In light of this week’s announcement that Frontrunner commuter rail is coming, I’ve been looking for articles that deepen our understanding of public transit and how to make it work. After all, just because we have a train doesn’t necessarily mean people will use it. I’ve even wondered if I’ll have the dedication to take Frontrunner to SLC when I’m so used to driving. I hope I will.
This article from Slate, however, lays out an interesting series of factors that make a public transit system successful. The author lays out a “system/empathy” dichotomy — which will make more sense if you read the article. However, in a nutshell, I think he’s really talking about efficiency verses charm. Or perhaps the functionality of public transit, verses the pleasure of using it.
The author more or less comes out on the side of functionality and efficiency. He argues that even if we have a train or bus, it has to arrive/depart often to be useful. These quotes are illuminative:
“The map, in other words, dwells larger in the imagination than the timetable.”
“But if the question is what’s going to get the most people on transit in a city, what’s going to move the most people, it seems to have less to do with the quality of the experience than the quantity”
The author, however, does acknowledge that pleasure and charm do matter:
“…if transit is to become an attractive alternative to the automobile, the ride itself must offer an experience to passengers that they cannot get within the solitude of their cars”
The author here is raising some vital issues. After all, if, using commuter rail, I can’t leave for SLC on a Saturday afternoon and come back in the middle of the night — say, after a concert — I’ll likely never use it. That’s just as important as where the train goes and how long it takes to get there.
In that spirit, I’ve written a series of questions below. While not at all comprehensive, the answers to these questions will have a major impact on how successful our public transit networks — particularly the train because it is such a major advance — actually become.
1. How frequently will trains depart?
2. How quickly will commuter rail get me to my destination?
3. How early will they begin to run, and how late before they stop?
4. How far do I have to travel to get to transit stations? Are all transit stations within walking or biking distance of my origin and destination?
5. Can I easily access important destinations — the airport, for example — using the transit system? How frequently?
6. How integrated is the commuter rail into other transit systems — TRAX, for example?