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November 17, 2011

A tale of transit in two cities

by Nicole Schlosser

Earlier this week, METRO Managing Editor Alex Roman and I visited San Bernardino, Calif.-based Omnitrans. This year, the agency is celebrating its 35-year anniversary and held an event highlighting its accomplishments, including a new transit center; college bus pass pilot program; an upcoming bus rapid transit project; and a 7% increase in ridership and favorable customer service survey results, with approval numbers from riders ranging from 81% to 90%. The agency even brought in some of its long-time drivers to share some of their experiences. 

It was great to see all of that success firsthand, know that the system is getting the financial and community support it needs, and that public transportation is finally thriving in the Los Angeles area.

Afterward, when we returned to the office, I was brought back to the other side of the transit industry’s reality. I read the news story about Detroit’s bus systems receiving a failing grade from transit advocate group Transportation Riders United. Using 20 volunteers to ride the buses, the group found that buses arrived on time only about half the time.

The news wasn’t too surprising, considering the recent layoffs from the city’s Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation and a labor dispute with mechanics, which caused a work slowdown.

Meanwhile, National Public Radio recently did a story on the city’s transit crisis, interviewing passengers who have waited hours at bus stops, sometimes for a bus that never arrived. Riders have their jobs put in jeopardy because they can’t get to them on time. Additionally, one woman was so fed up she put an ad on Craigslist to sell her home in exchange for a reliable vehicle because she can no longer count on public transportation.

The problem seems to, as always, stem from depleted resources due to a lack of funding. Mayor David Bing is pointing to the mechanics, ordering them to do their job. The mechanics are pointing to all the recent layoffs and saying there aren’t enough of them to do it.

Often, when we report on the latest developments in public transportation, we focus on what makes taking public transportation more appealing to the customer, from free Wi-Fi to contactless payment systems. However, Detroit’s situation illustrates the sad fact that sometimes all the bells and whistles mean nothing if the people the system is supposed to serve can’t get from one place to the other. And, Detroit may have the dubious honor of the spotlight right now, but with all the Fiscal Year 2012 budget cuts happening at transit agencies across the U.S., soon they may not be the only one.

I really hope I’m wrong and that we see more success stories like Omnitrans. There are some signs of hope, such as the pro-transit ballot initiatives that passed in Durham, N.C., and Vancouver, Wash., and the Environment and Public Works Committee’s two-year transportation bill. But, will that be enough?

In case you missed it...

Read our METRO blog, "'The commute gets cultured" here.

Nicole Schlosser

Senior Editor

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  • Charles Trainor[ November 18th, 2011 @ 9:23am ]

    It is ironic that billions are being invested in high-speed rail and streetcars, while basic bus services founder for lack of operating dollars. The focus on technology and shiny new capital may ignore the reality that transit users want reliability most of all. This has been demonstrated in numerous passenger surveys over the years. For passengers waiting in the cold, the dark, and the wet, a plain bus that comes on time beats a hybrid fueled bus 20 minutes late. Unfortunately, the focus on capital investments has obscured the need to focus on the service to customers.

  • George Gong[ November 18th, 2011 @ 1:16pm ]

    It is sad to see how Public Transit has become. Over the years we've seen lack or no funding of services. Not like it was not predicable. Despite that there seems to be also issues of management or City Councils not thinking out of the box the way business is done. A good example is Vallejo, California. Despite it's filing for bankruptcy, there have never been a plan to make this San Francisco suburban city's system to work properly. Vallejo is a medium sized city yet does nothing be it public relations, scheduling, routes, transfer points, or parking to get anyone other then the transit dependent out of their private vehicles. I for one would leave my private vehicle at home if my local system worked. Then again why ride clear across the city only to need to ride towards the center, it takes over an hour to do so. That's best case scenario too dependent on it's schedule. Hourly waits don't cut it. Sorry. I can drive to most locations in less then 10 minutes. There is also plenty of parking, and best, it's free. It doesn't take anyone with Engineering or Public Transit higher education to see why Public Transit does not work in this city. Recent cutbacks be it service or lack of money has made riding public transit be it land or water even worse. The State's recent take over of the ferry system has also not made it anymore viable then it was in the past. Sad as it was recognized by many commuters as the "model" of all ferry systems too. The riding public. To me that's the one you must build confidence and trust in the system, So called experts who make the decisions regarding public transit are considered out of touch with reality and most don't even ride it.


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