There is something so glaringly obvious about proclaiming frequent service as the main driver behind transit ridership growth that we often tend to overlook it when discussing adding riders. Yet, every now and then, it’s worth remembering the basic maxim of transit planning: Above all else, frequent, reliable service is the key driver behind good and popular transit networks.
Recently, it seems, the MTA has forgotten this truth. Despite massive growth in ridership, service increases have been incremental with, thanks to TWU work and shift selection rules, long lead times before the MTA can institute shorter headways. In return, the MTA has turned toward gimmicks to, as officials claim, attempt to attract Millennials to transit (even though Millennials are already major transit users). We’ve seen the MTA to discuss USB- and wifi-enabled buses, and we’ve heard MTA CEO and Chairman claim a long wait for a train is more tolerable so long as the station has cell service. As I said in March, this is lipstick on a pig.
Meanwhile, recently, in Boston, the MBTA had to scale back certain plans for the extension of the Green Line, a costly plan that involves no tunneling but with a scope that grew out of control. To regain control of a project out of budget, the MBTA cut ostentatious station designs with reduced footprints for headhouses and fewer escalators and elevators. These stops won’t be grand designs, but they’ll be functional with constant service. That, Yonah Freemark at The Transport Politic recently wrote is what counts, and it’s worth looking at Freemark’s framing:
Given how reliant the people of New York City are on their Subway, an outsider just looking at ridership data might conclude that the system must be paved with gold, or at least its stations must be decent to look at. After all, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that the comfort of a transit system plays an essential role in encouraging people to abandon their cars and get on the train or bus. That’s why, some would argue, it’s so important to put amenities like USB charging and wifi into transit vehicles.
Yet anyone who has ever ridden the subway knows first hand that its success has nothing to do with aesthetics or access to luxury amenities. Stations are hardly in good shape, trains are packed, and cell service is spotty at best. People ride the subway in spite of these things; they ride it because it’s fast, it’s frequent, and it’s (relatively) reliable.
Too often, this simple fact is ignored by public agencies actually making decisions about how to invest. New York’s own $4 billion World Trade Center Transportation Hub—perhaps the world’s single-most expensive station—is evidence of that; rather than improve service frequency or speed, officials chose to direct public funds to a white monument that does nothing to actually ease the lives of daily commuters.
So be wary when Gov. Cuomo starts touting technology as the solution to the MTA’s woes. No amount of wifi-enabled stations, USB charging points or video screens will eliminate the fact that the MTA should be running more service and building out capacity. More frequent service is what makes transit appealing, and everything else is just a distraction from the real drivers of a better transportation network. We shouldn’t lose sight of that in an era in which the political discussion is dominated by technology rather than by service levels.