As this past week’s Transportation Camp Unconference settled into its routine, someone proposed one intriguing idea that never made it into a session. The theme was a simple one with a complex answer. “Why do people hate transit?” this card said.
Since first espying this topic and realizing we wouldn’t have a chance to explore it, I’ve been turning this idea over in my head. There is no doubt that people in New York City have a tense relationship with transit. We hear millions clamoring for better subway service, faster bus service and less congestion.
But when ideas are implemented — when bus lanes and bike lanes are proposed and built, as subway construction tears up a neighborhood and a commercial strip — the din is deafening. We’re seeing it along 34th St. and Prospect Park West and at one apartment building along 86th St. as lawsuits and whining take over. Essentially, New Yorkers want better transit as long as it doesn’t inconvenience them, take away their precious parking or car lanes or lead to improvements that alter their behavior.
That’s a very broad generalization on my part, though, and as I’ve thought harder about it, I’ve come to the realization that there are seemingly two camps of people in New York City. First, there are those who hate the MTA and want emptier trains to come more frequently while they pay less for the service. Then, there are those who hate the idea of public transit. They want the luxuries of a life in the city without being told that they should give up their cars or being subtly urged toward greener and more socially friendly modes of transportation.
The twain, however, shall meet. Both groups are united by a seeming dislike of the inherent social aspect of transit. I know I’m guilty of harboring ill will toward fellow passengers when I’m too tired to think in the morning but have to shove my way onto a train car packed with people who won’t move in and are blasting music through leaky earbuds. I scoff at those who litter at a station, throw something into the tracks or eat on a train car with no regard for their surroundings. I roll my eyes at those who think they are entitled to two seats or make only a token effort to get out of the way while standing in front of a subway car door.
In other words, we dislike transit because we are exposed to aspects of ourselves and society that we’d rather not confront. We are inherently selfish and hate to share personal space, but on the city’s trains and buses, we have to. When we factor in the condition of Transit’s physical plant and New Yorkers’ rational and irrational distrust of the MTA, it’s not hard to figure out why people seem to hate public transit.
The other folks — the drivers who think cars should trump bikes, buses and pedestrians in urban areas — are tougher to pinpoint. It too is a form of selfish NIMBYism that trickles up to those who represent us in Albany. Although cars pass through vibrant economic hubs in urban areas and drivers often do not stop to shop, car drivers can get very protective of their lanes. They feel threatened by better transit options because better transit options will inevitably lead to less parking or less surface space for cars.
The $64,000 question then is how to fix it? It isn’t feasible or cost-effective for the MTA to run enough service to please everyone. They can’t improve the bus system without taking space from drivers, and they can’t run trains that arrive every two minutes throughout the day while keeping fares as low as they are today. They could make station environments more pleasant by cleaning up or accelerating the station rehab plans. That costs money that the agency doesn’t have.
Ultimately, transit is one of those things most people begrudgingly rely upon for their every-day existence. It’s impossible to please everyone all the time, and transit agencies and advocates have to forge ahead with an unfortunate mix of paternalism and patience. People hate transit, but without it, New York City wouldn’t be where it is today.