I spent the majority of my summer after college sitting in traffic on the 405 freeway in Los Angeles and vowed never, ever again. I only sort of like driving and I truly hate traffic. When I moved to New York City that fall, I gave up my car and became part of the 4.5% of America that relies on public transportation to get around. With the exception of the dog days in August when it really did smell, it wasn’t bad. Most days I could get a seat on the bus and read the paper. The train home was crowded but reliable. It ran 24×7. And no sitting in traffic.
Then I moved to Boston. Boston boasts the United States’ oldest trolley system, an extensive bus network, a commuter rail and even a commuter boat. I lived in the city and just assumed I would still take public transportation. I found a bus to my job in Dorchester and other than a few rainy days when I got covered head to toe in mud puddle on Morrissey, the morning commute wasn’t bad. The problem was getting home. The bus didn’t seem to adhere to the schedule and at times I would be left sitting for over 45 minutes in a very dark, not particularly safe area. All to cover a distance I could drive in 8 minutes door to door. When my son was born, I realized I would get a sum total of 3 waking hours a weekday with him. Was I willing to give up 30% of those dealing with the randomness that was that bus line? Nope. We bought a second car and I started driving to work. And became another statistic–part of the 50% of America who has access to public transport, but doesn’t use it.
We moved a few years later and my list of musts included being able to walk to coffee and a train station. My transportation fantasy involved a short walk to the train, sitting and reading the paper, and arriving at work informed and refreshed. After moving to a house that fit the criteria perfectly, I took the train exactly once to work. That first day it took me an hour and a half (vs 30 minutes driving) and I knew I wouldn’t get home before my son was ready for bed. Sure it was greener, but when framed against time with my son? No way green would win. So much for my public transportation fantasy and rejoining that 4.5%.
When I left that job to start Practically Green, I celebrated that I could finally take the train to work. Yeah! That first day I was so happy to be on the train, even if it WAS packed and I didn’t get a seat. I got to work and realized my wallet had been stolen on the train. Not a great start. The next day, I was on the train home and noticed we hadn’t moved much. Instead of the expected 30 minutes, it took an hour. Some disabled train or something. If my son had been in daycare, I would have been fined and he would have been sitting there for 30 minutes with a rather annoyed teacher.
Over the next few months, train unpredictability made me late to work and home a lot–and put me in a generally foul mood over the train. When it works, it’s great. But it’s brutally slow in the morning and my line does seem to have a disproportionate number of disabled cars, delays, and other problems.
When my line was shut down and rerouted to a bus recently due to flooding, I decided to try a local bus to an express bus connection I found on Google Transit. The stop was one block from my house. I got a seat. It took 5 minutes to get to the express bus which ran every 10-15 minutes straight to the Back Bay in about 12 minutes. Now this was great. Or so I thought. Two weeks ago my Facebook post was “I want an iPhone app that tells me, right now, where my %^&* bus is!! I’ve been standing here for 40 minutes!!” Turns out that if I miss the 8:36 bus, the next one isn’t until 9:25?!! What kind of schedule is that?! And oh yes, all of this framed against the reality that I could drive to my office in under 20 minutes. Which, sadly enough, I find many of my friends who live outside the city do despite outrageous parking costs. I am sticking it out, but now my transportation fantasy involves working a block from my house.
As a result of nearly 15 years on and off of public transport, I’ve been watching the debate about investing in public transportation with interest. I’m a HUGE fan of public transportation conceptually and definitely hope that we begin to embrace it more as a country for the environmental benefits as well as the smart growth benefits. I also know the cost savings to a family are substantial. But I have also experienced first hand why people struggle: trip time, reliability, and frequency. So if I could sit in these debates and bring in the “voice of the customer”, here is what I would say.
1. If public transportation costs a whole lot more TIME than driving from Point A to Point B, most people will drive even if it’s more expensive and less green. How much more? Everyone has a different thresh hold, but for me, I start giving up when it takes an extra 15 minutes each way because losing thirty minutes in my day starts to be a big deal. That’s cooking dinner or reading a bunch of bedtime stories or a meeting. For example, I CAN get to Somerville by taking the green line to the red line or a bus to a bus. In over an hour. Or I can drive the 20 minutes it takes. If I could get there in ~30 minutes? No brainer. The only way to address this is to create a train infrastructure that looks more like a web than the standard hub and spoke OR you have to have more frequent train/bus connections and more express options….which gets me to Point #2.
2. You just can’t have a schedule with only one train/bus every 45 minutes and expect loads of people to switch to it. I don’t HAVE 45 minutes to be “flexible”. I’ve got, maybe, 15 minutes, to wait for a bus or train once I’ve dropped my son at school or gotten out of work and neither of those institutions really cares about the bus schedule. I would bet that if there aren’t at least four departures an hour for a bus or train from say 7AM to 8PM, you will struggle to convince significantly more people who are time-constrained and who have a financial choice to take it. And if it doesn’t come frequently enough, forget about those spontaneous “short trips” like the grocery store or the Y or the park. Too much work to figure out when it’s arriving and too hard to schedule around. Driving wins. I can already hear the transportation execs screaming that this will bankrupt us so I wish someone would fund a test for a year in a city with a decent, but not perfect bus/train system of guaranteed every 15 minute departures during the majority of the day with no need to plan, look at a schedule, etc— and measure what happens to ridership. Maybe it offsets a good portion of the expense?
3. You NEED phone apps that tell people where their *&&^ bus or train is and you have to get those “Next departure in X minutes” signs working and in more places. There’s nothing worse than sitting at a stop wondering if you’ve missed it—especially when it only comes every 45 minutes and your son is sitting at daycare or you are supposed to be meeting with your boss. When I’m driving I at least feel in control. If you give me information, we gain back some of that control that we all crave. (By the way, go to every 15 minutes reliably and you don’t need this…)
4. You have to be reliable and predictable the VAST majority of the time as opposed to regularly having problems. I would estimate I have a problem that delays my expected arrival by >15 minutes at least two times a week on the train. That drives people off the system and into their cars because at least traffic is relatively predictable and you aren’t constantly calling bosses/schools/daycares to apologize. Get that number to less than one delay a month. Then get down to one a year.
In my humble opinion, these are the “musts” that will convince significantly more people to get out of their cars (with safety the other). The “good experience things” come next. I would like a seat at least some of the time (frequency would help that), would like the A/C to work when it’s 90 degrees in August, clean stations & cars are good, and I would really like my iPhone to work between Arlington & Fenway because then on that mythical one day a year when the system isn’t working, at least I can call.
This post is for the Green Moms Carnival on Transportation hosted this month by Diane at Big Green Purse. Be sure to check out the stories and conversations from other green moms who have something unique to say about transportation.
Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/10037058@N08/3320393955/