Management & Operations

The wrong stuff?

Posted on September 13, 2006 by Steve Hirano, Editor/Associate Publisher

Public transportation offers many significant benefits to society. It helps to reduce traffic congestion and air pollution. It provides mobility options for people without other means of transportation. It helps to create jobs and stimulate the economy.

But it’s clearly not for everyone. Case in point: a newspaper columnist here in Los Angeles spent the entire month of June using only public transportation, except in emergencies. Mariel Garza, a writer for the Los Angeles Daily News, wrote about her experience in a column titled “Bus experiment happily now in rearview mirror.”

Garza says she learned that “giving up your car changes your life, and not in a good way.” Among her complaints were longer commute times, late buses, rude drivers and strange passengers. She felt self-conscious because she was one of the few white-collar workers on the bus, theorizing that other passengers assumed she was riding the bus because she had a drunken-driving conviction or a physical or psychological ailment that prevented her from driving a car. “I often caught people looking at me as if they were wondering which one [it] was.”

Humbled and humiliated
Riding the bus was such a rankling experience that Garza preferred to remain home on the weekends rather than risk “getting stuck after dark in a strange neighborhood in a tank top and shorts.” The most important lesson she learned, however, was that it is “both humbling and humiliating to be dependent on the bus.”

As you might expect, Garza’s ruminations elicited some pointed responses from regular transit users. “This just confirms my suspicion that not everyone is cut out to be a bus rider,” wrote Dana Gabbard, executive secretary of Southern California Transit Advocates. “We are a hardy breed with thick skins and a Zen-like attitude to cope with our transit lifestyle. That Garza didn’t have the right stuff to be a true transit user is no personal failure on her part.”

That Garza’s experiment resulted in failure is not surprising. Those of us fortunate enough to have cars (and enough money to fuel them) likely will continue to drive them to and from work until we’re compelled to do otherwise. Even the hardy and thick-skinned are unlikely to give up their cars for the uncertain experience of riding a bus.

Removing the barriers
With fuel prices at record highs, however, transit systems are seeing increases in ridership. Three bucks for a gallon of gasoline is strong motivation to leave the car in the garage as much as possible.

Converting these fuel price-sensitive riders into public transportation regulars will not be easy, however. For one thing, automobile manufacturers are starting to produce tiny cars that get great gas mileage. Plus, the price of hybrid cars is coming down and their availability is rising. The automobile industry is trying to preserve its customer base by addressing the fuel-cost issue.

Garza is clearly not a candidate for conversion to public transportation, but there are many other people out there who are sampling buses and trains for the first time. Ensuring that their experience is, if not entirely pleasant, at least not entirely unpleasant, could make the difference between seeing them again or having them return to their cars with a sigh of relief.

As much as possible, buses should be on time, with an operator who doesn’t hold his passengers responsible for his own unhappiness. No one expects perfection, not even Garza, but raising the bar on customer service, now especially, will be key to holding on to the steady flow of new passengers.

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