Last Saturday I missed an hourly connection from Seattle to Kennydale (550–>560) because of an affable and knowledgeable 550 operator. My bus was held for 4 minutes at International District Station while the operator proceeded to plan 2 riders’ trips to far-flung places. In those 4 minutes she told these riders how to purchase and use ORCA Cards, described several route alternatives, discussed interagency fare structure, and made various small talk about the weather.
As many transit grievances are born out of personal anecdotes, I spent the (delayed) ride to Bellevue thinking about what level of humanity we should generally expect from our transit. By all accounts the driver who forced me to wait an hour in South Bellevue was just being a decent human being, using her considerable knowledge base to inform misguided riders in need. Yet in doing so she was being a terrible transit operator. More after the jump.
I am convinced that transit should be a cold, impersonal beast surrounded at the fringes by humanity. Transit is a public utility with a utilitarian job to do. Transit’s job is to move — with calculated, finely-tuned, ruthless urgency — as many people as possible in as little time as possible. Customer service, intelligible and intuitive information environments, trip planning, real-time information, etc… are all critical needs, but in any sane system they are needs that must be addressed before a trip is taken. Customers should have the expectation that transit moves people and thus will not wait upon individuals.* Riders should approach a vehicle not with “I’ll just ask the driver” but with “I had better have my act together before I board.”
We already expect this from rail. LINK and SLU operators do not answer questions, and Sounder conductors have limited interaction with passengers. But on our buses, even on RapidRide or in fixed-guideway areas such as the DSTT, we still have a regional culture that says boarding a bus is an opportunity for conversation and the taking of personal time from others, whether for unprepared cash payment, spontaneous route planning, direct complaints, haggling for free rides, getting operators to open their doors between stops, or accommodating bus-slapping runners.
What’s worse is that this culture extends to administration and planning as well. We have talented people in this region who know exactly how to plan a great system, but they are genuinely handicapped by political structures that inherently favor opposition over support, precedent over possibility, and particular exceptions over general dynamics.
I don’t really know what can be done about this. Reducing the demand for delay-inducing behaviors is difficult, but the solutions are all well known: separation of operator and passenger (even on buses), off-board payment, level boarding, a cashless downtown, fare simplification, and reducing network complexity (eliminating routes/boosting frequency/making transfers more intuitive). And, of course, a subway.
*With exceptions for the mobility-impaired, where social justice concerns call for additional patience.