Requiring transit officials to take transit makes sense

In light of some criticism regarding a $300,000 transit marketing study, Dick Spotswood makes a good recommendation: require Marin’s elected officials take transit to their meetings at least once per week. Though it won’t take the place of a marketing study, the observations of actual use are irreplaceable.

Spotswood writes:

If transit directors ride their own buses they’ll have a splendid opportunity to fully understand the system they govern. They’ll gain direct input from bus passengers and drivers without consultants in the way.

This isn’t about Golden Gate’s excellent commuter buses serving San Francisco’s central business district. Sears understands that, as she once commuted by bus when she worked in the city.

It’s about buses that start and end in Marin, funded by Marin taxpayers and governed by county supervisors and two council members, Novato’s Madeline Kellner and Stephanie Moulton-Peters of Mill Valley.

A theoretical understanding of a transit system doesn’t always comport with some of the day-to-day inconveniences. Golden Gate Transit (GGT) and Marin Transit (MT) both have some pretty glaring theoretical issues – lack of real-time arrival data, lack of fare coordination, three-transfer trips, poor quality bus pads – there are some things you just need to experience to have them in the top of your mind. When a bus is late and you miss your timed transfer, that’s a huge inconvenience. When a bus stops running just before your event is over, that’s a major problem. When you arrive to your stop on time but the bus passed by early, that might mean an hour wait.

What’s big to someone on the ground might only appear as an obscure metric on a report, or not appear on a report at all. As an infrequent rider, I’m surprised when I ride at how fantastic the system is, on one hand, and how much room for improvement there is on the other. [If you want to report on some of these day-to-day inconveniences, drop me a line on Facebook, Twitter, or email. -ed]

Putting this understanding and frustration into the hands of elected officials can be a powerful tool to push back against staff when they’re dragging their feet. An applicant of GGT’s citizens’ advisory committee recently told me about staff brushing off a question about real-time arrival data, which was promised to be available “in six months” for over a year now. Though this advisory committee can’t do much, a county supervisor would be able to do quite a bit.

We do need marketing studies and we do need a marketing campaign for GGT and MT, as there are issues that might apply to an area elected officials just don’t encounter, but that’s just one part of an integrated whole. We need our elected officials riding the bus around Marin. Perhaps then they’ll find not just why Marinites don’t ride the bus, but also some easy ways it could be so much better.


About David Edmondson
A native Marinite working in Washington, DC, I am fascinated by how one might apply smart-growth and urbanist thinking to the low-density towns of my home.

5 Responses to Requiring transit officials to take transit makes sense

  1. Pingback: Today’s Headlines | Streetsblog San Francisco

  2. Sprague says:

    Many years ago I was an intern at the public transit agency in Albuquerque and I recall speaking with some of the paid staff about why they did not ride their own bus service and instead opted to drive (although they had free annual passes as a benefit of their employment). Their response was that if the frequency was increased to ten or fifteen minute headways they would then start to ride the bus. It seems transit agency employees are much like the general public, only if transit is better will they use it. Of course, without a perceived demand it is difficult to justify transit improvement.
    It is good to question the wisdom of spending six figure sums on marketing studies that likely will provide little benefit. Perhaps spending $300,000 on upgrading as many traffic signals as possible for transit signal priority (or to directly fund service improvement) would provide more bang for the buck and, of course, transit officials should use their product on a regular basis.

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  4. Luke Evans says:

    Sacramento Regional Transit District General Manager Mike Wiley spends at least one day per month riding RT’s system of buses and light rail. RT Board members also occassionaly ride with him. They meet and greet fellow riders and solicit their feedback on their experiences. Mike reports his findings to the full Board at their monthly meetings. Besides having great PR value, it’s also a safe bet that this type of first hand ridership experience by RT’s leadership makes for a better system.

    It’s been my experience that the success or failure of this kind of observational management style is very personality driven. Mike is a great guy who is very approachable, and it’s easy to see how he would enjoy these outings, and I’m sure the riders he talks with enjoy their time with him. Other transit executives in other systems might not enjoy mingling with the proletariat to the same extent. They might also intimidate other riders, which would defeat the purpose. Nevertheless, it’s a great idea to keep transit executives in touch with the systems they are managing.

  5. Nathaniel M Hood says:

    Reblogged this on CNU NextGen and commented:
    Should transit officials be required to at least occasionally take transit?

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