Plan Your Own Route

Mass transit: the democratic transportation mode.

It sounds right, doesn’t it? More than driving (of course), cabbing, biking or even walking, transit just feels like the transportation of the people. Transit does tend to receive the most visible and direct public subsidy, after all, and any way of traveling that forces crowds of people to press up against each other has to be considered democratic.

The countless benefits that cities reap from functional transit systems could be even greater, however, if transit systems could truly match cities’ needs in a timely and precise manner.

Of course, transit service already does approximate the needs of transit riders. This should be obvious—if you’re riding transit, it’s because existing service can get you from point A to point B. If transit can’t meet your needs, though, you’re probably not riding the bus, and non-riders are a blind spot faced by transit service planners.

The actions of communities and neighborhoods within cities hint at a solution to this problem. Since communities know their transit and mobility needs better than any centralized authority, they can approach transit agencies with ideas for improvements to existing bus service. If their suggestions are implemented, both parties benefit—the community for obvious reasons, and the agency by receiving valuable information from a direct source. This process is limited, however, by the incompleteness of information that’s offered. What if only some community groups take it upon themselves to analyze and communicate their transit needs? And what if some groups slip through the cracks or fail to make their case?

A more innovative solution that incorporates more information sources would be helpful, but there are obstacles to such a solution. Urban transit tends to be a natural monopoly—the fixed costs of a transit system are so great that two or more companies could not profitably exist in the same market (actually, cities in most parts of the world can’t even support one transit agency profitably). The result of the single-provider model is that multiple entities don’t get the chance to compete and experiment with different transit strategies. Ultimately, the mass transit “industry” is less innovative than it could be.

However, the internet and GIS technology offer one possible avenue for more direct public participation in the transit planning process. An interactive, online GIS map of a city and its transit network could allow any user to input desired changes to transit service. The GIS database would aggregate all those suggestions and inform the transit agency’s decisions to allocate or modify transit service. The most significant limitation to such an approach would be its reliance upon computer access and technological proficiency, which is not evenly distributed in cities. Despite this and other apparent flaws, a more participatory method of transit planning seems attainable given the technology currently available, and transit agencies can most likely use any additional information they can get.

(Photo from Flickr user pbiongriffin.)

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