Americans living in western Europe cannot help but echo the dismay of METRO Editor Steve Hirano at the current “look” of U.S. public transit’s ridership [Turning Point, April 2003].
Even today — nearly half a century after Rosa Parks challenged Dixie’s unwritten “back of the bus” policy for black Americans — transit’s onboard color scheme fails to reflect Lincoln’s vision of a nation in which all passengers are “created equal.”
“Old Europe,” on the other hand, has become increasingly multi-cultural, the result of a heavy flow of foreign workers and asylum seekers into its industrialized centers. And nowhere is this shift more notable than Switzerland. It’s where I work and where foreigners make up more than 20% of the work force. Yet public transit in Swiss cities like Berne, Basel, Geneva and Zurich remains a service appealing to all.
Starting at the top
Indeed, members of the seven-member Swiss executive cabinet, the Federal Council, typically take daily rides to and from their homes and offices in downtown Berne. And they don’t do it in U.S.-style chauffeur-driven stretch limousines either. They use public bus, streetcar or metro rail. So do top executives like the CEO of the Swiss Federal Railways (SBB), Benedikt Weibel.
Too often, influential Americans take the opposite tack. In 1978, for instance, I introduced myself to a transit-marketing director at her office in Flint, Mich., and apologized for being a bit delayed along the local bus route. “Oh, you poor man!” the young lady commiserated. “You actually rode one of our buses?”
Sadly, this anecdote re-enacted itself in all too many settings over the years — a fact due partly to the familiar “them and us” scenario: Those who “have” drive a private car. Those who don’t ride public transit.
Meanwhile, in old Europe another scene prevails. Bigotry seems less at home. It’s not that narrow-minded burghers can’t be heard snarling in Swiss cities. Nor do they welcome foreigners any more than Americans do. But the “them and us” divide hasn’t spilled over into public transit.
It helps to serve yourself
Curiously, the reason stems largely from a quirk in technology and timing: More than 30 years ago the Swiss revolutionized urban travel by introducing off-board “self-service” fare collection. That meant installing highly durable ticket vending machines at transit stops throughout cities. The cities could cushion the cost by downsizing streetcar conductors but retaining some of them as roving inspectors.
Articulated buses popped up everywhere. Their passengers could board and exit at any door. This sped up trips greatly, letting drivers focus on the road. A high percentage of passengers also bought passes, and planners created metro-wide “barrier-free” transfer rights from bus to rail to ferry. Then the SBB created a major market for annual ID passes, entitling pass holders to pay once upfront and ride anywhere in the country.
The 1980s brought about a know-how transfer, offering old Europe technology to the U.S. and Canada. Having played a pioneer role in marketing the idea then, I found believers wherever planners envisioned light rail. But the barrier-free concept made little headway on bus systems, where the farebox reigns supreme today.
It’s not just social visionaries who wince at the result: “Poor” U.S. bus service handicaps captive “have not” riders throughout the country in finding jobs and holding them. And this raises accusations of hard-core racism. Of course, poor people come in all colors. Yet the tragedy of their plight is the continuing social stigma against riding the only vehicle they can afford.
In a real sense, America’s entirely dysfunctional on-board farebox bus today is barely a step forward from the humiliating back-of-the-bus trip that Rosa Parks took so long ago.