Conflicted over mass transit

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Just the mention of the word “mass transit” is enough to either send you to the next paragraph — or to click away. Yep, it’s that divisive.

“Mass transit can be a surprisingly contentious topic for Americans,” says Jon Tarleton, the head of transportation marketing at Vaisala, a Finnish company that develops environmental and industrial measurement products.

On one side, there’s a small but growing group of devoted passengers who love the perks of riding the train or bus, including saving money and avoiding traffic. On the other, there’s a far larger set of travelers who would rather stay home than give up the freedom of their own vehicle.

A majority of Americans drive to work in their own car. Only 21% take a bus, followed by subway (9%) and train (8%), according to a recent survey by Citi ThankYou Premier. Commuters take an average of 45 minutes and spend approximately $10 per day getting to work.

The riders have a lot going for them. The train often costs less, is more practical and it’s great for the environment. Drivers make equally valid points about flexibility and convenience. Sometimes the math works in their favor, too.

People who ride mass transit save an average of $771 per month, according to a recent survey by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), a trade group (see box). Although they don’t have related numbers for leisure travel, it’s a safe bet that at least as many people drive when traveling for leisure, if not more.

But I felt torn the last time I visited Washington with my family. I found a Blue Line Metro station two short blocks away from where we were staying, but the math and the train schedules didn’t align for my family of five. Instead, we fought traffic in our SUV and paid for parking.

Renee Flowers, who was raised in D.C. and rode the Metro as a child also wanted to do so as an adult, but she says “parking became impossible at the stations in the suburbs, and the trains became so unreliable that I decided to drive.” The decision lengthened each workday by three hours, says Flowers, who now works for a hospitality marketing company in Charleston, S.C.

Even in places where it makes a lot of sense to take the train, travelers tell me they’d rather not. “If I can, I drive into New York,” admits Nancy Hassel, who runs a membership organization in Babylon, NY. “Is there traffic to get there? Yes, but not always – and most times it is just in the same congested places you can expect. But I am in my own car, not depending on if the train is late, or if there are electrical problems.”

I suspect most Americans feel a lot like Wayne Schoeneberg, which is to say, they’d use more mass transit if they could.

“When I go to cities that have it, I use it as my primary means of transportation — places like New York, Paris or London,” says Schoeneberg, a life coach “Sadly, I live in St. Louis, where mass transit is an afterthought. Trains in the Midwest are abysmal. The routes, schedules and service are all sub par.”

Michael Brein doesn’t buy our excuses. He’s the author of a series of guidebooks that advise tourists how to use mass transit, and before he started writing them, he heard all the reasons why we don’t ride, including mine about the math. His favorite one? When he was researching the edition on Los Angeles, the naysayers said the city was just too spread out and that visiting without a car “couldn’t be done.”

“Turns out that in a huge, sprawling metropolis such as LA, you can easily and comfortably get to the top 50 visitor attractions using LA’s, Red Line subway as well as the other color light rail lines, and express buses,” says Brein. “There is no cheaper way.”

The conflict between drivers and riders exists because the solution isn’t easy. But here it is, nonetheless: Our buses, trains and subways will never be first-rate until they become a priority, and they won’t become a priority until we stop making excuses. It could take a generation or more, but as Simon Tam, who works for the nonprofit Oregon Environmental Council, notes, it is happening.

“A new generation of Americans is slowly shifting their opinions,” he says.

OK — I’m ready to give the Blue Line one more try.

How to overcome mass-transit phobia

Do your homework.
The first step is always the hardest. “To figure out how and where to take a bus or train, just go to the public transit system’s website,” advises Michael Melaniphy, APTA’s president. “Look for a section on trip planning, schedules, and fares. I think you will be surprised how much information is available and how it can be personalized for your travel needs.”

Consider the benefits.
Using public transportation means you have more time to do things you enjoy. Instead of being stuck in a traffic jam, you can read a book, text or email, or even take a nap, according to mass transit advocates. Plus, there’s often no better way of seeing a new city.

Download an app.
New apps like Moovit have demystified the ridership experience. They let you know the precise location of the train station or bus stop and can even tell you when the next subway is scheduled to arrive. No more guessing.

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