Transit has its enemies, surely—but Walker suggests it too can be killed by kindness. Transportation advocates cleave into camps who favor, often messianically, certain conveyances. “Technology choices do matter,” Walker says, but adds that “the fundamental geometry of transit is exactly the same for buses, trains and ferries.” And yet people often become enchanted with transit for its own sake. Take, for example, the proposed 3.5 mile trolley loop (those loops again!) in Los Angeles running from the Disney Concert Hall to L.A. Live. As the writer D. J. Waldie notes, “the point doesn't seem to be improved mobility. Downtown already has the region's densest transit network: Metro's local and rapid services, other municipal commuter lines, the city's DASH buses, Blue Line light rail, and the Red and Purple subway lines.” So why add a trolley to this mix? “Tourists and conventioneers,” says Waldie.
Which brings us back to the idea of system and empathy, and the debate between the systems-oriented Walker and the empathic Nordahl. The latter argues that “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”—maybe it’s the genteel sociability of a New Orleans streetcar, maybe it’s the free wiWi-fi Fi on an inter-urban bus. The former says we need frequency, legibility, connections, proper stop spacing—in short, all those things that don’t make good news copy. It’s no doubt easier to enchant the collective imagination with a gaily painted trolley jauntily jangling down the street than to crunch the numbers on the weekday boardings per hour of an authentic Los Angeles transit success story, the Wilshire Rapid bus line.
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—studies routinely find increases in transit usage linked to things like metropolitan employment numbers, fare costs, frequency of service, and gas prices. Trolling the Yelp! reviews for San Francisco’s BART system, for example, while one sees the occasional knock for cleanliness, most people focus on things like ease of use (wayfinding and ticketing), connections, price, parking. Perhaps that’s because our expectations are so low; one budget-strapped and beleaguered transit planner countered Nordahl’s vision of a “fun” transit experience with this: “I’m just trying to give people a transit experience.” Or perhaps there’s an empathic component to a good system. What warms a city dweller’s heart more, for example, than a local train waiting across from an express for a quick transfer? Or transit that comes so often you rarely think about it? Conversely, a trolley car that comes once an hour—and rarely on time—no matter how droll in appearance, hardly raises the quality of life of those waiting for it.
Which is not to say empathy doesn’t have its place. Even if San Francisco’s cable cars moved only tourists, tourism represents that city’s largest sector of private employment—so why shouldn’t the city invest in a transit system that largely caters to them, as a kind of loss leader to bring people in to the city? At a logistics conference in Orlando I attended a few years ago, a Disney executive made what I thought was a critical, and rather startling, point: For many of the park’s visitors, their experience of Disney’s massive fleet of buses and trains (taken together bigger than many U.S. cities’ fleets) represented those customers’ first encounter with “public” transit. Disney had, in essence, to walk the customers through it, to make the experience pleasurable. It was “high system/high empathy.” Can we achieve the same in public transit, or is it doomed to a condition, to paraphrase the old joke about the Catskills hotel, of a place that has terrible food, and such small portions?