Anyone who’s advocated for public transportation has been blindsided with at least one compelling, and completely inaccurate, misnomer about transit. These popular notions are hard to kill, but arming yourself with the facts will help stick a fork in them.
We’ve highlighted five prevalent misnomers and misunderstandings about public transit, adapted from Jarrett Walker’s book, Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities.
Speed vs. Frequency
One of the most common misunderstandings about public transit is the importance of speed versus frequency. People used to personal vehicle travel take frequency for granted – the roads are always available. And focus on their speed. But transit advocates would do well to emphasize frequency (the bus arrives every 20 minutes) over speed because that’s far more important to transit riders.
Waiting too long for a bus can really complicate a trip (photo courtesy of Gary Howe)
Many words used in transit carry unfortunate connotations in everyday life. One example is using the word captive to describe individuals who cannot drive, insinuating that their freedom and transportation security is completely controlled by transit service. Instead, using the word dependent situates those individuals as important stakeholders in the conversation.
Another example is using line vs. route to describe the path a public transit vehicle takes. Route insinuates flexibility and variation, while line insinuates concreteness and dependability. While, line is often used to describe rail, using it to describe bus lines helps reiterate that it is something riders can count on.
While word connotations may seem unimportant, they can be key in politics and when advocating for better public transit.
Associating Buses with Failure or Poverty
This one might appear to be obvious to those of us in the transportation advocacy world, but many people – even in many communities across Michigan – correlate bus riders with failure or poverty, i.e., the infuriating “bus people” stereotype. Even if it’s true that bus riders may be poorer on average, Jarrett Walker highlights how easy it is to shift your perspective by reminding yourself that the boundaries of “poor” and “middle class” and “wealthy” are as fuzzy or arbitrary as the boundary between blue and purple.
We also sometimes hear transportation experts group riders into two categories: choice / discretionary riders and dependent / captive riders. This is a false dichotomy and dividing riders like this leads to the idea that transit agencies must fight for choice riders, while dependent riders will use the service no matter how terrible it may be. Like the spectrum between poor and rich, reasons for ridership also run along a spectrum. For many dependent riders, owning a car is unaffordable or physically, they cannot drive. A dependable transportation system can be liberating, allowing them to use their money for better purposes or can provide a greater level of accessibility, transforming their lifestyle. Other families may own a car and can afford to drive, but use public transit frequently because it meets their needs and is more efficient than traveling by automobile for most trips. In both of these cases, public transit simply makes better economic sense- and blanketing these individuals with a stereotype is a meaningless categorization.
The Myth of Self-Funded Transportation Systems
Operating costs and government subsidies are commonly misunderstood regarding public transit systems. There are almost no transit systems anywhere in the world where fares completely cover the operating costs of the service. In order for transit systems to work, fares must be relatively affordable and the fares must be closely comparable to vehicle user fees (registration fees, gas taxes, etc.). Therefore, in order for a transit service to be successful, it must be subsidized at some level of government. Additionally, it is important to remember that all forms of transportation systems are subsidized and that some are more visible than others.
For example, gas taxes and vehicle registration fees cover only a portion of the costs of motoring. Federal and state taxes cover a large portion of many road and bridge projects. Many other costs of motoring, often hidden, are highly subsidized. Some of these include parking, which consumes vast amounts of valuable land but is often offered free or at subsidized costs; public health costs, such as obesity and traffic accidents; pollution, including several kinds of greenhouse gas emissions and stormwater runoff from pavement; and congestion.
The Empty Bus
Image source: Flickr (m.t. Sullivan)
One of the most common misunderstandings about public transit is that of empty transit vehicles; that they represent an inefficient use of funds or wasted resources. However, an empty bus is most likely the result of travel in the opposite direction of peak demand, usually to pick up more riders, or running at the end of a line. Vehicles with a low number of riders during off-peak hours don’t necessarily represent waste. Those transit trips provide access for individuals who may not work a typical 9-5 shift, serve riders making non-work trips and also provide a “guaranteed ride home,” which enhance the dependability of transit service – all at often a relatively small marginal increase in cost.
To a trained eye, many of these myths and misnomers are an obvious part of public transit, but to many they are not. Whether you’re a local advocate, an elected official, a planner or someone who has never ridden public transit, correcting and addressing these misnomers and understanding the “nuts and bolts” of a public transit system can help us better advocate for our state’s comprehensive transportation system.
Walker, Jarrett (2011-12-16). Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives (Kindle Location 690). Island Press. Kindle Edition.