Public Transit is Boring. Why Not Make It Fun?


Approaching the escalators exiting the Metro stop near my workplace yesterday, I was annoyed to see that half were out of order. Which half had staff decided to keep running? Those going down, not up. Odd choice. It's no fun fighting gravity on a long escalator.

Unfortunately, it's generally hard to describe taking transit as "fun." As a co-worker says, a big reason to ride it is that traffic is even less enjoyable. But why shouldn't transit riders get a kick out of the experience?

This is the premise behind a book I read over the holiday break: Making Transit Fun! How to Entice Motorists from Their Cars by Darrin Nordahl. He opens with a quote from former Bogota mayor Enrique Penalosa, who points out that "Transportation is not an end -- it is a means to having a better life, a more enjoyable life." This is exactly right.

Nordahl says auto designers "get" this, since their job is to "guarantee cars remain cool, chic and fun for the masses." I see this in my new car, which looks gorgeous on the outside while inside I get seat-warmers, satellite radio, GPS, a hookup for my iPod, settings for fuel-sipping "ecodrive" or a boost of speed for passing, and other features that make it fun to drive.

Transit should be such fun, so we feel attached to it emotionally as well as rationally. Now, to be clear as Nordahl is at the outset, you can't have "fun" without "funding." Transit needs, and deserves, more investment from municipalities, states and the feds. While money is necessary, however, it's not sufficient for transit to compete. And Nordahl points out that design can help with funding since "public transit alternatives that truly excite the public...tug our heartstrings while loosening our pursestrings."

Nordahl sketches (including pictorial renderings) design ideas for transit vehicles in Charlotte and Las Vegas that reflect their contexts. The former resembles a type of rolling "Veranda" that looks out on Charlotte like a lazy southern front porch. The latter resembles a shiny desert tortoise for residents and tourists frequenting Vegas's main strip. Such tailor-made vehicles are a tall order for agencies with limited budgets, but as Nordahl points out at least two cities -- Santa Barbara, CA and Chattanooga, TN -- have solved this by contracting with local manufacturers to build attractive and unique electric shuttle buses. Examples of similarly iconic transit vehicles can also be found in San Francisco, New Orleans and Pittsburgh.

Nordahl also notes that smaller improvements can help make transit competitive too. In Boulder, Colorado, drivers for Boulder's fun "Hop, Skip, Jump, Bound, Bolt, Dash and Stampede" bus routes display their names prominently and are customer-friendly. Technological improvements can provide an edge to transit too. Availability of wi-fi on vehicles, for example. Or real-time information for consumers via smart phones which should one day allow you and me to take a look at multiple transportation options nearby. Are roads congested or blocked? Are bikes available on a bikeshare rack? Is a bus or train coming soon? For more on this see my colleague Amanda's TEDx presentation about the potential:

As Nordahl points out, this kind of technology-enabled information puts travelers in control of transportation, which is something that attracts people to driving. Interesting that the same logic applies to transit drivers. One of the more cost-effective innovations by the Utah Transit Authority, for example, is displays showing drivers whether or not they are on-time (along with other useful data). Without any incentives or penalties, in just three years this information helped drive on-time performance from ~72% to ~89% (see presentation on UTA advances like this one here)! Information is a powerful tool, and putting better technology in our transit systems can make a big difference in competitiveness with the auto.

Nordahl rightly devotes an entire chapter to re-making the bus. While cool light rail and streetcars are transit's showhorses, buses are the workhorses. They carry a lot more passengers than rail, and given how responsive they can be to demand -- i.e., they can use our extensive network of roads flexibly as opposed to a fixed route -- this is likely to always be the case. Sadly, buses have a terrible reputation. Nordahl sums up:

But around the world, it is not an issue of speed that repels people from buses, but its ugly stepsister image. The public perception in Ottawa, and throughout North America, is that 'buses suffer an image problem. They aren't thought to be sexy, progressive, urbane or high-class.' And when it comes to luring motorists out of their cars, image can mean everything."

As mentioned above, Boulder overhauled its bus system in the 1990s. Political leadership matters: A visionary mayor named Will Toor (full disclosure: Will and I were both student environmental organizers in the early 1990s although I doubt he'd remember me) led the way to a new look and feel which in his words a rider "would have a friendly feeling, so you wouldn't feel like a criminal when you stepped on the bus. Instead you felt like a valued customer."

The city's first step was to ask citizens their opinions on names, colors, images and marketing strategy, and other design criteria. As Toor puts it (still characteristically modest, I see): "it was just what any private business would do." The buses have unique names and lively colors that even little kids can remember. And inside they include comfortable seating facing other passengers and (Yes!) even satellite radio playing in the background. The video below courtesy of Streetfilms shows the system and its inspiring history:

Making over the bus requires bigger changes too, specifically making the stops and vehicles unique and cool. Other than the obvious example of London's lovely and fun red double-decker buses, two examples from the book bear mentioning. First, "The Loop" in Davenport, Iowa. It's exceptional and retro feel can be experienced via the video below, courtesy of Mississippi Valley Health Online. The interior is noteworthy too, due to the large amount of light from the glass ceiling extending the whole length of the cabin. During the day, city skylines are visible (the bus shuttles between four cities in two states). And at night riders get a view of that plus starlight.

Nordahl goes further afield -- all the way to Ishaya, Japan -- to find a remarkable example of fun bus stops. This city has provided colorful shelters for its stops in the unforgettably fun shape of fruit. That's right, fruit. See below for an example, courtesy of the city's web site.

It's a cute image for taking one last important point from the book. Transit should be aimed at attracting women and children. If it is perceived as unsafe and/or unattractive by these important, risk-averse demographic groups it will lose out to driving. This again makes it personal for me. The test for transit in my book is clear -- Do I want my 5-year-old daughter to ride it? Children especially be the target audience for all transit leaders.

I've highlighted my favorite parts of the book, but it's worth checking out in its entirety. It includes sections on biking, walking, advertising and mythbusting, for example.

The bottom line? It's high time we made public transportation as fun as driving.