Why Transit Authorities Sometimes Resist Change

Everyone gets frustrated with transit agencies.  The people inside of them get frustrated too.

But spewing rage at a transit agency rarely has much effect.  Making good arguments does better but you will still find resistance.  Elected officials have an impact, but if their direction is confusing or contradictory, it may not be the impact they intend.

As often, if you really want to influence someone, you have to start by thinking about things from their point of view.

I’ve worked with over 50 transit authorities, of various sizes, in many countries.  I’ll talk here mainly about the US transit agency, but much of what I’ll say is relevant in other countries.  My goal here is not to defend anything a transit agency does, but just to suggest ways to be more understanding of the agency’s experience, which will make you better able to influence them.


If you run a business, you may be frustrated with all the laws and regulations that limit your ability to do the right thing fast.  But this is nothing compared to what transit agencies deal with every day.

In the US, transit agencies don’t just obey the laws that every employer or transport company obeys.  Much of their money comes through the Federal government, and receiving this funding requires satisfying all kinds of Federal requirements.  These regulations go beyond laudable goals like safety and civil rights.  They specify detailed procedures that must be followed in many kinds of activity.  Everything, from labor relations to service planning t0 the design of major planning studies, happens in the context of this web of Federal requirements, and like all webs (in the spider sense) these limit your range of movement and slow you down.

I’m not commenting on the worth of each of these regulations, but can certainly testify to their cumulative impact. I’ve seen countless situations where elected officials were demanding that something get done fast, and the correct answer was that Federal mandates and processes simply prohibit that.

Rigid Labor Structures

Until the uptake of automation, transit will be a labor-intensive industry.  Labor is around 2/3 of a typical transit agency’s operating costs.  The cost to run a bus for an hour obviously governs how many bus-hours of service you can run, and this cost, which is between $100 and $200 in most US urban agencies, turns centrally on the deal between the transit agency and its labor unions.

What matters is not just the pay rate and benefits (which are complicated enough) but also the rules of work.  These can be very intricate, and their impacts can cost a lot of money.  Once the contract is set, the rules, no matter how bizarre or costly their impacts, define what’s possible.

Labor-management relations are legally structured to be adversarial, and adversarial relationships are always inefficient. That’s not the fault of anyone working in the system now, on either side.

There is no neutral definition of what’s fair.  Both sides push for whatever they can get.  Most big cities have progressive elected officials who care about both transit workers and transit riders, but both of those voices have to be strongly present in the conversation, because ultimately they want opposite things.  You’re not going to get more bus service if the cost of an hour of service is going through the roof, so you have to want labor compensation and work rules that are fair but not outrageous.

(By the way, I’m a strong supporter of unions, but please don’t be distracted when they talk about what the senior managers are paid. Those are trivial numbers compared to a transit agency’s labor-driven operating budget. If you want great transit, don’t demand that managers be paid less. Demand that they hire excellent managers.)

Confusing Direction from Elected Officials

When elected officials first find themselves in charge of transit, they may not know much about the topic, and can have trouble figuring out what to do.  It’s like that famous nightmare where you find yourself seated at a piano onstage, with a huge audience looking at you, but you never learned to play the piano.

So elected leaders need some training on the facts and choices that they’ll face.  If you’re going to drive a transit agency, you have to know where the controls are, what happens if you push this button, and how to avoid hurting yourself or others. Not all transit managers think it’s their role to educate their elected boards, because this can feel like criticizing your boss.

So without intending to, elected officials often give direction that causes confusion or anxiety in the transit agency.  A great example is the conflict between ridership and coverage goals, which I explain here. If you demand both ridership and coverage from your transit agency — and most people do want both — then you’re giving contradictory direction, and someone needs to force you to be clearer about what the priorities are.  This is a role my firm often plays in transit studies.

Finally, there’s no consensus on what core body of knowledge a “transit expert” should have; this is the starting point of my book Human Transit, and discussed more detail in its introduction.

Operations as Resistance to Change

The dominant task of most US transit agencies is running the service every day, and most staff are focused on that.  In operations, your goal is to make the service the same today as it was yesterday. Disruption is your enemy.

S0 when some egghead planner shows up wanting to change the transit system, it’s easy to see them as just another disruption — not fundamentally different from the car crash blocking the your rail line. I’ve been that egghead for many transit agencies, so I’m used to the particular kinds of resistance that often (not always) come from the operations side. I don’t criticize them for reacting this way. They’re doing what they were trained to do, which is keep things steady and predictable, as we all want transit to be.

Because operations is the dominant part of most agencies, it’s easy for this aversion to change to define the whole agency’s culture. It takes great management to keep operations staff feeling valued and supported even as you contemplate major changes — even “disruptions” — to how you do business.

Misdirected Blame

Many aspects of the the success or failure of a transit system is outside the transit agency’s control.

When a bus is late, do you blame  the city that decided not to have bus lanes or other transit priority, or do you just blame the transit agency?

When a planning process seems bureaucratic and unresponsive, do you blame the Federal rules that they have to follow, or do you just blame the transit agency?

When it’s hard to walk from a bus stop to your workplace, do you blame the road department that designs and manages the street, or do you just blame the transit agency?

When you see a transit agency’s ridership falling, do you consider outside causes like low gas prices?  Do you consider non-ridership goals the agency may be pursuing?  Or do you just assume that the agency is failing?

If there isn’t enough service in your area, do you blame the elected leaders (and voters) who refuse to fund transit properly, or do you blame the transit agency for serving someone else when they should be serving you?

Transit agencies are constantly blamed for things they don’t control, which leads to …

Public Abuse

Screaming abuse at your transit agency staff is not a good way to get them to do things.  But it does have an impact: It makes the transit agency more defensive, and less likely to be open with ideas and information. The best transit managers are also hard to keep in this situation, because there are probably other jobs they could do that don’t require taking so much abuse.

There’s a deep sadness at the heart of transit operations, which is that when you do it well nobody thanks you.  Your job is to be invisible. When you become visible, it’s when people scream at you because you’ve done something wrong. If that’s your daily experience, of course you’ll keep your head down, not speak up, not share ideas.  Or as a  seasoned Australian transport bureaucrat told me years ago: “The key to success here is to say as little as possible.”

I’m just thinking of the management staff’s role taking abuse, but that’s nothing compared to the bus driver’s. People yell at them and argue with them all day. Those who maintain good cheer (and safe driving) under all that pressure are absolute heroes in my book.

Finally, some journalists write in ways that amplify the abuse.  I’ve worked with some excellent transit reporters, but also I’ve faced some who are sure I’m deceiving them just because I’m sharing information that doesn’t match their prejudices.  I’ve also used to mainstream media stories that misuse data to make stories of transit failure sound more extreme than they are. They deserve pushback from people who care.

When people are abusive toward you, does that make you want be more open and vulnerable, as you need to be to really engage with others? Me neither. No wonder transit agency staffs seem a little defensive sometimes.

I wrote more about the paradoxes of public communications here.

To Sum Up

It’s totally OK to be unhappy with the quality of your transit system. The best people on your transit agency’s staff almost certainly share your opinion. By all means press your transit agency to improve, but take the time to understand what the real barriers are, which will help you see where advocacy is really needed.

If you want to influence a person, you start by listening to them, understanding what it’s like to be them.  Try treating your transit agency the same way.

21 Responses to Why Transit Authorities Sometimes Resist Change

  1. Grandview Citizen January 21, 2018 at 9:35 am #

    The best transit agencies are ones that *force* their employees to use only public transit to get to/from work and strongly encourage them to use it for the other (non-work) trips too. The best chefs eat their own food.

    Survey your transit agency to establish how many of them actually use what they claim to manage. Or, count the number of cars in their parking lot. More than a few? You’ve got a problem.

    “If you want to influence a person, you start by listening to them, understanding what it’s like to be them. Try treating your transit agency the same way.”

    Let’s take the reverse. If you want to offer a monopoly transit service to a public, then understand how that public feels when that service is only barely usable. Understand what it feels like when the bus doesn’t show up and you’re late for work.

    • asdf2 January 21, 2018 at 2:50 pm #

      It’s not that simple. Whoever drives the first bus of the morning or the last bus of the evening *cannot* take transit to work because there is, by definition, no bus to take them there (or back). Also, be careful what you wish for – do you really want your bus to not show up 10% of the time because the bus driver’s bus was late?

      As to upper management, the people with experience running large organizations aren’t necessarily the ones that choose to live where transit is convenient, and they certainly get paid enough to support a car-based lifestyle (if not, you wouldn’t get people with the experience running large organizations). And even if the agency CEO does ride the bus to work, his experience is going to be heavily biased towards the one particular route *he* takes everyday, and will not be representative of the system as a whole.

      • Grandview Citizen January 22, 2018 at 9:31 am #

        If the transit system can’t deliver the drivers, then that’s a corner case. It’s also fixable.

        The experience that is needed is transit expertise mixed with management skills. And there is no reason why upper management can’t “walk the talk”.

        Your defense of a detached bureaucracy is suspicious.

      • Mike January 22, 2018 at 10:58 am #

        It’s not a corner case when 3/4 of the employees are drivers. If you mean that “managers and office employees working day shifts should take transit to work”, then say that specifically, because just saying “employees” means something different.

        And there’s no way to “fix” early-morning drivers not taking transit to work: you’d have to send out a special bus at 4am to every drivers’ house, and there are hundreds of drivers so that means tens of buses, and they’re scattered all over the region including outside your service area (especially if they can’t afford to live in the central city). Or have 24-hour bus service, and not just a skeletal service with one or zero routes for a 10×10 mile area, but that’s even more expensive.

        • Chris January 22, 2018 at 2:22 pm #

          In a normally dense city your drivers can live near enough the base to walk or bike there. That’s certainly the norm in my home town. In addition to that all major transit routes have a bus at least every 30 hours all night long.

          • ajedrez January 22, 2018 at 7:47 pm #

            So less than 1 bus per day? Or a bus every 1/2 hour? 😉

          • Tim January 23, 2018 at 11:04 am #

            Good luck maintaining a qualified workforce who are required to live close to a particular facility (often located in an out-of-the-way industrial area with limited bike/ped infrastructure, perhaps miles from residential neighborhoods). And what happens if an experienced driver is transferred from operating out of one facility to another–should we force them to sell their house and move across town to keep their job?

            This type of reaction–“just force them to do X!”–ignores that you can only force employees to do anything to the point that they say “pay me for my trouble, or I quit.”

          • Mike January 23, 2018 at 12:46 pm #

            In my city (pop. 700K, county 2 million, metro 4 million) the central bus base is a large thing with hundreds of buses and an attached maintenance facility, in an industrial area where housing is prohibited. You could theoretically bike from the surrounding neighborhoods but that’s a small area in which to live, with escalating housing prices that may be out of reach for bus drivers. The suburban bases are just as large and more isolated. There’s one base that’s accessible only from a special freeway exit, so it’s illegal to walk/bike there and the nearest houses don’t have paths to it. The agency practically requires drivers to have a dependable car for early/late start times: while you can argue that you have alternative transportation it’s a hard sell to prove that it will be reliable in case of snow or a heavy storm. Even arriving to the interview in an Uber/Car2go invites the extra scrutiny.

            Yes, we could rearrange the transit system for 24-hour buses and arrangements so that all drivers can come by bus, but it would be a major change and not something you can do at the drop of a hat. The agency also has no control over land use that created this 60×40 mile metropolitan area and makes drivers live more than 5-10 miles from their base. And drivers can be switched between bases: are they supposed to move their families every time?

      • John D January 22, 2018 at 11:31 am #

        I agree with you! As am working in transit, I love to use transit all time. However, onetime I had a meeting to other facility. I told my manager that am going to take the bus instead the transit’s car. The manager refuses, and request us to take the bus only on weekend.

        • Mike January 23, 2018 at 12:52 pm #

          Transit to meetings is a larger issue extending to all employers. In NYC and DC it’s the default option for many people but it’s a harder sell in other cities. Even if employers recognize transit as a viable option, they’re concerned about the travel time compared to driving, including waiting for a bus and unreliability. In my city large employers have at least gotten as far as offering monthly transit passes to all employees, so that’s a start. Getting them to allow transit for mid-shift travel is a longer-term issue that will have to be pursued person by person, and its viability depends on the company’s location, the meeting’s location, and the level of transit service between them.

    • Sailor Boy January 22, 2018 at 2:26 pm #

      All that does is to focus the transit agency on 9-5 commute patterns.

      • Mike January 23, 2018 at 12:59 pm #

        Most agencies are already focused on 9-5 because that’s when most of the passengers are. The AM peak is mostly just commuters, but the PM peak is commuters and tourists and people doing errands and going to evening activities and evening work shifts. Most agencies do need to focus on better all-day service to make transit a viable option for off-peak trips. But that’s tangental to agency staff commuting by transit: the agencies aren’t going to change people’s work shifts for it. In fact, in most large cities there’s a general push away from strict 9-5, to 1-2 hours earlier or later to avoid the massive peak congestion.

    • Kenny Easwaran January 23, 2018 at 8:20 am #

      I think better than making them use it to get to work every day, give them a monthly “scavenger hunt” assignment – randomly select a residence and a workplace in the city and require them to get from that residence to that workplace by transit at some point during the month, and write up a report about the quality of the experience.

      • Eman January 23, 2018 at 11:22 am #

        I like this. Its more fun.

    • Chris January 23, 2018 at 10:41 am #

      Grandview Citizen,

      This whole argument has the underlying assumption that transit managers don’t know what their own service is like to ride, and/or don’t care. I have a lot of experience with transit agencies, and it’s clear to me that transit managers know very well what it’s like to use the service, spend most of their professional time working with it, could probably explain the problems better than many passengers, and care tremendously about making it better. This type of blanket statement is akin to yelling at someone to fix it and refusing to hear what the problem actually is. It’s unhelpful and unproductive. Assuming people don’t care about the quality of their work is more often a wrong assumption than not.

      Of course, there are bad transit managers out there. However, a blanket statement gets a blanket response.

      • Mike January 23, 2018 at 1:08 pm #

        Some transit managers are probably good at it, and for others it’s “just a job” that doesn’t affect their own travel preferences. The problem is that the public doesn’t know which is which: what the top managers do or the majority of the office staff. Agencies should at least be more transparent about how much personal experience the top managers have with their own agency’s transit (and possibly other providers in the region), and what kinds of incentives they have to get staff on transit. By “incentives” I don’t mean just a free pass (they have that already, right?), but things like encouraging transit to meetings, occasional scavenger hunts, or “take a bus trip to somewhere you don’t usually go once a month”.

  2. Muzzwald January 21, 2018 at 2:48 pm #

    Totally agree with the way that the public most often engages with transit agencies. When the bus is late, most of them know no better option than to complain to the agency. However, what annoys and frustrates me are the transit lobby groups who really should know better. And if they don’t, they’re not likely to be listened to by the agencies.

  3. Charles January 22, 2018 at 7:54 am #

    Thank you, Jarrett for putting words to feelings I’ve had for years working for a major transit system. I’m astonished at how many people _within_ my Agency don’t understand these issues. I will be reading, rereading, and absorbing this article so I can reframe arguments about transit for years to come.

  4. Erik Landfried January 22, 2018 at 6:26 pm #

    Good service planning can go a long way to help reduce operations resistance. Change itself isn’t so much the problem – it’s change that doesn’t accomplish much that they find tiresome. If planners listen to operations staff and really understand the things that make their jobs even harder than they already are (unrealistic schedules, too many stops, difficult turns, etc.) then design real solutions, operations staffs are usually very happy to implement those changes.

  5. JJJJ January 23, 2018 at 8:36 am #

    “When a bus is late, do you blame the city that decided not to have bus lanes or other transit priority, or do you just blame the transit agency?”

    I blame the agency that is cash only in 2018 (with an odd price structure), does not use all-door boarding, uses high-floor buses, uses buses with only 2 doors, does not adjust the schedule for predictable rush hour traffic, sends the buses on unnecessary loops with unprotected left turns, etc.

    In a suburban area, it’s not a lack of lanes or traffic signals that are the problem.

  6. R. W. Rynerson January 25, 2018 at 11:34 pm #

    Jarrett has done a great job of summarizing the issues. When I got Rose City Transit Co. to extend service to my college in 1965, it was by preparing a service plan that spoke to their needs in addition to we students’ needs. Throughout my transportation career that proved to be the best approach, even with some pretty annoying people. I also learned to rethink projects so they would just bypass obstructionists or the dead hand of Federal, state, municipal and mosquito control district regulation without breaking rules.

    In regard to forcing staff to use transit, there are trade-offs. For about half of my fifty years of college and work I had no car (though could use pool cars where available for work trips). I never commuted by car. Yet that never stopped people from lecturing me about how transit staff don’t know what it’s like to ride transit. I was fortunate to have workplaces in central areas or suburban focal points, and when I was married my wife did, too. But I learned to be sympathetic rather than scornful as over and over employers of others packed up and moved, usually to cheaper property or a site near the senior leadership’s homes. And if a cheaper location for transit offices saves some system money, they may put the savings into something more important. [In my career in Denver my office started out in a cheap location and ended up in a pricey location without ever moving. The gradual improvements in transit service and the rise in parking prices as surface lots were built on were far more effective in changing travel habits than any regulatory measure.]

    I was glad to see Jarrett discuss work rules. News accounts usually focus on hourly pay rates, but those often are reasonable for the labor market that they are in. Work rules build up like barnacles on a labor agreement and they don’t necessarily benefit the workers. One of the reasons that every new contracted private operator entering the Denver market struggles is because they have to get under the Regional Transportation District’s costs. The main way to do that in a tight labor market is to have more efficient labor, rather than cheaper labor. This is a hard lesson learned repeatedly: RTD’s labor agreements (the contract and side agreements and practices) are younger than those in most other big cities, so have fewer archaic features to run up expenses.

    And speaking of news stories, when I took journalism career path in school, every big daily had a recognized expert on the transportation beat: Stanton Patty of the Seattle Times, Rolla Crick of the Oregon Journal, Harry Demoro in San Francisco – Oakland, etc. In Alberta, an editorial writer for the Edmonton Journal came out with me to ride a special service he had criticized and he changed his (and the paper’s) view of it to the better. That sort of thing was fading by the time I came to Denver, and in 29 years only the last transportation reporter for one of the two dailies could be counted on to get things right (Kevin Flynn, now a Denver city council member) As broadcast news staff depend on newspapers for the non-blood-soaked stories, the media revolution means that transit staff either spend time clarifying confused stories or they are encouraged to offer simple alternative facts.

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