Stephanie Riegel: Do we really support public transit?

Baton Rougeans love to complain about the city’s gridlock and infrastructure issues—and justifiably so. Both anecdotal information and hard data suggest our traffic problems are legitimately troublesome.

We also love to lament the lack of a “real” public transit system, whatever that means. If only we were Charlotte or Austin, someplace progressive or funky, we might have a tram or bus system that people would actually ride, or so the thinking goes.

But would we?

Early this year the Capital Area Transit System rolled out a series of new routes, including one in particular that targets so-called “riders of choice”—those of us who use mass transit because we want to, not because we have to.

The line is the Garden District trolley, which has five streetcar-style buses that run from downtown through the Garden District to Southdowns before turning around and heading back to the State Capitol. It was created in response to rider demand, and it is ideal for commuters who live in the heart of the city’s older neighborhoods and work downtown.
In other words, it’s everything New Urbanists and those who aspire to be like them have been clamoring for. And so far, the handful of riders who have been availing themselves of the new trolley have nothing but praise for the service, a CATS spokeswoman says.

The only problem is that very few people are riding the trolley. Unofficial numbers from the Garden District trolley’s first month in operation show some 605 riders used the trolley between Jan. 5 and Feb. 8. That comes to fewer than 18 per day on a bus that runs every half hour from 6 a.m. until 9 a.m. and again from 3 p.m. until 10 p.m. during the week, and hourly from 7 a.m. til 10 p.m. on Saturdays.

Do the math. A lot of those little trolleys are empty as they wend their way through the tree-lined streets of the Garden District.

What’s the problem? Why aren’t we taking advantage of this great new service? The route makes sense in terms of planning. The buses are attractive and, more importantly from a marketing perspective, branded as distinctly different from the rest of the CATS fleet.

There appeared to be demand for the service before it was created. Why isn’t there demand for it now?

Part of the reason is pure habit. We may think we’d like to use public transit, but if the car’s in the driveway and it might rain later and there are errands to run after work, it just seems easier to grab the keys and get behind the wheel.

A national stigma

Part of the reason is the stigma of riding public transit in general—and buses in particular. It’s a problem that is not unique to Baton Rouge.

The Atlantic and its spinoff digital product, CityLab, have devoted quite a bit of space to this issue. Recently, editor Eric Jaffe took a look at how Americans “love public transportation—as long as they’re not the ones using it.”

“While most support investment in buses, trolleys and train cars remain by far the most popular way to travel,” Jaffe writes.

Consider that in 2014, voters across the country approved more than 70% of transit-friendly ballot measures in local elections. Yet nationwide, only about 5% actually use public transportation to commute to work. Even in cities with strong transit systems, ridership falls short of support.

While some would argue throwing money at the problem is the answer, recent studies suggest otherwise. Michael Manville, an expert in urban planning at Cornell University, found that increased spending on transit in the early 2000s had no discernible effect on ridership levels some 10 years later.

“People vote for these systems, and it seems they feel like they’ve done their part,” Manville says.

In other words, it doesn’t necessarily matter how nice or efficient the system is. As the Garden District trolley’s anemic ridership numbers suggest, it takes more than a chestnut brown chassis with antique gold lettering to get a diehard Baton Rougean to ride a bus.

CATS officials won’t say whether they’re pleased with the trolley’s numbers, though they say ridership is on par with what was expected. The also say they haven’t rolled out an advertising campaign to encourage ridership yet. Once they do, let’s hope the numbers will improve.

But you can’t increase ridership merely through advertising and promotion. You have to change attitudes about using mass transit in general.

We’ve seen over the past several decades that deeply ingrained social behavior can be altered. Smoking cigarettes is now taboo; so is bottle feeding your baby, driving while intoxicated or otherwise distracted, riding a bicycle without a helmet, and letting your kids play in the sun without a thick slather of 75 SPF sunscreen.

We have proven society can change prevailing attitudes and beliefs about almost anything, but only through relentless messaging and targeted marketing. Why not remove the stigma associated with riding the bus? Why not make the effort? The Garden District trolley is waiting.

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