Public Choice

As a follow-up to my post from earlier this week, let's consider why there is so much segregation in our choice of mode of travel. More specifically, why is it that it is predominantly poor people who use public transit?

This issue was raised in a conversation I had with a colleague of mine who is an avid user of transit. He listed all of the layers of transportation that have been layered on top of our region's public transit system - hotels, universities, office and apartment operators all operating their own shuttles - and how grossly inefficient that was. He wondered aloud why you would conceive of such solutions, or even more outlandish ones, if there was already such a massive investment in and ready access to existing public transit infrastructure.

It's a fair question. Let's think about the (not mutually exclusive, and in no particular order) possibilities:

1) Ignorance. I am not aware of what line goes where, and don't want to take the time to learn.

2) Convenience. Service is too infrequent and unreliable for me to depend on it.

3) Safety. I'd rather not go underground, where it's dark and I'm not familiar.

4) Aesthetics. Have you seen or smelled a trolley station lately?

5) Car dependence. I need my car where I'm going.

6) Elitism. Only poor people use public transit, so I don't want to mix it up.

1, 4, and 6 sound bad to say, so almost no one ever says them, although I'm sure many think them. If 5 is the case, it's usually said first, since it's such a conversation-ender. 2 and 3 are usually the ones people talk about, and they are real issues.

New York City and Washington, our prominent cities to the north and south, are much more broadly used by all walks of life, which gives us some clue as to how it can happen. 2, 3, and 4 are less of an issue in those two systems, since service is frequent, coverage is almost universal, and stations are well-lit and well-patrolled. On a related note, 6 is a virtuous cycle: as more and different people use the system, there is less and less segregation. So are 1 and 5: the more that people use a system, the more there will be awareness of its intricacies, and the more transit is relied on, the less the car is needed.

So that gives you some guidance from a broad public policy standpoint, as to how to improve a system to the point of increasing and broadening its ridership. In the meantime, here in Philadelphia and in other cities, let's return to the question of our personal preferences. How much of our transit aversion is on account of justifiable reasons, and how much of it is less noble in nature?

We hesitate to say things like "it would be embarrassing for me to be seen on public," "I think poor people are smelly," or "I'd rather not share space with 'those' people" (whoever "those" people happen to be in your city of choice). And yet if, consciously or not, those are our reasons for avoiding public, we ought to pause and consider if we need to make some attitudinal changes. For those are not good attitudes to harbor. We would say so ourselves, so why should we have a blind spot when it comes to our choice of mode of travel?

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