Paying for a More Comfortable Transit Ride

Today on the Streetsblog Network, we bring you some reflections on commuter comfort from network member Cap’n Transit. As he points out in a post called "Many Segments of the Population Are Too Old for This Shit," a lot of people are put off of certain modes of transit because of the perception — and often the reality — that they are crowded and uncomfortable (yes, New York subway, we’re looking at you).

He points out that higher-priced transit alternatives, such as commuter rail, can prevent at least some of that group from opting for the perceived superiority of the automobile:

6855305_b1a936b9a9_m.jpgNot everyone wants to put up with this. Photo by Shira Golding via Flickr.

I live walking distance from the Woodside LIRR station, and there are times when I will spring for the $5.75 or whatever it is and be home in 25 minutes (if I’m near Penn Station to begin with). Of course, the commuter rail lines don’t stop in very many places and they don’t all have convenient schedules, but when it works out it’s great.

There’s [another] option: express buses. As I understand it, many routes were specifically designed to capture some of the market that was leaving the transit system. There was one time when I needed to read books and articles and take notes. The subway was impossible: even if I got a seat, there was nowhere to put the book while I was writing the notes. I tried taking commuter rail, but it was actually too fast to get anything done. What worked pretty well, though, were the express buses. For at least part of every trip I had two seats to myself, and was able to spread out. Even when I didn’t, the seats were wide enough that I could manage. And it was quiet: cell phone conversations were kept to a minimum, nobody was rowdy or intrusive. On the way home in the evenings, I think half the bus was snoring.

The commuter trains, of course, are full of people who feel like they’re well off enough that they don’t want to put up with the noise and dirt of the city. Some of them were born to it, others strove for it. The particular express bus route I rode, I noticed, was full of older black and Puerto Rican women. I never had much of a conversation with them, but I got the feeling that they had taken the subway when they were younger, but after twenty or thirty years in whatever office or bank branch they worked at, they were too old for that. They had earned the $4 price of the bus ride, and the extra time it took to get to Midtown, and they needed it to keep their sanity.

Without the express bus system, these women would be driving cars. Without the commuter trains, the suburbanites would be driving into Manhattan too. These modes are helping transit to work for the middle class. They work. Let’s use them more.

Of course, with operating budgets under intense pressure around the country, many transit systems are becoming less comfortable rather than more — and the price of a ride is going up, to boot. With ridership remaining strong, how are municipalities going to fund the kind of transit systems we need for the future, systems that can attract and retain riders who feel that they’ve earned the right to a comfortable commute?

If you’ve got that figured out, let us know in the comments.

Second Avenue Sagas has this proposal: Use market-rate parking to fund transit.

Plus: has some thoughts about yesterday’s NY Times piece on Detroit’s "potential to become a new bicycle utopia."

  • This is why taxis are an important part of a city – they allow people the comfort and speed of a car occasionally without the massive waste of space and money that is urban car ownership.

    BRT is also a good compromise for the elderly – less stairs and heat than the subway.

  • I \v/ NY

    Check out this book…

    My Kind of Transit: Rethinking Public Transportation in America

    Product Description

    In America’s car-dominated landscape, public transit has long played second fiddle, but rising gasoline prices and the global warming crisis point to a need for alternative means of transportation. Darrin Nordahl sets the stage for these efforts by proposing that the experience of public transit and the quality of the ride are pivotal to the success of public transit.

    My Kind of Transit explores America’s most beloved transit systems and how they work. From San Francisco’s cable cars to Pittsburgh’s funiculars to the streetcars of New Orleans, Nordahl recounts a transportation history of both short-sighted planning and visionary policies, and reveals that current American transit systems contain many key elements for successfully expanding public transport. My Kind of Transit explains the characteristics of ideal transit, or “passenger enrichment,” such as transit vehicles that offer views of the surrounding landscape and systems that enable diverse peoples to interact.

    Successful public transport must be a uniquely enjoyable experience for riders, My Kind of Transit contends, and it offers a new vision of civic engagement that occurs when we step out of our cars and onto the train.

  • Yes, it is a night-and-day experience riding Metro-North vs. riding the subway. Riding Metro-North feels pleasant, relaxed, and comfortable–in a word, civilized–while riding the subway can too often feel uncomfortable (sweltering stations, can’t get a seat in the car), noisy (screeching rails), dirty (filth, littering, rats, graffiti), and dark (from being underground). Add to that the frustration of unpredictable schedules and routing due to weekend and late night track work and maintenance.

    Most of these issues stem from severe neglect of our transit system; there are many subway systems in the world that are far more enjoyable to ride. If we had the money to upgrade antiquated technologies so we could have faster, more frequent, and quieter trains; fewer service disruptions; clean, safe, and well-ventilated stations; and signage informing when the next few trains are arriving, many more people would opt to take the subway rather than cabs or other, less environmentally friendly, transit modes. All it takes it the political will, which sadly is lacking.

  • Thanks, I \v/ NY, but also see Jarret Walker’s critique of My Kind of Transit.

  • this is a very important issue and i’m glad its being brought up
    so many times i hear the statistics that nyc has “the most extensive public transportation system”…almost to the point where it used as justification for not really improving anything. Yes we have a great transit network in terms of reach..but it frankly sucks in terms of comfort, reliability, cleanliness, etc. and that would help explain why the avg person show no sympathies for the MTA, especially when coupled with a fare increase

  • I \v/ NY

    nyc (and boston, philly, chicago) need the japanese to run the subway. the tokyo subway carries many more people, has many more lines and is quite old too. why cant the nyc subway be as clean and well run? all the asian subways are something they are proud of whereas here they are an embarassment… it doesnt have to be this way.

    thanks for that link cap’n transit… i really like that blog, i just added it to my favorites.

    theres something to be said for transportation that people love and which doesnt feel like a chore to use. i dont have a problem with the disney label for transit, they have a well run and popular operation… if only that was the case with most transit in the US.

  • I \v/ NY

    i should add about “my kind of transit”, which i just bought but havent read yet, is that it seems to be jan gehl’s ‘life between buildings’ argument for public spaces such as parks and squares but applied to public transit (which is afterall a public space). if the public space is crap only those that have to use it will use it (i.e. the homeless), if it is good, it will attract people by choice to it. just look at bryant park in the 1970s and now. look at the nyc subway in the 1970s and now (and obviously it still has a long long way to go).

  • Ian Turner

    I ? NY,

    Question for you: How much does Tokyo spend on its subway system, including fares and direct subsidies, versus NYC? I’m willing to wager the Tokyo system is way better funded.





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