In the Blog
When Transit Gets Trendy
Illustration: Beena Mistry
My city has been making a concerted effort to improve public transportation. I heartily approve of this. They’ve opened new train lines and revamped bus schedules; they’ve created protected bike paths and busways. Up until recently it’s mostly been ignored by mainstream media and the blogosphere, even though millions of people take mass transit in the region every single day.
Recently, an existing light rail line was extended to a beach city with a very high median income, and suddenly, mass transit has become cool. Social media is blooming with selfie after selfie of people taking the train to art walks and wine tastings. There have been subway lines in my city for the past 25 years, mind you, but nobody’s really seemed to care much about the ones that serve working class or economically disadvantaged communities. This train to the beach, however, is a huge deal.
Succinctly and frankly put: Public transit is now popular in my city because it’s something privileged people can use for fun.
On one hand, I applaud and embrace anything that promotes any level of awareness and acceptance of mass transportation. Even if some people only take the train now and then to get to their leisure activities, it means they’re opting not to contribute to traffic on those days. If it leads to more transit-friendly policies and mindsets overall, it’s all good. That helps everyone who uses public transportation. It’s certainly an improvement over the biased, classist and ableist slurs that are often directed toward bus and train passengers, or the NIMBY lawsuits that several neighbourhoods have launched against transit projects.
My ire isn’t directed toward those new passengers or their enthusiastic Tweets and photos. Not at all. I actually really like to take photos of trains and buses when something piques my interest. A lot of stations have really intriguing art, for instance. I’m not inclined to give someone a cookie for finally discovering a means of transportation that billions of other people use, but then again, I’ve heavily used mass transit for my entire life. I’ve been doing so alone since I was eight or nine. I try to remind myself that something that is commonplace one person can be an adventure for someone else. It’s something new and novel to them, and they’re excited. Who am I to judge that?
I simply feel that those of us who use transit every day – as a way of life, and not a game – are still being marginalized despite - or because of – this newfound trendiness. I’ve personally witnessed transit providers completely ignore or minimize Tweets or Facebook posts with complaints about legitimate service concerns, while simultaneously posting blogs about “hipster foodie havens” and retweeting selfies of fashionable folks taking the subway to that food festival or posing with their fare cards. I’ve seen them ensure that there are enough shuttle buses to get everyone to a local sporting event, but fail to do the same for hundreds of passengers forced to disembark from the train when there’s been a track issue.
The shiny metro advertisements depict smiling families on mostly empty trains. They don’t show the ordinary-looking people who stand cheek to jowl during the morning commute because the train still doesn’t have enough cars or run often enough. They don’t show the people that have to transfer buses three times to get to their destinations, or the people who can’t get home at all because the bus doesn’t run late enough, or the people who spend hours waiting in the hot sun because the buses never show up, are too full to board, or blow past them without stopping. Forget about the people who are harassed or menaced or mugged. They’ll put posters on the trains to let everyone know that it’s unacceptable, but Heaven forbid they increase security or create better schedules and more direct routes so people aren’t waiting on dark street corners for their buses at night. It’s cool to transport a bike or piece of luggage because those cyclists and tourists need to get where they’re going, but if you get on the bus with a small grocery cart or a laundry bag, people glare at you.
The trendy transit brigade that can get home with one bus or train don’t seem to realize that many others in the city don’t always get adequate “last mile” service. A few communities are starting to get this and offer options such as mini-buses that connect the neighbourhood to the nearest train station, but a lot of people are still left in the cold. In the past I’ve spent an hour going all the way across my city and then another hour waiting for a bus to take me the last few kilometres. The solutions offered for the new wave of casual transit users, such as bicycle shares and walking long distances, aren’t particularly realistic, inclusive of the disabled, or feasible in light of weather and environmental conditions. They seem to be largely designed for those who have alternative means of transportation, have plenty of time to spare and/or are going out once in a while; not those who depend solely on mass transit or are attempting daily commutes.
This doesn’t seem to be exclusive to my area, either. Similar issues exist in many cities, including Toronto. About two years ago, the city of Anaheim, California built a multi-million dollar transportation hub. It’s visually gorgeous but logistically awkward, with very long walks to the platforms, scant assistance for travelers, and a lack of station essentials, such as clear signage, track assignments and schedule boards. Simultaneously, most of the trains that call at the station are inconveniently and sparsely scheduled and do not connect well with other transit carriers’ services. It’s far more useful as an Instagram photo op than as an actual transportation depot, and some commuters reportedly go so far as to walk around the building to avoid going through it.
The moral of the story: transit authorities are bending over backwards to make public transportation fashionable, but in doing so, regular riders are getting lost in the shuffle. They still aren’t always addressing the issues that deter people from using it in the first place and complicate the lives of those who depend on it. All the Instagram photos and retweets in the world won’t help if more passengers cannot easily, safely and efficiently use the system.
I do welcome our new mass transit users, make no mistake about that. I just hope that once the shine wears off and the train becomes mundane for them, they will join the rest of us in advocating for better service and real transportation solutions for all communities. And I hope that transit authorities will understand that they need both form and function – and to serve all riders, not just the ones on Twitter - in order to create and sustain viable mass transportation systems.
As a friend suggested, perhaps it’s time for a new social media trend: one that clearly and fully illustrates how regular passengers are being left in the cold. Maybe it’s time for even more people to fully document their difficulties with getting from point A to point B with social media posts and photos. They might not be smiling selfies, but there might be a chance they’d eventually lead to more smiles for public transit riders.
Public Transit Advocacy and Riders’ Associations: