Nobody rides the bus.
I hear that a lot from people – especially suburban and exurban residents, and usually from Hillsborough County – arguing that investing in transit is a waste of public resources. In a nutshell, their argument is that the lack of demand for (much less expensive) bus transit is evidence that there’s no demand for transit service in general. And if you look at public transit in the Tampa Bay area, you’d have to concede from all the empty buses that they might have a point.
Speaking for myself, the buses don’t go where I want to go, and they don’t run often enough to make it worth taking a risk on missing one. But even in a metro area like this one, where transit has never been a big part of the urban scene, there are certain bus routes that are almost always full: the Express routes.
Why is that? Why is it that the same socioeconomic class that would never take a local line have no problem getting on an Express bus?
For one thing, Express routes almost always run between a high-density employment hub on one end and a large suburban parking lot on the other. Everyone on the Express has a job and a car, or at least access to a car. Taking the bus to work, for most of these commuters, is a choice, not a necessity – which means that these lines actually go where commuters need to get to.
You can’t always say the same about the local routes. In the Tampa Bay area, the bus tends to be the transportation choice of those without other options. A lot of the poor rely on transit to get to their jobs, just like the Express riders – but those jobs aren’t agglomerated downtown, and they don’t operate on the more-or-less 8-to-5 schedule that makes it easy to concentrate Express runs during the morning and evening rush hours.
Essentially, you have the poor taking one class of transit, while the professional class takes another. At first, that’s a disheartening thought, and it might appear to reflect badly on the professional class and their motives. But you really can’t blame them for using the transit services that are most useful to them. That’s what everyone does.
But aside from that, it suggests new tactics for winning over suburban and exurban voters when new transit projects come up for referendum votes. First, make sure the proposed services will actually be useful to those voters – they’re more likely to vote for something they plan to use. Second, compare proposed future projects to the Express buses these voters are most likely to be familiar with. The phrase “mass transit” often conjures up visions of the urban subway, which can be a scary thing for people who’ve never ridden one. People here do not want to live in New York City, Chicago, San Francisco or any other transit-dependent city – that’s why they live here instead. If they start to think of Express buses instead of graffiti-covered subway cars when they hear the word “transit,” it may weaken their resistance … or even turn a few into converts.