Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Public transit can be a success

One look back to the past can show how public transit can be successful without expensive transit projects.

The Port Authority of Allegheny County (PAT) in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania had one of the most successful transit operations in the US between 1972 and 1980. This success wasn't because an expensive transit project was built but because PAT went back to the basics of providing service.

Under the direction of John T. Mauro, PAT reversed a steady decline in ridership and increased service by using an almost unheard of tactic in today's world. That tactic was making the transit system cost effective, increasing the productivity of the service and employees as well as finding inexpensive but innovative ways of marketing itself to the public. This all occurred when PAT was in a financial crunch and was unable to get more operating funding from the State. Now get this boys and girls, it was done without increasing fares.

Specialized services were launched under Mauro's leadership which included U-Bus service, Red Flyer express services, Park-N-Ride services and the first of the low-cost reverse flow bus lanes in the area. Also launched was an education campaign which explained the operation to the public. It was believed that the better people understood the operation, the more interested they would be in riding. It worked.

Service expansion was a must under Mauro. To accomplish this without raising fares or getting more funding, PAT held a hard line on minimum ridership levels for routes. Non-performing routes were eliminated or curtailed and that service quickly moved to areas that needed more or new service. Streamlining of many routes and how driver route picks were made also increased the productivity of the services.

PAT launched many innovative marketing methods which were low cost but very effective. One of the best was the PAT Traffic Central which used existing bus drivers to radio in traffic reports which were then put together into a broadcast for various radio and TV stations which got them a free promotional plug in exchange for the traffic report.

The first transit project completed by PAT was a bus only roadway which helped speed the ride for South Hills commuters. The South Busway was opened in 1977 and was a low tech and cost effective method that worked (and still works) well. This project, while assisting with the success, wasn't the reason for the success which was well underway by the time it opened.

PAT focused on the basics before adding the frills to the operation. During the "MOD" era of PAT, which this period is known by, PAT had a rainbow of colors used on its buses. This was the icing on the cake and gave PAT a big presence. Product, Price and Promotion were the cake which the painted buses represented.

Flash forward to today. What is happening in the transit industry now is that they are trying to pass the icing off as the cake. Too often we see public transit trying to "save the system" through expensive transit projects that ultimately drain off money from the rest of the struggling system once the project is completed.

Public transit has lost its way. Frills are placed above the basics in this day and age. When you have transit systems across the country that can barely run buses without crying about route cuts, fare hikes and begging for more money from government, how can they seriously think an expensive transit project will save the operation?

Public transit needs to go back to the basics and use the PAT operation of the 1970's as the model. Not just the colorful buses but the whole package. Too many, including the current PAT administration of today, think colorful buses will attract the masses and then scratch their heads when the riders don't show.

People are willing ride in plain, non-flashy buses if the service is reliable, convenient and reasonably priced. You don't need flashy new buses and every option imaginable to attract riders. If you don't have the basics of service down, even hosts that fluff your pillow, serve free food and drink and things like free Wi-Fi won't attract new riders.

Product - Price - Promotion are the basics. Hold the line on fares, improve the existing produce before adding frills and finally, find inexpensive but effective methods for promoting the system. Transit systems that follow the MOD template will soon find they have more riders than they know what to do with.

My critics will cite PAT's Skybus of course but remember, the project was cancelled so it didn't play into the success of the MOD era. If built, it would have literally destroyed the transit operation by draining off operational funding to pay to operate the line. That is one of my few critical comments regarding PAT of the 1970's, the push for the expensive, untested and unproven technology of Skybus to replace the already existing rail lines.

The future success of public transit depends on going back to the basics. Many systems have the last part of the formula, promotion, nailed down but they fail miserably on the product and price. The politicians and transit administrations of today seem to have forgotten that without a good product that works and a good price for that product, no amount of promotion will help.

In addition, the adding of expensive transit projects to the formula of the transit basics will doom the basics to fail unless certain issues are addressed during the planning stage. This is another area that the politicians and transit officials fail at. Too often the transit projects are planned solely with the hope of future economic development rather than being planned with the rider in mind. If TA's and city officials insist on having expensive transit projects such as LRT and BRT, they need to be placed in existing high ridership corridors where high ridership is already established, not to serve brownfield areas which city leaders hope to have developed. Sadly, the gamble on future economic development trumps the need of the community.

When you have transit systems developing long term plans for future fare increases and route cuts and scrambling to build any project that they can convince the Feds to pay for, which we have today, it is clear that public transit has lost its way. Transit officials will continue to provide poor service, cry for money, hike fares and find new ways to waste the money that they have until common sense comes back to the industry and the basics of transit are rediscovered.

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