Transit Culture: the Missing Element In Boosting Ridership

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This post is also available in: Chinese (Traditional), French

In many developed countries, particularly in the United States, transit agencies struggle to boost ridership. Despites shrinking budgets, many operators have recognized and implemented several important elements which are critical to providing good bus service: shelters, well marked routes, abundant information available via flyers, websites, or mobile devices. But despite this, boosting ridership remains an issue because, aside from the purely technical factors such as time and cost, there are other forces at play. How we travel is more than a simple choice of how to get around, it is a part of how we see ourselves, and a way we relate to the people around us.

In wealthier countries, long-standing car culture has led to the deterioration of culture built around mass transit. For example, in a typical office in the United States, it’s common for workers to stop and chat about their commutes, complain about traffic, and exchange tips on short cuts that in actuality will probably make commutes even longer. It’s far less common for anyone to talk about their day on the bus or train, and the net effect of having a car-only office environment is that everyone is left with the desire to always commute by car.

When I first moved to Buenos Aires, I was surprised by the universality of bus ridership. Ask anyone on the street which bus to take and chances are they will know. Even people who commute by car will have some familiarity with the bus system in their area. Absent are the perplexed looks when you tell a stranger you need to take a bus, and the occasional inquiry of, “You mean you don’t have a car?”

The sense of community is a critical part of building transit ridership, almost as important as the service itself. If people feel their choice of transportation isolates them from their peers, they will go out of their way to avoid it. On the other hand, a strong perception of community around a mode of transportation will actually draw users in.

Unfortunately, building a transit culture isn’t something that can be done simply by the actions of a transit agency or government alone. It takes a change in the mentality of the entire populace to really make it happen. However, this change is something that can happen on an individual level. If a few more of us, instead of avoiding talking about the fact that we take the bus to work, are outgoing about it, we’ll all be that much closer to having a real transit culture.

Drew Reed is an online media producer and community activist specializing in sustainable transportation. He lives in Buenos Aires.

  • RickLindeman

    ánd don’t forgert the upcoming bike culture in lots of cities, see copenhagenize.com

  • Harold Dodge

    I live in Los Angeles, which is definitely a car culture, but there is an interesting shift occurring. Light rail is spreading out through the city. And last weekend 200,000 bike riders enjoyed closed streets in a cycling event. Change is slow but is happening.

  • http://www.facebook.com/emmiedee13 Morgan Danae Smith

    I live in a small town in Arkansas and public transit is only an option in a few cities. I hate driving and would love to live where this is an option so I can chuck car and insurance payments for a bus ticket.

  • Creating 2030

    Arlington VA’s Car Free Diet seems to be a creative and fun way to make a move towards a transit culture.

  • http://twitter.com/HelsinkiLiving Helsinki Living

    Great Article!. Bendigo, VIC, Australia has a really great bus service! My daughter and I are regular bus travellers, and enjoy the community connection with locals that it provides!

  • neil21

    I know we
    transit advocates are supposed to present a united front, but I’m afraid I have
    to disagree that this is an issue that needs to be tackled directly. The
    culture will follow the street design and zoning reform that make
    transit-serviceable urbanism legal again. Policy must lead: the power to change
    street design guidelines and zoning codes definitely lies with government
    alone. Asking people to change who they are first is a strategy doomed to
    failure.

    There are
    similar arguments made around cycling – between the “we need a cultural
    change, so that walking around in clippy shoes, day-glo and helmets is
    normal”-camp and the unfortunately named ‘cycle chic’ camp, who want city
    biking to be like walking with wheels, pedestrian-plus (to which I, and anyone
    who’s ridden a Bixi, fully subscribe). Everyone can see themselves as
    pedestrians, so there’s no identity crisis there, and the appeal is instantly
    much broader.
    Water-cooler bragging from “avid”
    bus-riders would be as bad as the same from “avid” cyclists: bad PR, unlikely to sway
    the currently unconverted. Government (holding the monopoly on streets, and
    full control over zoning regs) must act first, correcting 50 years of infrastructure misinvestment in order to make bus-riding and
    biking as normal as brushing teeth: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/8223520.stm

  • Carmen Johnson

    thanks this

  • http://twitter.com/MissDannon Miss Dannon

    People can talk about riding the bus without having a pissing contest. my college campus is too big for walking and there are often 10 bikes and 3 buses lined up at the red lights. It’s feasible because there are 50,000 of us living in a relatively small area and the bus company gives certain route segments hyper-frequent service. Nobody has to brag about or feel uncomfortable about the fact that they ride the bus. Yes, most students are fantasizing about the day they can grow up and get a car, but there will always be 50,000 students at the u of m, even if they aren’t always the same students. That’s 50,000 people who are acting out transit culture and not caring about the political implications of it. The more people you have in physical situations where driving is just not convenient (ie, they can’t afford parking or gas, or they don’t have far to travel), the more transit culture will be a natural solution instead of an intentional, pretentious action. Bottom line, I believe transit culture develops out of a logical response to a physical/economical/rational situation. Don’t try to put fashion first–people never agree on fashion. But people will agree on “I can’t afford to drive.”

  • http://www.thisbigcity.net/ Joe Peach

    Transit culture is definitely something we have in London. Almost everyone gets to work in central London via public transport, and your journey is often the furst thing that gets discussed when you arrive at work. But the quality of our infrastructure brought that about. First priority has to be investing in real quality infra. Then the culture comes.

  • http://profiles.google.com/lovedrivenprints Lillian Davenport-Partac

    I see myself starting a grassroots bus-and-train ridership campaign. I’m a graphic designer, so I can create all sorts of propaganda around issues that I care about. Which is awesome, and empowering.

  • Diego Hemken

    Care should be taken to avoid excessively animal-like conditions for humans. I felt like livestock in a crowded Mexico City metro. And the mind-jellifying television is very harmful. Efficiency is great, but it must be balanced with decency.