Most public transportation professionals would agree that the primary mission of public transportation is to deliver quality bus and rail service, which usually means in a safe, efficient, and convenient manner. However, “quality” might also mean something different depending on others in the audience. As a result, what seems to be the singular mission for the industry is, in fact, multiple missions. That very difference has both pitfalls and pluses for the industry.
Some define quality as latest tech
Some bus operating agencies believe that they must deliver service that uses the most advanced technology; such a goal comprises their definition of service quality. Lately, this has included the cleanest, most high-tech propulsion systems on their vehicles, but it could also include such advanced systems as guidance for precision docking or platooning buses close together for more flexible capacity service, or advanced design features and doors on both sides of the vehicle that emulate rail vehicles.
A related mission is service to the community through economic development and as a “ladder of opportunity.” Some aspects of the economic mission involves creating jobs through Buy America and contract requirements, and better transit access to existing jobs. Lately, it sometimes means that development is stimulated around bus and rail stations in a network or that procurements ensure dollars remain locally spent through procurement terms and conditions in contracts. The door to this latter option was opened in the last authorization legislation and in Obama-era policy guidance. Some in the industry and Congress want to see these small experimental steps become permanent policy.
Agencies must sometimes choose among conflicts
Such multiple aspects of the transit mission can create broad support among a variety of stakeholders. Yet, these aspects of the quality mission can also result in outcomes that conflict with or undermine the other goals. The most obvious examples are when immature cutting-edge technology is unreliable. Some of these goals can mean higher prices, and thus, fewer buses, cars, and systems can be procured, thereby undermining aspects of the “ladders of opportunity” part of the mission.
Define quality service: These three simple words mean that each agency must carefully, deliberately choose their meaning wisely, in a way that fits their communities best. And each agency also has its definition of “communities” — which is a page for another day.