Saturday, January 6, 2007

It's a tough sell for transit

London ON - An commentary column in the London Free Press by Ian Gillespie discusses a recent decision by the London Transit Commission to spend millions to overhaul their operation.

In the article, Mr. Gillespie interviews Douglas Leighton, an associate professor of the history department of Huron University College. They lament the fact that transit is losing to the car culture but they end the article at a critical point.

Are there many people who would really rather take a bus than drive a car?

I think not. And the big challenge is to change that and coax people onto public transit.

"But the question is, how do you do that?" says Leighton. "And I'm not sure having jazzier or sexier buses or whatever will do it."

Here is where the critical part of the article stops. While Leighton is 100% correct that "jazzier or sexier buses" will not attract people to public transit, he either missed the opportunity to state that good service will or he truly doesn't know the answer to his own question.

The lack of good service is the problem that plagues mass transit systems across North America. It is a well known and proven fact that if public transit agencies provide a service that is convenient, safe, takes them where they want to go and is affordable, people will crawl out from behind the wheel of their car to ride.

The true concept of good service has been abandoned by many operations in favor of expensive transit projects, bells and whistles on the vehicles and the system's precious image. Many transit systems truly believe that these wasteful items will attract the masses. It's been a dismal failure overall.

To provide good service doesn't have to be a multi-million dollar undertaking. What it takes is understanding the operation and the area it serves. By understanding the operation and the service area, a transit system can quickly adapt to shifts in the ridership trends.

Responding quickly to ridership trends is something I give a failing grade to most every public transit operation. When a transit system can clearly see it's ridership dropping on a route and that coincides with something else that has occurred in the service area such as a new mall or business park opening, transit needs to quickly adapt to this change. What normally happens however is that transit managers sit there, scratch their heads, wonder why their ridership is dropping on a route and then do nothing.

While selling transit to the car driving public is an uphill battle, it can be done. The problem is that many transit systems lost the understanding of what transit is all about. Spending millions to overhaul an operation just to load it up with frills won't attract and keep ridership. Only good service can do that and good service can be done for far less cost overall.

Transit will continue to suffer until transit officials and politicians wake up to the fact that they need to go back to the basics of public transit. Good, reliable, clean and safe service at a reasonable cost that takes people where they want to go when they need to go there. Without good service, the battle to attract ridership is lost.

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