Mar
09

Why do people hate transit?

By · Published in 2011

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.



46 Responses to “Why do people hate transit?”

  1. Alex C says:

    They want their great service but they want it for free. They want the infrastructure fixed but they don’t want to face service changes. They think the MTA can wave a magic wand and fix everything but just doesn’t want to. When the F and G were suspended between Church and Jay for a couple of weekends back in January while work was done on the Culver Viaduct (and last fall, too) some riders were infuriated. This was despite posters being up for weeks at every station in every corner. You can’t fix stupid.

  2. Scott E says:

    Honestly, I think New Yorker’s accept and embrace transit much more than our counterparts in other American cities. Yes, our New York attitude is one of self-entitlement, only caring about ourselves and quick to complain about anything that impedes our individual efforts to do what we want (I speak in broad generalizations, of course), but we still hop on those subways, buses, and trains anyway. Even those earning six-figures on Wall Street ride the subway. So does the Mayor (sort of).

    In many other cities, public transit is relegated to the lower economic class. Those who can’t afford a car or even a taxi. Boarding a bus in other places carries the same stigma as paying with food stamps or walking into a homeless shelter. Not in New York. Here, nearly all of us take transit because the thought of driving in stop-and-go traffic, dodging potholes, pedestrians, and double-parked trucks (not to mention parking, insurance, and inevitable auto repair) is just too horrible to even consider. Transit is faster, and the scorn for other passengers is minuscule compared to the scorn we may hold for the roads and the hazards they hold.

    We may, as you say, “hate transit” in New York, but we love the fact that it’s there.

    • pete says:

      Outside of rush hour, or the parking issue, the car is always faster. Nobody would use a yellow taxi if public transit was faster.

      • Bolwerk says:

        A car is not always faster. It’s only always faster when there is no reasonable transit alternative or none at all.

        I was on the J Train from Jamaica to Myrtle this morning. Goodness is that thing slow as hell until Myrtle.

        • pete says:

          The car IS almost always faster. Public transit would have to go twice or 3 times as fast as the car to be time competitive with the car. You don’t walk 5 minutes, then wait 5-15 minutes more for the first public transit vehicle to show up, when using a car. On and you are going 30 mph in 15 secs. The subway crawls at 30 mph through a tunnel stopping a dozen or more times. The bus is even worse.

          • Bolwerk says:

            In theory, I suppose. In practice, no. I can think of too many medium-distance trips where a subway option is more practical, apples-to-apples, than a car throughout the day, though most of them involve avoiding Manhattan auto bridges/tunnels. Even getting from my outer borough apartment (and I’m not close to the East River) to Manhattan in the late evening, the subway with a half dozens stops is predictably more reliable and faster. In those cases, a car would still be the best option late at night, though, when traffic should be good and subway service is very sparse.

            And there’s nothing to say some smart new construction wouldn’t make more trips like that where a subway is usually more practical. Not sure what to say about buses. They are pretty awfully implemented in NYC, I think. OTOH, cars are often the less desirable option over the subway for the exact same reasons buses are often a less desirable option. :-\

  3. AlexB says:

    A bit of a leading question, no? Not everyone hates transit. Many people move to New York with the intention of leading a car-free lifestyle. The subway is one of the defining characteristics of the city that New Yorkers take great pride in.

    In a city like this, with so many vested interests, and such limited space to go around, would it be possible to change anything and not have a bad reaction and/or lawsuit from someone or some group?

    The battle for public opinion over support for more and better transit is waged over the following issues:
    1. Capital projects should come in on time and on budget (or at least within reason).
    2. The MTA should use its resources efficiently, is not bloated, and does not have pay out massive disability or pension payments based on poorly thought out labor contracts.
    3. The MTA communicates better and responds much more quickly to problems. If an A train is stuck in the middle of nowhere, it shouldn’t take 9 hours for the MTA to get those people off the train. If a line is out of service due to torrential rains, the shuttle buses should be lining up hours before the train stops working.
    After 1, 2, & 3 are met, the people would expect (and be more tolerant of the disruptions from):
    4. An expansion of the subway system.
    5. Faster and more reliable bus service that took them to every corner of the city so they wouldn’t be reliant on their cars to travel between boroughs or to poorly served areas.
    6. Additional taxes/fees to pay for the new services such as congestion pricing, bridge tolls, or a payroll tax.

    Of course, the system can be expanded and improved even if the MTA is constantly going over budget on capital projects and even if they are always in the news for wasting money, but it makes it much harder. Look at all the fits and starts for the current capital projects. Only the East Side Access project has encountered relatively little controversy lately, and even it will cost double the original estimate. Could Chrystie have claimed ARC would go over budget if such a thing were rare?

  4. Erik says:

    1. Lazy comfort. People like their cars, with their music, their seat, their cupholders, etc.

    2. Fear. Until people have a significant amount of experience with it, being around people who are different from themselves makes them uncomfortable. This is especially true it the people are less well-off on a socio-economic scale. Therefore people with limited experience in transit prefer their little bubble (see #1).

    3. Societal choices. Driving is treated as a commons. We all pay taxes that go to roads, potholes, etc. The amount raised by direct funds (e.g., tolls) is minimal by comparison. Transit is treated as something that should “pay for itself”, and while there used to be more funding by the state, that has been eliminated in favor of debt (hence the MTA’s current funding woes). But the different treatment of the two by society makes driving a clearly favored choice.

    • Chris says:

      To point #2, it doesn’t help that mass transit sees itself as a service oriented toward the poor and thinks about its cost/service dilemma primarily in terms of keeping the price low enough to exclude as few people as possible.

      So it’s not just about preferring one’s own bubble out of fear, there’s also the status and image-driven issue of avoiding an alternate bubble that self-labels as “poor people here”.

  5. Christopher says:

    I’ve never lived in a city where people didn’t complain about transit. BUT, I think NYers complain much less in general than DCers do. Who relentlessly pile on Metro and even their neighbors. Maybe it’s because living in NY requires the ability to ignore quite a bit of the daily indignities. Or maybe NYers are quite as self important as we think. That honor goes to the self proclaimed, “Capital of the Free World.” (Does NY have anything compared to the UnsuckDCMetro blog which is solely around nitpicking about things like — copy on outside advertising!)

    SFers use transit per capita in higher numbers than NYers but the quality is much less and involves a lot more being packed into sluggish trolly buses. But they also complain quite a bit about that. And SF too built an entire social media campaign and then voter initiative around fixing Muni.

    So perhaps even in our grumbling we aren’t that upset to actually organize.

    But why the hatred compared to car owners? I think car owners — even if things are bad, even if traffic sucks because of policy decisions — see the problem as one they control. Don’t see the larger policies that are shaping their slow commutes but because they alone control the gas pedal — they feel in control.

    One way that I’ve told people to release anger about late transit commutes is to get more Zen: you’re not in control. Accept that and stop worrying. It’s the Zen of Public Transportation.

  6. Skip Skipson says:

    I suspect the hate for transit will decrease (albeit slightly) as gas prices contine to climb…When gas is $10/gal people will have no choice but to stop hating transit!

    • pete says:

      Transit still uses pays for tons of “gas”. MTA policy is to use diesel mode as much as possible (never electric mode unless tunnel roof overhead) on diesel commuter trains since diesel is cheaper than 3rd rail power. MTA will have to hike the fare alot for pay for $10/gal gas/diesel/oil/natural gas.

  7. SEAN says:

    Why do people hate transit? When you think about it, it’s a loted question.

    1. When I drive I’m in total control. Of course this is a complete myth, but some people just love fanticy.
    2. I won’t use a service that is gov. funded. This is a more recent arguement against transit, but roads are no different. Think of the T party.
    3. What ride the bus? It’s below my social standing! Not usually said in those terms, but some people hold those opinions do to an inflated sence of their self importentce. Road & sidewalk rage are simptoms of this atitude.
    4. The bus just doesn’t go where I need it to. These people would use transit if it went where they wanted. This is the easiest group to work with. Some do ride & others are just talkers, but at least you still have a shot with them.

  8. JAzumah says:

    I think transit advocates have a problem understanding the car. There is the perception that a car is not needed in NYC. That is simply not true. It is dependent on where you are going and when you are going there. Sometimes, it is not feasible to take transit if other options are available.

    For example, the South Shore of Staten Island is 50 minutes away by car and 2.5 hours away by mass transit. I do not hate the planet if I choose to drive instead of taking mass transport. However, there are advocates who don’t understand that by reducing capacity in certain areas, they increase the car travel time without offering a reasonable alternative.

    Once transit advocates understand that the car is actually a viable form of transportation for some trips, they may be able to team up with the highway lobby to rebuild all of the nation’s critical infrastructure. After all, buses and cars use roads. There is no separating the baby from the bathwater.

    • Alon Levy says:

      APTA has just exactly what you propose. It teamed up with AASHTO to derail Kerry-Lieberman on the grounds that the carbon fees raised from driving would not all be spent on surface transportation; its arguments were every bit as entitled as those of the auto lobby.

      Very little of the Interstate network is “critical infrastructure.” Look at the motorway network of London, or even Paris, and then ask yourself if there really needs to be any grade-separated freeway in the four main boroughs.

      The South Shore of Staten Island is 50 minutes away by car because of about 80 years of investment almost exclusively in highway infrastructure. If New York’s attitude beginning in about 1920 had been the same as Japan’s, it would have built better transit infrastructure to the island, and much less free highway infrastructure, as a result of which both cars and transit would take around 1-1.5 hours.

      • Adirondacker12800 says:

        They could do better than that. Best time the express from South Amboy, an analog for Tottenville, makes, is 43 minutes. If you could take a train from New Dorp to Times Square in 40 minutes, far less people would drive.

        • Alon Levy says:

          At Chuo Rapid Line speeds, an express train would do Tottenville-GCT in about 40-45 minutes, if there were an SI-Manhattan tunnel. But since I’m counterfactually assuming Japanese investment patterns, I’m assuming no such tunnel, with trains going through Brooklyn instead.

  9. jeff says:

    AlexB makes some good points, to add to them I’ll say that I think the MTA has not focused enough on certain customer service issues, namely communication.
    By this I mean signage and announcements primarily, and digital information secondarily. In the past few years they really do seem to have improved quite a bit on these fronts, Trip Planner being a surprisingly well-executed service. But signage and announcements still need to come a long way. The new designs for the transit changes flyers are better, but the MTA needs to realize that what makes customers unhappy is stress; stress from not knowing where they are, where their trains are going, and when their trains will arrive. I think the average rider would be more willing to forgive delays if they felt they were being given timely up to date info, preferably in advance. Standing on a platform for 15 minutes wating for a train without an *intelligible* announcement is going to sour many on how they perceive service.

    Convincing non-subway riders or car owners the subway is great seems less important, and less feasible, than creating loyal customers who are willing to publicly defend transit because they actually like it, not just tolerate it. A little inexpensive communication can go a long way.

  10. Stewart Clamen says:

    JAzumah,

    I hope you’re not saying that they shouldn’t reduce driving capacity along Broadway in Manhattan because some New Yorkers live in exurban Staten Island where a car is required to get around.

    • Aaron says:

      Yeah, I think that’s exactly what he’s saying. Sounds remarkably like “get your government hands out of my medicare,” doesn’t it?

  11. Jesse says:

    I agree with Christopher and Sean. The illusion of control can make driving seem faster/more convenient, even if every other metric — time spent commuting, distance you need to walk as part of the commute (only in movies can everyone park right in front of where they’re going to every time), ease of travel — weighs in favor of mass transit. As a result, people seem more annoyed by 5-minute delays on the subway (which they know they have no control over) than by 20-minute delays on the highway (which they erroneously think they have some control over).

    • SEAN says:

      Jesse,

      Let me go one more step. Think of those drivers who park in the reserved spaces for the disabled & don’t bat an eye when confronted by others. It’s to far to walk from my car to where I’m going! they’ll say angerly without considerring the impact on those who truly need that spot.

      God forbid if someone walks for more than 5 minutes to get somewhere! Are we that fat, lazy or believe we are just that privaliged to do what we want when & where we want & don’t think about the impact on them selvs or others?

  12. Robert says:

    As the “Mayor of New York” in the second Ghostbusters movie said, “Being miserable and treating other people like dirt is every New Yorker’s god-given right.”

  13. Alon Levy says:

    I hate transit, because I sometimes have to use it. The differences are that I know that it can be done well enough not to make people hate it, and that I hate freeways even more.

  14. Tim says:

    As you chose to link the question “why do people hate transit” with those residents of 86th St, 34th St and PPW, I would ask that you re-think the question because the reaction of the neighborhoods you mention has in my opinion nothing to do with “hating transit”.

    I stipulate that transit people, such as the NYC DOT, are excellent at understanding how people move and seeking the fastest, most efficient way to move mass groups of people in an urban environment. My experience with transit designers is that they are not good at thinking about people who are in effect stationary (residents) and their need to access the street for their daily lives. In fairness, I think the DOT is trying to understand, but their public communication and research skills are frankly weak.

    While the 2nd Ave Subway when completed will be great, if you are a business owner or home owner looking at an extended construction period you are going to be concerned, you may well be angry at the possible loss of your business or the depressed value of your home during the construction period.

    Similarly the proposed 34th St BRT will eliminate curbside access for some residents and businesses along 34th St 24/7/265 in perpetuity. The neighborhoods reaction has little to do with personal parking. Nobody in NYC legitimately expects to get a parking space in front of their home and very few people along 34th St or 2nd Ave (if they own a car) expect parking within 4 or 5 blocks. The neighborhoods reaction has everything to do with safety, street access and quality of life, questions the DOT have not been able to answer or the answers provided are not at all comforting to residents and small business owners. Those are legitimate emotions / concerns that have nothing to do with hating mass transit and everything to do with the burden the city’s agencies impose on you and your neighborhood. Combine that with an inability by the city to meet self-imposed deadlines and you have a recipe for strong emotions, lack of trust and legitimate resistance as you try to turn the project into something that is palatable for your home.

    I find it surprising that this site doesn’t understand this difference. The tenor and tone towards residents in fact contributes to the very resistance this site views with such disdain. There is no better way to get a New Yorker’s back up then to point the finger at them. It is unfortunate that the nuance is not understood as it misses a great opportunity to improve the dialogue and better the community, which I assume is the priority of a site dedicated to mass transit.

    • VLM says:

      Your car is losing curbside access; you as a person are not. We’ve already gone over that here.

      Plus, when have the opponents of the 34th St. Transitway ever shown a willingness to engage in dialogue? I’ve been to all of those CB meetings, and it’s just complaint and whine after complaint and whine. You should talk to the pot and kettle one day.

      • Tim says:

        There have been a 4 public forums where the DOT asked for residential input. There have been 3 Community Advisory Committee meetings where residential, business and political leaders provided input. The Murray Hill Neighborhhod Association hosted a town hall in September of last year and invited the DOT to present. Absolutely objections have been raised, that was the point of the forums, in raising those objections the DOT will hopefully be able to adapt the design.

        The car comment is the very point I was trying to make about not understanding residential needs.

        Lastly, if this design went down the middle (doable, more expense, but doable) you would have significantly less objection.

  15. Alan Miles says:

    Most of the NIMBYism comes from the fact that the costs of any change are bourne by a small number of people who are disproportionately affected by a change and are therefore interested in stopping it, vs. the majority who benefit but not greatly enough to become advocates for a particular change.

    In my time serving on a Manhattan Community Board, I am astounded by the opposition that materializes to any proposal that reduces street parking by even one or two spaces, even though only 8% of households in Manhattan own cars.

    • Alon Levy says:

      30%. And it’s higher south of Harlem.

      • nycpat says:

        The car ownership rate is 30% in Manhattan? Where did you get that figure? I know many people who live in Harlem and own one or more cars. It’s not as densely populated as areas to the south and has ample parking (for NYC).

        • Alon Levy says:

          No, it’s actually 23% (linnk). My bad.

          The bit about south of Harlem comes from Cap’n Transit, who has a map of car ownership per city council district. It’s a little higher on the UES and UWS than in the rest of Manhattan; those two neighborhoods are very dense, but also very rich.

  16. BrooklynBus says:

    “They can’t improve the bus system without taking space from drivers…”

    Totally untrue statement. That is what the MTA would like you to believe that they are doing everything possible to run an efficient bus system within economic constraints, and SBS is the only thing additional mechanism needed.

    The truth is there is much the MTA can do and some of it without cost. Some routes are totally outdated bypassing major destinations. Why should someone take an indirect bus changing multiple times when he can take a straight car ride in half the time? The sad fact is that when planning a trip and weighing your options, car usually gets you there in 25 to 50% of the time. Rarely is it a toss up. The exceptions would be travel within or to the central core of the City and for those trips most people do use mass transit.

    The MTA has done absolutely nothing to make travel easier within and between the boroughs and car remains the best option for most trips. The solution is not to take away road space and replace it with bicycle lanes because while that increases the time it takes to drive, it still does not make bicycle a feasible option for most trips because they are too long to be convenient by bicycle. Unless SBS becomes available on the ten heaviest routes in a borough, buses still will not gain a competitive edge.

    Since it is taking 7 years for the first Brooklyn SBS route, I don’t see it expanding much within my lifetime.

    Why does the development of the municipal parking garage in Flushing into commercial space not include an underground bus terminal which has been needed there for over 50 years? Instead one was built a few years ago in Jackson Heights where a bus terminal was not even needed because the routes there could have been through routed.

    Yes there are some snobs out there who wouldn’t be caught dead using public transit. but that is a minority of people. Most are rational and will just use the best alternative available, and until mass transit becomes more attractive, they will continue to drive.

    • Alon Levy says:

      The Flushing fiasco is about the local NIMBYs wanting excessive parking. The MTA makes enough real blunders of its own that you don’t need to blame it for other people’s problems.

      • BrooklynBus says:

        Explain. I don’t see the relationship between wanting “excessive parking” and a bus terminal. I was talking about building one underground below the commercial development. I never heard of the MTA pushing for a terminal there.

    • Totally untrue statement.

      Two tried and true ways to speed up a bus:

      1. Pre-board fare payment. This should happen everywhere throughout the system.

      2. Physically separated dedicated lanes with signal prioritization. That takes either a parking lane or a lane of traffic away from cars.

      You can do one without the other, but if you want to achieve faster bus service, you have to prioritize buses over cars on the road.

      • Alon Levy says:

        Two more tried and true ways to speed up a bus:

        3. Fewer stops – about every 400 meters, instead of 200.

        4. More doors – three-door 40-footers exist and are normal in the Riviera.

        • BrooklynBus says:

          Every 400 meters? Are you kidding? That’s like stops every quarter-mile. So you expect people to walk a half mile to the bus stop and a half-mile from the bus stop? That is absolutely ridiculous for local travel. Most people are not willing to walk that far and many are not able to. The bus system isn’t only for young able people. I have sciatica now and can’t even walk one extra block to a bus. Would you rather more people rely on Access-a-ride?

      • BrooklynBus says:

        That’s not what I said was untrue. Don’t twist my words.

        I was saying that there are other ways to improve the bus system besides using SBS techniques such as you mentioned. You totally neglect that.

        I was speaking about rationalizing the routes. That does not require reallocating street space or pre-boarding. It makes no sense to have to travel out of your way to make a transfer. Look at the transfer between the B9 and B16 in Brooklyn to see what I am talking about. To go from 16th Avenue to 13th Avenue, you have to travel 10 minutes out of your way to Fort Hamilton Parkway. There also is no north-south route serving the area’s major hospital, Maimonides Medical Center.

  17. Frank B. says:

    That’s an easy one. People are in love with their cars.

    • Edward says:

      True, thought it’s hard to fall in love with a pissy smelling, dirty, crowded, late, bum-filled noisy subway train as it rumbles into a pissy smelling, old, dirty, tiles-falling-off-the-wall, hot/cold station build in 1918 and not cleaned since 🙂

  18. BBnet3000 says:

    Part of the issue is also not car USE. Its car OWNERSHIP. Seems to me like lots of people in fairly transit-rich American cities barely use their cars, and move them for street cleaning.

    The city would be a lot less congested (and off-street parking a lot less necessary) if more people who barely use their cars dumped them and used car sharing instead.

  19. paulb says:

    You might ask the question the other way around: What makes private transportation, in particular the auto, so indefatigably popular?

    I have my own ideas.

  20. Alon Levy says:

    @BrooklynBus (apologies, the mobile version of this blog doesn’t thread comments):

    400 meters stop spacing is standard all over Europe, where the population is older than in the US, and transportation planning, in the words of Dutch bike lane planners, is based on the needs of 60-year-old women with bags.

    • BrooklynBus says:

      But is that the case just in cities without local rapid transit where the buses act as the subway system or in cities that have subways as well?

      • Bolwerk says:

        I was thinking about your comment about how you don’t want people to have to use paratransit. I wonder if the paratransit or even paying for a taxi is more desirable for those who are really that immobile. Local buses would certainly be faster if wheelchair users didn’t have to be elevated up.

  21. Henry says:

    Mass transit sucks. Always used had to use it,never liked it. I live in brooklyn and the day I got my car I never looked back at using public transportation. I’d much rather pay for regular car maintenance,gas,tolls,wait longer in traffic if it comes, whatever it may be as opposed to transit. The only place where I would even think about using it is in manhattan. Prior to my car I’ve been using mass transit for over 10 years so I know what I’m saying when I say,it sucks. Why make it more luxurious,people don’t care about that,they just want for faster bus/trains that are more reliable. Its preference for me that I choose a car over public transit,but still want the fellow transiters to get their fair share of the road pie in time

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