Thursday, June 3, 2010

Transit riders' priorities, environmental priorities and the priorities of transit managers

I once went to a presentation on a transit bond issue, in a city of about a million people. The general manager of the city's transit department was there, and someone asked her how she got to work. She explained that she usually drove because the agency started running its buses so early, and sometimes she needed to be there to check in.

You might have thought that this was a perfect argument as to why they needed at least skeletal around-the-clock service. But it turns out that even in cities with 24-hour service, lots of transit employees and managers drive to work. It sorta makes sense for bus drivers: hey, they're drivers! It doesn't really make sense for anyone who works on the subway, and it certainly doesn't make sense for anyone with a nine-to-five job. But it happens way too much.

Transit riders want to see more and better service, so that we can get around quicker and with less hassle. People who care about global warming, street safety, obesity, oil dependence and things like that want to see mode shifts to get people out of their cars.

What do public transit managers want? I'm not a public transit manager, so I'm going to guess. If any of you out there are public transit managers, or know someone who is, then feel free to correct me or provide additional information.

If I were a public transit manager, I would want to see my career flourish and my salary go up. That means pleasing my boss, an elected official, which means more votes and campaign contributions. The main way that a transit manager can obtain votes and campaign contributions for an elected official is through good press. What gets good press? Grant announcements, groundbreakings and ribbon-cuttings, primarily.

What might get a little good press, but probably not enough to attract votes or donations? Service frequency increases. An increase in service hours. A study that shows efficiency gains. Increased ridership. Mode shifts from driving to transit.

What's not likely to get good press for the transit manager? A reduction in car usage, or a smaller-than-expected increase in car use, resulting in lower pollution, lower carnage, less oil use. Transit oriented development attracting new residents who don't use cars, or not as much. These are all positive, and may ultimately help the political patron get re-elected. But they're likely to be credited to someone other than the transit manager. Maybe the police chief, maybe the traffic commissioner, maybe a development agency. So even if the transit manager helps to serve the patron in this way, it's hard for the patron to understand that.

To sum up, transit managers only have a personal interest in transit expansion that comes with photo opportunities. They have very little to gain from mode shift. If they actually use the transit system, they also have transit rider's priorities, but otherwise, they have very little common interest with riders. If they happen to be environmentalists then they would share an interest in mode shift, but there's nothing that says you have to be an environmentalist to run a transit agency.

This is why I've never completely trusted transit agencies to lobby reliably for transit expansion and mode shift. And it explains the recent news, reported by Ya-Ting Liu and Yonah Freemark, that the American Public Transit Association is lobbying against the energy bill that would provide billions for transit.

Streetsblog DC reporter Elana Schor announced that she will be moving to something called Greenwire. If Liu is angling to fill her shoes - in function, whether at Streetsblog or at Tri-State - I think that would be great. During her year at Streetsblog, Elana regularly filed detailed posts about federal issues that were generally informative, but I often found myself scratching my head and thinking, "Yeah, okay, but how will this affect mode share?" For example, I've read at least ten articles about whether Congress will reauthorize the transportation bill this year or next year, and I'm damned if I can tell which option would be better for mode share.

Liu, and Yonah, have made it clear that (a) the American Power Act will increase transit's funding share, and thus likely its mode share, and (b) the APTA doesn't give a rat's ass about mode share. This is extremely helpful. I hope that in the future we'll see lots more posts from them both, explaining exactly how some debate in Washington will affect the issues that matter to us.


capt subway said...

I'm recently retired from NYCT after nearly 37 years of continuous service. And yes, many mid-level and senior managers at NYCT drive to work, including the President of NYCT, who travels in a chauffeur driven SUV. In fact many are given TA cars so they can drive, rather than take their own trains or buses! The reason given is many of these people are on call 24/7 and may need to respond to an emergency. This is, in large measure, a crock, as there are many low level managers and supervisors "on the ground" on duty who can respond to the rare emergency.

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

APTA doesn't care because most of its members don't care. And its members are mostly state DOTs and other organizations that happen to run transit but its not their priority. Most of the big city operators who do actually care about this stuff often get overshadowed by the massive base of little guys in the organization. You might have noticed that Sadik Kahn has an org that caters to city transportation officials, this is a reason why.

busplanner said...

Cap'n Trasnsit - I think your basic points are sound. However, I think there are two additional factors:

1. The media only has limited room for news and the details of bus service improvements (due to the relatively local nature of bus routes) is generally not going to be covered in large metropolitan media sources. Broadcast media does not have the time and print media (where it has not disappeared) has an ever shrinking news hole.

In addition, many transit reporters do not understand transit. For examply, my agency recently had some service cuts on both rail and bus (budget cutbacks). The transit reporter for our largest daily spoke of " seven trains and three buses being cut". What the agency was doing was cutting seven train TRIPS and three bus ROUTES (actually more than 20 bus ROUTES in their entirety (but he missed the additional information in the press releases which, I believe, was purposely obfuscated by the agency.

2. The agency (and I work for a large one serving multiple counties and municipalites) can either choose to manage the politicians or let the politicians manage it.

For example, when I first joined the agency, it was very proactive. For every capital project and every service change, either a meeting was held with key elected officials (mayors, county executives, state legislators) prior to information about the change being released to the public and media OR a letter went out to these officials detailing the changes and offering a follow up meeting, if desired. All newly elected state officials were offered a transit briefing about projects and services in their districts. Media releases on service changes were detailed, specifically indicating which municipalities were impacted by the service change and how, to assist otherwise copy desk editors and reporters in preparing a news item.

Then there was a change of top executives and the approach changed. Rarely were elected officials briefed in detail or informed by letter of service changes in their jurisdictions. Press releases might mention the route impacted by a service change; but simply say "go to website" for details. And the agency took the approach that we needed to "appease" elected officials instead of doing proper transit planning in a way that managed taxpayer dollars well.

With either approach, staff below the top levels tried to develop the best service and maintenance practices within the available budget and with proper concern for the taxpayer's contribution. However, the approach at the top had a significant impact on the outcome.