A reader recently asked the Whatcom Transportation Authority — which covers the Bellingham, Washington area — why they didn't have service to their little airport. (Bellingham, located just below the Canadian border on Interstate 5, has been getting new nonstops to places like Las Vegas and Honolulu, as Canadian travelers demand a lower-cost alternative to their beautiful but expensive airport, Vancouver International (YVR).)
Maureen McCarthy, WTA's manager of Community Relations and Marketing, took the time to write the following email in response, which I wanted to share because it's so respectful and cogent (and also explains, once again, why transit to airports is such a difficult issue).
We’d like to offer service to the airport, as ideally all major transportation modes would be connected via transit. A number of factors are holding us back:
- As you probably know, our routes are built to work as a system. In order for people to go from route to route within the system, routes need to come together, or “pulse” [link added] through our stations. Adding the airport to Route 50 wouldn’t allow Route 50 to meet the pulse.
- An alternative would be to serve the airport with its own route. This is problematic because neither the current demand to the airport, nor demand to the industrial area that surrounds it would warrant a dedicated route.
Why doesn’t the demand to the airport warrant its own route?
- Canadian travelers make up a large percentage of travelers in and out of Bellingham Airport. These would not be transit users.
- Flights before or after our regular service hours make up a significant percentage of departures/arrivals to the airport.
- Nearly everyone would require a transfer to reach the airport. This would not only make for a long trip, but luggage would make this inconvenient.
- To be viable, service to the airport would have to be frequent. Frequent service is expensive service.
- While airport parking or taxi rides are expensive, neither seem cost-prohibitive enough (to the average airline passenger, that is) to cause people to seek a much less convenient alternative. For example, I regularly ride the bus to work and for other trips. I wouldn’t take it to the airport, however. The bus would require a transfer and I’d be relegated to the bus schedule. Cost would be $2. For only $8 more, I can take a taxi door-to-door, exactly when I need to go. Many, many people would be in this same boat—requiring one or even two transfers.
- When you consider how tough it is to motivate people to take the bus for easy trips (like to their office, once per week, with no luggage, during regular hours), it feels much more daunting to get them to consider it for a trip to the airport. Again, we perhaps solve this by offering frequent service—like every 15 minutes, from early until late, but this would be extremely costly—drawing resources away from other routes, serving people’s everyday needs.
Again, we recognize the value of linking all modes of transportation! And perhaps now that flights from Bellingham are more affordable (it used to be more of a luxury to travel from here), there will be greater demand for this. In the meantime, for a system of our size to be efficient, we need to focus on the everyday needs of most people.
Would be happy to discuss further if you’re still curious. Thanks for asking!
Now, a big transit agency would need an enormous staff to do this kind of interactive feedback, but notice a few things:
- Well-intentioned public ignorance about the basic geometry of transit service and demand is nearly universal, so there is an intense need for people to hear cogent and reasonable replies to their complaints. These explanations both convey useful education and also make it harder for the complainant to decide that the agency is just stonewalling.
- Not all agencies have someone like Maureen. Note that although her title is Manager of Communications and Marketing, she clearly understands transit planning. As a result, when she receives an intelligent question, she can give an intelligent response. Unfortunately, I've met many people in the Communications/Marketing role in transit agencies who do not have this skill or training, and have not thought about the importance of communicating planning ideas. In fact, mutual incomprehension between the planning and marketing worlds is a major source of frustration inside many transit agencies, though by no means all.
- Fortunately, a great deal of this kind of communication could be automated. Giant transit agencies are unlikely to employ vast sweatshops of Maureens to knock out such emails on a big-city scale, but they could publish more extensive documents with pre-prepared explanations just like the one above. After all, Maureen's explanation is perfectly appropriate to anyone who asks the very-common question about why transit to the airport isn't better than it is. So put that on a FAQ list on the website, offer this explanation, and share links to that page when someone asks you that question. It doesn't need to take much staff time. See the TransLink (metro Vancouver) Network Planning Primer as one example. (And yes, I can help your transit agency write exactly what's needed, in an appropriate voice.)
How would your transit agency perform when asked a question like this one? (Remember, phrase it as a question rather than a complaint, and don't express anger as you're asking the question.) Even if the answer is automated, ask: Did I get a coherent answer to my question?
These days, you can quickly identify customer-hating corporations because they respond to your questions with automated emails that prove to you that nobody read your question. They brush you off with banalities and ignore what you actually asked. When United Airlines or AT&T talk like this — and they do it routinely — they're saying: "We're too big to care, we know that you're stuck with us, and it's easier for us to pretend that you're a credulous moron than to take the trouble of reading what you wrote."
Transit agencies can't afford to take this view, especially when they get an intelligent inquiry. United and AT&T may have accurately decided that their customers are stuck with them, but despite all the confusing talk about "transit dependent" riders, transit agencies should never assume that riders are stuck with them. Even if some are, the frontier of the battle between transit and the car lies in the hearts of people who are open to transit and have good reasons to use it, but who are very much not stuck, and won't have any patience for an agency that assumes they are.
That's why clear explanations of how transit agencies think is so urgently needed, right there on the website, and it's why a lot of my own work, including my entire book, is about filling this void. The forthcoming CNU Transportation Summit in Long Beach, by the way, will be working on this very question. It might be an exciting thing to attend.