A tale of transit in two cities

Posted on November 17, 2011 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.

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