Public Outreach and Consultation

“Give Mrs. McG Her Bus Stop”? Reasons to Pause

Here’s some refreshing candor from a local politician, in the context of an effort to speed up express bus services on New York’s Staten Island by removing excessive bus stops and deviations:

Borough President James Oddo added that “people like me” were part of the problem: Requesting new bus stops to help vocal constituents.

“Who doesn’t want to give Mrs. McGillicuddy a bus stop?” Oddo asked.

When bus routes meander, do little squiggles, or make too many stops, the cause is almost always local elected officials who insisted that transit agencies say yes to whatever a noisy constituent demands.  Such officials are always calling the transit managers and saying: “Get Mrs McGillucuddy off my back!”

Of course, Mrs. McGillicuddy rarely calls to advocate the kinds of efficiency that makes transit more attractive and useful for the whole community.  She’s calling to demand something that’s good for her or her friends.

Here, as often, we’re in the presence of the paradox of public outreach.  We want transit to be useful to busy people, but busy people don’t engage much with public outreach processes.  They’re too busy.

So we disproportionately hear from the not-busy people, who have priorities other than speed.  So we hear demands like:  “All those busy people should have 3 minutes added to their trip so that I don’t have to walk three blocks.”

I don’t want to dismiss the concerns of senior and disabled riders, but if a person physically can’t walk three blocks, then the answer may be some kind of paratransit.  Paratransit is expensive, but not as expensive as doing something every hour all day to meet just one person’s needs.  There are some genuinely difficult choices here, but they should be addressed by a policy, rather than a process of just rewarding whoever makes the most noise.

Because if a transit agency establishes a pattern of saying yes to every demand for things that slow down the service, that precedent will only trigger more demands, accelerating a downward spiral in which a resource designed to be used by many becomes micro-designed around the demands of one or two, to everyone else’s detriment.

Arguing against these demands with data is tricky.  The differential impact of adding one bus stop or squiggle may not be much. It’s the cumulative effect of 100 such decisions is devastating, gradually transforming relatively fast and efficient services into slow, meandering scenic tours that only people with lots of spare time to use.

So you really need policy, not just data, to hold the line.  Service design standards about stop spacing and linearity can give staff the backup they need.  These standards should be periodically re-adopted, so that current elected officials feel ownership of them, or at least understand the dangers of not observing them.  And the adoption is the time to have the debate about how to balance some people’s difficulty walking with the need for transit to be fast, direct, and reliable.  Again, the point is not to leave seniors behind but to ensure we’re addressing their needs in a fair and consistent way.