How can we make public transit work for us?

In my hometown, public transportation was not really an option. Yes, there were a few buses, but their routes were concentrated to downtown, and when I was younger, you didn’t go downtown. Today, I think there are a few more bus routes that might work for the people who live near them, but for the rest of the city (which consists nearly wholly of suburbs), public transportation does not exist. If you don’t have a car, tough luck. And if you want to get between cities, forget about it.

The places I have lived since moving away from home have had varying degrees of accessible transportation – from a college town’s bus lines that are used primarily to transport students from their apartments to campus to a major metropolis with an underground metro system. But even in areas with access to public transport, I wonder how accessible is it really? We know that there are locations within cities with large transport systems that are not within a reasonable distance to a bus or train line. Then there are areas where transit lines only run once or twice every hour. Thinking of my own neighborhood, there are two bus lines that run the same route with the exception of the ends of the route. They each run every half hour during the height of the day and every hour late at night. Wouldn’t you think that these buses would be staggered since, for 90% of their route, they run the same route? Nope. They run at the same time. More oft than not, I see these two buses running one behind each other, which means if you miss both, even by a minute, you’re stuck for another thirty minutes. Couldn’t we make a common sense change so that the majority of people using these buses only have to wait fifteen minutes? What other seemingly small and easy changes could we make to public transit so that it better serves people (and maybe encourages greater use)?

Why am I thinking so much about public transit? Well, I unexpectedly had a day in Tokyo and used the Tokyo subway system to get around while I was exploring. I had always heard the Tokyo subway was remarkable, and after one day, I’d say I agree. It was clean. It was on time. From what I could tell, it seemed far-reaching. But what I appreciated the most was that it was accessible. I don’t speak any Japanese but did not have any problems navigating the system. There were signs labeling the different entrances, so you knew where to exit the station in order to get where you were going above ground. Announcements and videos on the train let you know how many stops and minutes you were from your stop. Google maps even suggested the best cars to get into for the easiest transfers. The subway system app had comprehensive, real-time data about routes. And, everything was presented in multiple languages.

How many times have you been in a new city and didn’t know your way around and were only confused by the public transit? What if you’re not accustomed to using public transit and metro systems are completely intimidated? What if you don’t speak the language and there’s nothing in your native language that can assist you? What would have helped you find your way? That’s what I’ve been thinking about over the last 48 hours.

America is the land of cars – it’s part of the American dream. I’m not sure that’s ever going to change. However, in a time where we need to find ways to reduce our use of and dependence on fossil fuels, public transportation has to be part of the solution. But, if people can’t understand the system and it doesn’t work for them, how likely are they to use it? So, can we start implementing small changes (like the resources that made it so easy to navigate Tokyo) and make public transportation more inviting? Here’s looking at you WMATA.


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