Over the past few months, it has been exhaustingly frustrating listening to Gov. Andrew Cuomo talk about transit. As I explored late last week, he has latched onto vaporware ideas and thinks he’s investing in smart and rational transit expansion programs. His ideas — AirTrains that go the wrong way, buses he termed “Ferrari-like” with ceiling-mounted USB ports, e-tickets that should been implemented years ago — don’t move the ball forward.
But, in the words of LeVar Burton, you don’t have to take my word for it. A study issued this week by the Transit Center called Who’s On Board [pdf] highlighted the factors that drive people to use transit, and these flashy benefits that Cuomo has been pushing rank dead last. Out of a series of 12 service improvements, wifi and power outlets finished behind the field while service frequency and travel time led the pack. Other leading factors, especially with regards to buses, included countdown clocks, one-seat rides, low fares, and seat availability.
“There’s no magic bullet for transit, but there are some simple rules,” Steven Higashide, the report’s lead researcher, said. “Make it easy for people to walk to transit, put it close to important destinations, and make transit frequent, fast, and reliable. Frequent transit networks in walkable neighborhoods reduce reliance on cars, spark economic growth, and create vibrant urban places.”
The report also served to validate other assumptions regarding transit riders. Higashide and the Transit Center team found that most transit riders walk from to transit, thus highlighting the need to locate stations in busy and walkable areas with safe access routes. More importantly for New York, the report highlights how transit users, particularly those who own cars or have access to other means of transit, are far more sensitive to quality. For years, transit planners and analysts have relied on the idea of a “captive rider” who uses transit because there is no other choice. But the report has found that those who live and/or work near higher quality transit — reliable trains, frequent buses – use transit whether they own cars or not. “When transit becomes functionally useless,” the report notes, “there are very few people who will continue to use it; agencies can take no one for granted.”
Is New York’s current focus wrong then? Highlighting Gov. Cuomo’s promise of Ferrari-like buses, the report states, “Our findings call into question the fad among transit agencies touting free Wi-Fi for customers who don’t care strongly for it.” Instead of focusing on gimmicks, transit investment should focus around more frequent service and faster travel, whether through dedicated lanes or otherwise. The orders from the governor then seem backwards. Slapping a new decal on a city bus and adding amenities that don’t get riders to their destinations faster is about branding that most see through; improving travel times by investing in more routes and prioritizing road space accordingly is a bigger political lift but with a greater pay-off at the end.
Ultimately, New York seems to be spinnings it proverbial wheels, but it’s not clearly who’s listening. And with ridership holding steady on subways and ticking downward on buses these days, it seems that the MTA is a living example of the Transit Center’s findings. Potential riders seek out transit that is of good quality, and declining service, whether through longer waits or slower speeds or disappearing routes, lead those commuters to seek other means. No number of USB ports will ever reverse that trend.