My definition of public transit:
I think that probably sounds pretty tame, but it has some important implications for the self-identity of a few upper-middle class suburbanites. Let’s unpack it!
Multiple people use the same vehicle to go somewhere together. This pretty only much rules out bikes, segways, pogo-sticks and shoes as one-person vehicles. People go somewhere, sharing the same space, such as they do in a subway car. It’s a vehicle where you might say “Excuse me, could you please turn that down.”
Everyone has access to any vehicle or trip(at least nominally). The same things are ruled out by this one. Bikes and pogo-sticks are typically owned by one person, and any one of them is not usually available for general use by anyone else. School buses are ruled out, because non-students aren’t allowed on. Also, people have to actually be able to know that a trip is going to happen.
Trips are scheduled in advance. Bikes are ruled out again, and so are cars. Even taxis don’t make planned trips. Everything they do is ad-hoc, and they really only move right when someone asks them to.
Users pay per-use or per-trip. Cars are definitely ruled out here, and so are private boats and anything else you have to buy first, use second. If you have to own anything solid before you can use it, it’s not public transit.
That’s what public transit isn’t. But then, what is it? Public transit is a form of transportation to which people can come as they are, board with other passengers, and get to their destination together with those other passengers in a shared space. Everyone has access and trips are planned in advance and the schedules publicised.
Typically, public transit includes city buses(SORTA, TANK), private scheduled intercity coaches(Greyhound, Megabus), almost all commercial airlines(Delta, United, Ultimate Air Shuttle, etc.), streetcars, subways, and passenger trains(Amtrak, Via).
The “public” word can be a little misleading because it doesn’t really matter who owns the vehicle, but it does matter who can be in it. We often talk about privately owned streetcar or bus companies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries as being “public transit”. In fact, it was only decades later that these types of services became “public” in a literal or legal sense–that is, legally owned and administered by a government like a city. Cars aren’t public transit because their interiors aren’t public, unless their drivers are explicitly permissive of hitch-hikers. “Public” here refers to access not ownership or management. This also applies to knowledge of schedules. Even if I’m absolutely certain that I’m going to take a car to Findlay market at 9:30am Saturday and I offer to drive people there, if I don’t tell the world what I’m doing, they don’t have access.
But I said this had important implications: it does! Because what if we talked about Delta as public transit? What if we held out the same hopes for Greyhound that we do for 3C rail? What would it mean for transit politically if everyone who flew out of CVG this year fully realized that they had relied on public transit for a major trip? What if the next ballot initiative like Metromoves took account of all aspects of public transportation rather than just a couple? How many more people might have voted for it?
The people who fly, as you’ll have noticed if you’ve ever done it, tend to be white, suburban, and at least middle class. That’s the exact same demographic that generally says they don’t support transit. Except most of them use transit in the form of airlines and they just don’t know it.
I’m reminded here of that study1 that says that people who don’t support gay marriage tend to report that they don’t actually know of any gay people at all that they’ve ever met. Once they meet some gay people and aren’t raped or molested or any of the other awful things they fantasize might happen, they realize before too long that gays are just normal, boring people and it’d be awfully impolite to deny them legal equality. Just so, people say they don’t support public transit because they don’t think it’s for them. They don’t think they would ever use it, and more particularly that they would ever want to.
“I don’t know any gays. They all live in the city and have crazy sex at bars. Why should I vote for them to get special rights?”
“I don’t go to Over-The-Rhine. It’s dangerous and dirty. Why should the city spend money on a trolley for them when Westwood could use the money for important things?”
Both of these quotes2 have some common characteristics. The first
is a reliance on misconceptions and stereotypes. The second is the use of the word “them” or “they” in contrast to the group that the speaker identifies with. The speaker doesn’t realize that they know gays or use transit when in fact they probably do3. They say the best way for gay people to advance legal equality is actually just to be openly, visibly gay. Tell people you’re gay, come out to your pastor, your friends, wear a gay t-shirt, etc, and you’ll be doing far more to change the local political culture than any organization could do to reach those same people with the same amount of effort. After nearly five years working for local queer organizations, I tend to think that’s true. When the cool kid at a high school comes out it can rock the whole school culture making it safe for dozens of other students to do the same. A football team that rallies behind their gay quarterback is the best tool against bullying that anyone could hope for. When someone you know or look up to reveals something about themselves that you might not be fully comfortable with, you make a point of trying to understand and come to grips with it because you’ve already invested something in the relationship. You may even come to respect them more for challenging you.
Which is why I think it’s important for us to start talking about airplanes as though they’re transit. They are public transit, just like 19th century streetcars were transit, and a lot of politically important people use them. If we can get the people who fly to realize that they’re actually in some way in the same category as the people who use SORTA and Greyhound, and to acknowledge that publicly, we’ll have begun to build a coalition behind the idea of shared-vehicle, fixed-schedule, public-access transportation that will likely do good things for transportation in cities generally, and particularly could expand the franchise of the currently marginalized communities that tend to use bus-based transit. One more cross-reference:
And don’t assume that you and the people you love doesn’t benefit from transit next time you vote.