I have to say that I feel extremely fortunate to work in this industry at such an eventful and exciting time. Sure, the economy has people worried, political uncertainty has people stressed out and the threat of war and terrorism has people downright scared at times. But think for a second can you remember a time when passenger transport issues have held a more significant presence in our collective consciousness?
The worldwide effects of terrorism on travel and tourism, fuel and energy crises, pollution, government agendas, technology advances, employment and population growth are just a few of today’s prominent social issues that are often affected by public transportation policy. What’s more, attention drawn from a variety of sources, including the landmark reauthorization of TEA 21 and the American Public Transportation Association’s (PT)2 promotional campaign, have driven publicity levels for transit to nearly unprecedented heights. Let’s face it, for better or worse, public transit has found itself in the international limelight.
Read between the lines
Americans have typically expressed low levels of concern about transportation compared to other pressing issues. But recent developments suggest that the public may be growing more and more eager to see vast improvements in our public transportation infrastructure. For example, sky-high oil prices driven up by the war in Iraq and other Middle Eastern conflicts have grabbed nationwide headlines (currently it’s about $2.10 a gallon for unleaded gas here in California), environmental deterioration has become a staple of election-year politics and traffic surveys consistently claim that congestion is crippling metropolitan areas around the nation.
And if you still don’t believe that attitudes are starting to change, consider the following: Wirthlin Worldwide, an international research firm, has conducted several surveys to gauge perceptions of public transportation. In March of this year, a Wirthlin study reported that, among other things, 80% of Americans see quality of life benefits from increased investment in public transportation. It also stated that 76% of Americans want funding for expansion and improvement of public transportation, and 69% of the country supports congressional candidates who are pro-public transportation. The survey, conducted as part of the Federal Transit Administration-sponsored Transit Cooperative Research Program, stratified respondents to reflect U.S. population characteristics.
Though adequate funding for transit development remains an elusive goal, the tide of public sentiment may be turning.
Threats, opportunities abound
Don’t get me wrong, now is not a time to rejoice. Some of the excess attention brought to this industry has come at the expense of innocent lives, and the brutal train bombings in Madrid serve as a blunt reminder. These uncertain times have had, and will continue to have, a profound effect on safety and security issues. Most recently, the Department of Homeland Security announced a pilot program to screen luggage at select subways and commuter rail lines. A week later, the FBI sent a “message of concern” to police agencies around the U.S. to warn of a potential terrorist plot against commercial transportation systems.
But the newfound attention isn’t all negative. Rather, opportunities abound for agencies to make themselves heard. With transit issues becoming more mainstream among both riders and non-riders, disseminating information to influential decision makers is easier. Success is also more realistic in campaigns and tax referendums for funding or other positive measures. Take advantage of the spike in transit hype. It’s a chance to build awareness, which may lead to bigger and better things.