, where transit agencies seem to label their same-old crappy bus services BRT to give it some glamour (which is dishones/deceiving in those cases).

Cap'n Transit said...

Yes, Joel, that's a very important point; many of the value-adding elements like countdown timers, offboard fare collection and signal prioritization should be rolled out systemwide.

Matt, I honestly don't know much about Ottawa. I should probably go up and see it sometime. I think that the Transitway model provides much more value than Select Bus Service does, but that corridor probably needs more capacity than buses can provide (at acceptable comfort levels, at least).